RBS boss admits – I cringed when I read forex chat room messages

  • 12 November 2014
  • From the section Business
Media captionRoss McEwan, chief executive of RBS, talks about his "anger" with a "small group of people"

The chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has told me that he "cringed" when he saw copies of the chat room messages which talk of "making free money" and "keeping numpties out of the market".

Groups of bankers who went by the exotic names of The A Team, The 3 Musketeers and The Players colluded to fix foreign exchange rates for the advantage of their banks.

And themselves.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) helpfully published a selection of the messages - just so we could all see what was going on.

Mr McEwan is one banking chief executive who has actually faced the media music today. Of course, his bank is 80% owned by the taxpayer, so he has more responsibility than most.

But the approach is certainly in contrast to the response of others. HSBC, for example, put out a one line statement this morning after the announcement of the record fines for foreign exchange manipulation.

"HSBC does not tolerate improper conduct and will take whatever action is appropriate," it said.

'Totally unacceptable'

In his interview with me, Mr McEwan was slightly more expansive.

"The chat room articles talk about the individual looking after themselves and not looking after the customer and that's the thing that makes me cringe," he said.

"We are building an organisation centred around the customer and these are a few people looking after themselves and their mates at other firms - unacceptable, totally unacceptable."

He said disciplinary action could follow and I understand that three people have already been suspended by RBS with a further six under what is known as "serious review". Over 50 present and former staff are having their work investigated.

"We have a major accountability review that started some months ago," Mr McEwan said.

"We've been looking through the millions and millions of emails and files and chat room conversations. That process is underway today to look at who is accountable.

Image caption RBS was bailed out by the government after being deemed "too big to fail"

"As an organisation we do want to hold people accountable for good behaviour and rewards - and bad behaviour. We will be clawing back [pay awards] and taking disciplinary proceedings where wrongdoing has been done."

Complaints pushed aside

This has been another grim day for banking.

Despite protestations that things are changing, there is evidence published by the FCA today suggesting that, before the official investigation, whistleblowers were ignored by banks and complaints from customers (the global businesses and pension funds that rely on foreign exchange markets) pushed aside.

Interviewing the Governor of the Bank of England on Monday, I was struck when he said issues of misconduct were now so widespread they could have an impact on financial stability.

And the banks are nowhere near out of this peculiar Groundhog Day - where fines arrive as regularly as London buses.

Banks are still setting aside billions of pounds to deal with the mis-selling of payment protection insurance.

Further, banks have paid out £1.4bn to settle claims they mis-sold interest rate hedging products to small businesses. There will be more to come.

On foreign exchange, criminal investigations are ongoing by the Serious Fraud Office and the Department of Justice in America.

They could drag on to 2016 with trials and possible jail sentences.

Image caption Many major banks have faced a series of investigations over misconduct

There are also investigations into the operation of the commodities market and the US housing market at the time of the financial crisis.

Legal action is pending over efforts by RBS to raise £12bn of capital in 2008 and Lloyds calamitous takeover of Halifax Bank of Scotland the same year.

And RBS will soon hear the details of millions of pounds of fines it is facing over the collapse of its IT systems in 2012 which led to people being locked out of their accounts.

Barclays is also facing regulatory misconduct claims over its capital raising, also in 2008, from Qatari and Abu Dhabi investors.

And so it goes on. And on.

Public frustration is understandable. At the top - the likes of Mr McEwan - there seems genuine desire for change.

And of course, the vast majority of people working in banking - traders included - are simply trying to do a good job.

But while a handful of influential "Musketeers" and "Players" are talking about screwing the opposition and doing collusive deals (remember, the evidence published today is from as recently as last year) the public will remain sceptical that the banking stables can ever be cleaned out.