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2D: Bankers & banking



by sjhoward

This is the 2,051st post. It was published at 12:30 on Wednesday, 14th August 2013.

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Bankers have barely been out of the news for the last couple of years, yet – as with so many long-running stories – there are relatively few good articles that give any perspective to the day-to-day happenings. For this 2D, I’ve found two articles that do just that.

The first article I’ve chosen is from the London Review of Books, was written by John Lanchester, and was published in July. “Are we having fun yet?” uses all sorts of arresting comparisons to contextualise the behaviour of banks, and also explains aspects of it that I had previously not really understood. Here’s one example of a breathtaking statistic:

Lloyds’ total provision for PPI has now hit £6.7 billion, getting on for the full cost of the London Olympics, just from that one bank.

I often find it hard to conceptualise the value of a few billion pounds; maybe things should be costed in “London Olympics” from now on, in the same way we measure things in “Nelson’s Columns”.

Lanchester briefly touches on the computer meltdown at RBS a couple of years ago that caused a lot of disruption to me, personally, as well as to many thousands of other customers. His discussion with one banker poses on of the major questions I had at the time, and which still mystifies me to some extent:

‘It’s a mystery why people weren’t angrier,’ one banker told me. ‘I mean, how much worse can it get than people not being able to get hold of their own money? I don’t think people realised just how big a deal it was.

I also confess that I enjoyed this particular aside:

I know that lots of people refuse to subscribe to Sky because of its connection to Rupert Murdoch, but News Corp owns only 39 per cent of BSkyB and the Murdoch family owns only 12 per cent of News Corp. That means that more than 95 per cent of Sky is owned by not-Murdoch, which as far as I’m concerned puts it in the clear. Murdoch’s 4.68 per cent of Sky is only a fraction more than Libya’s 3.27 per cent share of Pearson: I’ve never heard of anyone refusing to buy a Penguin book because of Colonel Gaddafi.)

The second article I’ve chosen is somewhat different: a Reuters blog by Felix Salmon (which, pleasingly, mentions the LRB article above). “Adventures with ‘free’ checking, transatlantic edition” talks about the “myth” of free banking in the United States. This is something I’ve read about so often in the UK media that I’ve become somewhat immune to the shock the articles often try to induce in me. Reading about the problem in the context of a slightly different banking system helps points like this to stick:

If you think your bank is being transparent about how it’s making money from you, or if you think that your banking is free, then you’re almost certainly mistaken.

I also thought that the personal story with which Salmon opens his post offers a nice counterbalance to the rather grander scale on which Lanchester talks in his article. I think these two articles work very well together.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them!

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