RBS AGM 2015 – A roasting for responsibility

June 24, 2015

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Ahead of his seventh and final AGM as Chairman of bailed-out bank RBS, Sir Philip Hampton told the Financial Times that he was expecting a roasting from shareholders. He wasn’t disappointed.

Having chaired the bank during its Libor rigging, ForEx manipulation, PPI mis-selling, and profiteering from the destruction of small businesses, it would have been surprising to expect anything less.

Yet facing such a litany of errors – if financial crime can be called such a thing – you might expect the Chairman of the board to accept some responsibility.

Not so Hampton, the po-faced operator who tried to apportion blame for the bank’s criminality to anyone but himself and the sitting board, including the previous hierarchy, regulators, and even the broader industry itself.

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“Are you or are you not in charge of this bank, Mr. Chairman?” asked one incredulous shareholder, who later directly accused Hampton of being “a slippery and slimey operator.”

The 2-hour meeting continued in much the same vein, with significant ire pouring from the packed auditorium focusing particularly on GRG, the so-called “psychopath unit” that crushed SME customers into the ground for RBS’ own profit.

“When are you going to clear up GRG so you don’t end with two bust brands and one bust bank?” asked one shareholder, referring to RBS’ wholly-owned subsidiary brand NatWest, which has been caught up in mis-selling business swaps products and the GRG scandal.

Incredibly, Hampton’s response was that he wasn’t sure what the shareholder meant by “clearing up” GRG, as if police investigations for fraud and class-action law suits were the normal way to run a business.

“A key thing about building trust is that you listen to customers, complainants, and litigants,” said another shareholder. “I am all three, and you have ignored me time and time again,” he said.

“You laughed off accusations of criminal behaviour as ‘sharp business practice.’ I have seen the reports on GRG and it is a smoking gun for this bank. It’s the next PPI, and that is the legacy you have left Mr. Chairman,” he continued.

Nonplussed, Hampton blithely remarked that the GRG scandal had been investigated and that no evidence of wrongdoing had been found. This is a claim he made previously in The Times, and which flies in the face of evidence to the contrary seen by Move Your Money, and to the fact that GRG is under investigation from a number of police forces for fraudulent misconduct via GRG.

“That investigation was rigged,” said another shareholder, who was later backed up by another who fiercely criticised the narrow scope of the investigation. “There are a number of different roads to Rome, but they all lead to Rome. It’s a lucrative business stealing other peoples’ cash,” he continued.

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RBS’ policy of systematically closing branches was also criticised, particularly given the public interest in keeping open branches of a publicly owned bank, and also the bank’s own promise in 2010 to keep open bank branches if they were the last bank in town.

In answering that question Hampton bizarrely claimed that branch closures were to maximise shareholder value. This completely ignores the fact that the majority shareholder of the bank is the public, and that the public interest in keeping open branches should be part of that calculation of “value.”

This point was raised directly by Move Your Money, and ignored by both the Chairman and the CEO of the bank, Ross McEwan. Instead, the pair preferred to focus on the bank’s mobile bank branch, boasting that it could visit up to five communities a day.

How that adequately replaces the loss of over 150 geographically dispersed last branches in town since 2014 was not apparent.

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Other issues raised included RBS’ practice of selling local councils rip-off LOBO loans, which follow a tempting teaser rate of interest with punitive break clauses and sky-high interest, often double what the council would normally have to pay.

Here in Edinburgh, the jurisdiction in which the bank is headquartered, £40 million worth of LOBO loans are costing the council over £110 million to repay – a figure suspiciously similar to the £107 million of new cuts the council is introducing.

Ultimately, rip-off loans from the bailed out bank are costing jobs, services and cuts on the taxpayer.

Again, Hampton was nonplussed. “There are a number of interest rates that we offer for different customers” he drably remarked. ‘That’s business’ was the gist of his response, neglecting to consider that the very people who are being affected by these rip-off loans are the ones who saved the bank in the first place with the bail-out.

What residents of cash-strapped and cut-hit councils would have to say about all this would certainly be interesting to know.

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Wrapping up the AGM, Hampton warned of further tough times ahead, and even the potential end of free current accounts, which he said “sat behind” the PPI scandal – rather than any criminal, systemic or personal responsibility, naturally.

In many ways, the 2015 RBS AGM was like a microcosm of Britain’s broken banking sector. A room packed full of angry shareholders, business owners and members of the public, whose concerns were duly ignored by a banking hierarchy more concerned with remuneration than responsibility.

As RBS’ last bank in town appropriately rolled out of the AGM and off into the distance, the overwhelming feeling was that to get anything to change, occasional annual engagement will not be enough.

If we want a banking system that serves society and not just itself, we need to demonstrate that demand both now and repeatedly in our communities, on the streets and in public. Without that visible public pressure, it’s sadly all too easy for the banks to stonewall their responsibility and to hide unaccountable behind closed doors.

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You can read the questions Move Your Money asked in full here.

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