Any other business

The Libor trader’s long stretch is a big message to the banking world

6 August 2015

1:00 PM

6 August 2015

1:00 PM

Fourteen years is a long stretch. The punishment imposed on former UBS and Citigroup trader Tom Hayes for his role as ‘the hub of the conspiracy’ to rig yen Libor rates is the same as the maximum sentence for burglary with intent to commit GBH. Even though no public attempt has been made to quantify his fraudulent profits or identify victims, Hayes’s punishment is twice that imposed on rogue trader Kweko Adeboli, who lost UBS $2.3 billion — both having pleaded ‘not guilty’. With remission, Hayes will serve about half the term: Adeboli, jailed in late 2012, came out this June. But even so, the socially awkward Hayes has forfeited a chunk of his life for the spurious gratification of peer-group esteem and bonuses he did not seem to enjoy spending.

And his sentence has certainly sent ‘a message to the world of banking’, as Judge Cooke put it, while 11 other accused await trial on similar charges. But in saying that Hayes’s conduct was ‘condoned… and even encouraged’ by senior bankers (‘Everything I did my managers knew about… sometimes… all the way to the CEO,’ was the defendant’s own claim) the judge left open the question of how far this quest for justice will go, and whether the public will ever be satisfied that it has gone high enough. As the BBC’s Eddie Mair put it to SFO director David Green: ‘Do you think you’ll manage to jail all the dishonest bankers in London, and if you do, how many will be left?’ I suspect the answer is that however extensive the investigation, the evidence trail will never quite reach the top floor.

Why sell now, George?

Whatever George Osborne’s real reason for selling a first tranche of RBS shares at a £1 billion loss to the taxpayer, you can bet your last collectable RBS banknote bearing Fred Goodwin’s signature that it wasn’t because Governor Carney advised him to do so — which was the explanation junior Treasury minister Harriet Baldwin was sent round the studios to offer. Maybe it’s worth a billion to this ever-political Chancellor to be able to go on saying that the banking crisis, and any residual RBS cost, was Labour’s fault in the first place, but let’s hope not.

More likely he thinks he won’t get a better starting price by waiting until the autumn: he cited ‘what’s happening in world stock markets’ as a threat to growth last week. And City advisers to UK Financial Investments, which holds the RBS stake, must believe offering institutional investors cheap RBS shares now will increase their appetite for more later.

As I said in relation to the allegedly mispriced Royal Mail sell-off in 2013, markets are capricious and issue pricing is an inexact science. The real mystery is why bankers are paid so much to do it. At least in the RBS sale, the banks involved — Goldman Sachs, UBS, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, the first two having had a hand in Royal Mail, and all hoping for bigger deals ahead — were on this rare occasion acting for no fee.

The wisdom of crowds?

I’m a big fan of a food kiosk at York station called Filmore & Union. Not that I’m a health faddist, but Filmore’s spicy chicken and rice is a sustaining train-picnic alternative to the cardiovascular timebombs of Burger King and West Cornwall Pasty. One day in June, I found a leaflet in my little carrier bag inviting me to become a shareholder in Filmore, by way of a website called Crowdcube. Intrigued, and well satisfied with my lunch, I registered for information — and the emails with which I’ve been inundated ever since offer a case study of the rising power of ‘crowdfunding’.

The fledgling Filmore enterprise has seven outlets around Yorkshire, serviced from a central kitchen under chef Will Pugh, nephew of owner Adele Carnell. They achieved sales of £3.1 million last year, aim to open more sites soon, and aspire ‘to become one of the largest well-renowned food health brands in the UK’. The offer, to raise £500,000 for 10 per cent of the shares, valued the business at £5 million. I consulted a venture capitalist with whom I’ve invested elsewhere: he told me it looked expensive in relation to sales, even if the business moves into profit this year. Perhaps others made the same observation, because ‘Exciting Update No. 2’ in early July said the valuation had been reduced to £3.75 million.

That seems to have given the deal a turbo-boost, because this week’s update announces ‘we’ve raised an AMAZING £931,960 from 317 investors’. The offer has now closed; I didn’t invest because other priorities intervened, but having tested Filmore’s menu extensively, I’m persuaded the business deserves success: if it goes pear-shaped after I’ve praised it here, I’ll eat my little carrier bag.

I did invest (through a conventional capital-raising) in Unbound — the UK pioneer of book publishing via online pledges, which is a different use of crowdfunding. It has delivered 50 books in its first three years, having attracted 60,000 users and a year-on-year near-doubling of pledge income. So far so good: author Philip Pullman calls it ‘the brightest… of all the bright new shoots the digital world has helped to spring out of the wizened old stump of the book world.’

The obvious danger of crowdfunding, my venture capitalist points out, is that ‘financially ignorant punters can easily be attracted by ridiculously overpriced offerings’; Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay was a history of such folly published in 1841. There are bound to be scandals sooner or later, and we’ll take a much closer look at the sector in a forthcoming issue of Spectator Money. But a decade ago, no mechanism existed that could have raised almost a million of capital from hundreds of private investors for a provincial foodie venture, or even a few thousand to publish an esoteric book. As advances in the productive use of our savings, ‘amazing’ is not too strong a word. Readers may like to email with other examples of the wisdom, or otherwise, of crowds.

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