Home > cultural commentary > Tony Robinson speaks for us all…

Tony Robinson speaks for us all…

Oh yes. On BBC’s Question Time programme, speaking about the bank crisis, he said this about the senior management of banks: ‘It’s almost like they’re not human, isn’t it? You look at them and you think these people don’t live in the same world as us.’

He says rather more (it’s a two-minute clip) about how the top managers have destroyed public trust in the banking system. And he seemed to strike a chord with everyone on the audience in the studio, and I suspect with many of us at home.

He said it on 29 June, just as the LIBOR scandal was breaking and Barclays had been fined by the FSA for its role (Marcus Agius, chairman of Barclays, resigned yesterday and Bob Diamond resigned as chief executive of Barclay’s today; but it’s not just them, RBS sacked some of its traders over the emerging scandal a little while back and it looks like several other banks are in the firing line).

A bit of background on this. LIBOR, the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate, is the rate charged by banks for loans between each other. It’s set by the British Bankers Association daily. If you look at historical data on the rate (which is actually not one figure but a bunch of different rates for different loan lengths), you’ll see it dropped sharply in the back end of 2008, fell through 2009, and has stayed pretty low since. There’s a timeline on the BBC website of news about the rates. The allegations made are that banks have tried both to push the rate down (essentially borrowing below a true market rate) with a number of intended consequences including hiding the levels of financial stress they were experiencing and possibly paying below true market rates to some investors, and more recently tried to push the rate up because some loans to customers were geared to LIBOR. There are more detailed statements on all this, for example on Yahoo Finance, pulled through from the Daily Telegraph. The rate is important in a whole bunch of areas, including derivatives. The extent to which any rate-fixing actually worked is currently being debated, and the financial impact on bank customers may not be known for some time.[I’ve edited this since first writing it, to reflect info from additional sources.]

All this hasn’t happened in isolation, of course, nor has it happened suddenly. We just reached a ‘tipping point’ in a story that’s been running for a couple of decades at least. Banks have lost people’s trust, but I doubt many people now think politicians, senior managers of large businesses or anyone else in authority deals fairly with the public. The automatic reaction would be: what’s the spin, what are they hiding, whose behind-the-scenes interests are being served?

And there’s one scenario, buried in the history of anthropology, that might yet emerge as a result. But I’ve got to zip out for a while and do some practical stuff, so I’ll post about that later!

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