The arrest of the UBS rogue trader Kweku Adoboli over £1.3bn losses is one of those unpolitical “events” that have political consequences; if it happened a week earlier, it’s impact in the Westminster village would have been enormous. To the extent that there are still any industry protests about the Vickers recommendation on Monday to ring fence the “casino” banking operations from ordinary savers, the government now has an unanswerable three letter retort: “UBS”. Various commentators today say that Kweku has clinched the argument for the Vickers reform.
But two observations. I don’t share the “outrage” many claim about the rogue trader’s losses. What would be outrageous is if any UBS clients lost out (whether individual or corporate), or if the poor taxpayer had to bail it out. But UBS is absorbing the loss – the ones losing out are the UBS shareholders and 65,000 staff, who appear set to lose their entire annual bonus (I presume his former colleagues are this morning throwing darts at pictures of Kweku as they toss their Ferrari catalogues in the bin). UBS messed up; but only UBS is paying the price. This is exactly as it should be – it is what we all want to see happen. I would also point out that £1.3bn is unlikely to have actually vanished. It is almost certain that some people somewhere – the people that Kweku was trading with – made a lot of money out of this. They might even have made as much as £1.3bn. For them, it will be bumper bonuses this Christmas. Who are they I wonder?
Secondly, the timetable to implement Vickers is intriguing. Seven days is a long time in politics; seven years is intergenerational. The reforms are due to come in by 2019, certainly one and possibly two general elections away. Who knows what government will be in power then? It seems certain that Vince Cable, the main minister pushing for reforms, will be back on the lecture circuit. The pressures for reform will almost certainly subside in the coming years. The financial crisis will be a remoter memory; passions will be less inflamed. Bankers will not be quite such the popular bogeymen. The government will have sold its shares in RBS and Lloyds at a multi billion pound profit, enabling it to claim the crisis didn’t actually cost the taxpayer money but made it money. Economic recovery will make everyone more forgiving and less vengeful. Financial services will again be pumping tens of billions of pounds of taxes into the Treasury coffers. Who will then want to risk shackling them? That is assuming, of course, that the euro crisis doesn’t suck us all down into the financial abyss. Then, all bets will be off.