The big PPI lesson for banks
The big lesson for the banks from today's decision by the British Bankers Association not to appeal against the high court ruling on Payment Protection Insurance is - funnily enough - very similar to the big lesson from the Great Crash of 2007-8.
In the case of PPI, much of what the banks have now acknowledged to be mis-selling seemed consistent with rules laid down by the regulator, the Financial Services Authority, in its handbook and its source book on the selling of insurance.
But the FSA argued that following the letter of these rules was a necessary but not sufficient guarantee that the banks were behaving property. The FSA argued that the big banks should have been more mindful of its over-arching principles, notably the imperative of paying due regard to the interests of customers and treating them fairly.
The banks appear to have been so seduced by the apparently huge profits available from insuring personal loans, mortgages and credit card debt that they pushed the insurance to all manner of unsuitable customers (the self-employed who could never make a claim for being made redundant, or those with pre-existing health conditions, that would invalidate claims, to name just two common examples).
"It is very difficult to justify how we behaved" said one senior banker. "You can't imagine supermarkets treating their customers in the way we treated ours. I know my colleagues think that so long as we followed what was in the FSA's handbook, we shouldn't be blamed. But my view is that we forgot the cardinal rule, which is that we're there to serve customers, not to shove something down their throats which they don't need".
This departure from the very basics of retailing is costing the banks very dearly indeed. Last week Lloyds - the market leader in PPI and the first of the big banks to say it would provide comprehensive restitution - said that the settlement would lead to a £3.2bn expense.
Today, Barclays has quantified the compensation and related costs at £1bn. There will be a similar charge for Royal Bank of Scotland. And HSBC has just said it is setting aside £274m to meet these costs.
In total for all the big banks, the costs are heading towards £6bn or so - and that's to ignore the compensation bill for hundreds of smaller firms which joined in the PPI mis-selling frenzy.
Now what's striking is that the PPI debacle shares strong cultural characteristics with the behaviour that took many of the world's banks to the brink of bankruptcy less than three years ago. During the boom years before the crisis of 2007-8, you won't need telling that banks lent and invested recklessly - to subprime borrowers, to commercial property, to each other, through off-balance sheet vehicles, in the form of "structured" products which delivered the illusion of quality (inter alia).
And much of this reckless lending and investing took advantage of the global Basel rules that give the official regulators' view of how much risk the banks were taking - and, as we now know, were catastrophically wrong.
But - many bankers belatedly concede - banks should have known better than to make their judgments on how to lend on the basis of the regulators' rules. They should have done what other commercial businesses do, which was to lend and invest on the basis of what would be sustainable and prudent for the long term.
Gaming or playing the Basel rules, and forgetting commercial common sense, led to disaster. It meant that Royal Bank of Scotland, in the autumn of 2008, looked like a sound bank as measured by the Basel rules, when to all intents and purposes it was bust.
Of course it is reasonable to blame the regulators for framing the rules badly. But many would say that the banks were more at fault for mindlessly running their businesses on the basis of what the rules allowed.
So what's the big lesson of both PPI and the 2007-8 crash? Well, it is probably that banks need to base everything they do on what is good for customers, shareholders and creditors in a fundamental sense - and not on what the rules allow them to do.
PS Apart from the banks, another group of firms - the claims management firms - look set to be burned by the banks' decision to chuck in the towel and pay compensation to 2.75m or so individuals who were mis-sold PPI insurance.
The banks will now set up operations to speedily process claims for compensation. So they would argue that there is no point in their customers using the services of claims management firms, because in doing so those customers would not gain any additional compensation but would have to pay commission to the claims handler.
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