Why have global stock markets not reacted more savagely to the news that Barclays has been caught market rigging, causing its top people to quit?
Firstly there are a series of bull market forces currently in control. I isolated some of these forces on Monday.
When the bulls are in charge small segments of good news are ballooned upwards. Last night it was the renewed suggestion that China will stimulate. That is no surprise but it boosted commodity markets.
These rallies can gyrate upwards for extended periods and the Australian dollar could rise further against the greenback until we have a down period.
But there is a second and more sinister reason why markets took Barclays in their stride. Behaviour that would not be tolerated in most other industries is accepted as the norm in the broad securities trading business. Wall Street lost a few tall poppies over sub prime and a few banks lowered their risk levels, but basically nothing has changed, as we saw from the recent Goldman loss.
The traders transferred bad investment practices to Europe and a portion of the problems of Europe stem from the fact that the investment bankers raised vast sums, for bankrupt European countries – sub-prime all over again.
Here in Australia the big investment banks have pipes into the stock market so that they can make money at the expense of self-managed funds and retail investors. In this case bad behaviour is there for all to see. No one is prepared to stand up to the forces in the capital markets.
It’s true that rigging a bank rate takes bad behaviour to a new level, but once its part of the DNA it is very hard to confine it.
If we flush out a bunch of bank CEOs in the UK and replace them with people from outside the banking industry then it is possible that the ethics of the wider business community will be transplanted.
But I doubt it. Trading profits have become essential to bank share prices and the traders are paid huge sums to make money. It is very easy to cross the line as traders seek profits.
And the pipeline into the Australian stock exchange to extract a toll on small investors is tribute to the fact the traders are just too powerful.
The sad part is that in wide areas of the global banking industry a great deal has been done to improve practices and there are some very good bankers around.
But very few bank boards or their CEOs have any idea what really happens in the trading rooms. They’re a whole series of meaningless boxes that they tick before board meetings but its often simply procedure, not substance.
And as we saw after sub-prime the US politicians do not have the courage to tackle it – partly because it is the trading profits that fund the big political parties. One day politicians will make banks separate trading from normal banking, but it’s a long way off
Maybe I am too cynical. Perhaps the site of top people resigning from Barclays will be a wake up call. I hope so.
This article first appeared on Business Spectator.