Robinson Hambro
Robinson Hambro: Board Search and Chairman Advisory

Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

The Tyranny of Numbers


Criminal bankers, interest rate spikes & mythical holidays

I assume we will be seeing bankers in court, as UK Chancellor George Osborne is set to implement a reform suggested by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, namely introducing a new criminal offence: “reckless misconduct in the management of a bank”. Pandering to populism, it is aimed at capturing bank CEOs and directors.

But should not our new, state-of-the-art regulatory system be in the dock right now? The prosecuting lawyer would surely argue there was “reckless misconduct in the supervision of a bank” when the Co-operative Group’s bank was rescued last month. After all, there were plenty of warning signs when in 2012 the bank plunged to a £674m loss amidst almost £470m in write-downs due to commercial property loans acquired via a takeover in 2009.

And why restrict the accusation to financial services? I can envisage “reckless misconduct in the management of a nation’s health” which would apply to all junk food company CEOs.

The list of company directors accused of “reckless misconduct” could be as endless as it would be pointless.

Watching Quentin Tarantino’s classic Pulp Fiction the other night underlined how anaesthetised we have become to violence. Released in 1994, it was a byword for violence. Now, in 2013, it appears endearingly quaint when compared to the blood-spattered Call of Duty: Black Ops II and other ghastly video games played by teenagers.

In a similar fashion, we in the West have become inured to low interest rates and a negative return on savings. We are assuming a few years of them – witness the market panic when the Federal Reserve suggested mid-June it would soon taper off its stimulus programme of buying government securities.

New UK Governor Mark Carney is expected to give guidance next month to push UK rates lower. Interest rate markets currently estimate the first rate increase for 2015, not late 2016, which was their May forecast.

However, say the US economy accelerates faster than expected and the Fed eases off its quantitative easing in line with new circumstances. Sterling plummets. Might not Carney be forced to raise rates unexpectedly early in order to combat a sterling crisis?

Black Ops II would be nothing compared to the carnage unleashed then.

Leadership is about taking decisions without the evidence to back them up.

At a recent Pi Capital event, Lord John Browne, former Group Chief Executive of oil company BP, voiced concern about the current culture of “evidence-based decisions.” He noted that we live in an age of data overload, which leads to an unhealthy reliance – a decision appears to almost “make itself” based on the facts. Most great leaders have made judgements which appeared irrational at the time, with wartime hero Winston Churchill and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie among classic examples.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche was right to warn about the “continual falsification of the world by means of numbers.” His words two centuries ago are even more true today due to what Professor Christopher Coker calls “the unstoppable onwards march of mathematics.” Even when the limitation of numbers is shown up – viz risk systems and the financial crisis – the belief system continues.

Boardrooms are often populated by those who hold unconditional faith in numbers, a delusory substitute for religion, most of which at least admit that God’s plan is a mystery.

Two Prussian military commanders, Carl von Clausewitz and Helmut von Moltke, understood the self-contradictory absurdity of scheduling the movement of divisions and battalions in carefully calibrated master plans. The former admitted that the very nature of interaction is bound to make war unpredictable, while the latter put it in a rather more down to earth way by remarking that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.*

The language of the Boardroom is increasingly financial. Yet the world does not operate according to a mathematical formula. In Non-Executive Searches too much emphasis is placed on all board members having deep financial skills, be this a career in finance or an accounting qualification. This is often at the expense of imaginative, creative thinkers, with careers that probably will not include the initials “CFO”. They are often women. There is no arguing that financial skills are crucial in a number of key roles, such as Chair of the Audit Committee; however a partner in a law firm in charge of Competition and Antitrust, or the head of marketing at a multinational may provide other relevant skills to the team.

Financiers formed the majority of the board of Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008. They were of little use in halting its downfall. Diversity is more than just a politically correct catchphrase.

Conventional wisdom in this country has it that southern Europeans are always on holiday. Discussing the topic recently with various Spanish and Italian compatriots who now live in London, we grasped that this was a myth.

In Spain, holidays consist of a week at Christmas, a week at Easter and a month in August, with a few days off in between for Saint’s days. In London – and even more so in the City – they consist of two weeks at Christmas, half term in February, three weeks at Easter, half term in May, half time over the month of June between all the social events like GlyndebourneWimbledon and Henley, a why-don’t- we-deal-with-this-in-September attitude in July followed by the month of August off, and capped by two weeks of half term in October.

Robinson Hambro, as an enterprising Anglo-Spanish boutique, is never on holiday.

*Warrior Geeks by Christopher Coker, a fascinating tour d’horizon on the changing face of war and its philosophical underpinnings.