Greg Wright: We need to take a tough line on economic crime as storm clouds gather

ONE of the joys of speech writing is that it gives you the chance to step away from the sound and fury of the daily grind.

Storm clouds are gathering on the economic horizon, says Greg Wright Photo: Ian West/PA Wire

It’s nice to breathe the cool, clear air of contemplative thought. Yesterday, I was one of the speakers at the Thriving Minds conference in Leeds, which highlighted the importance of looking after your workers’ mental health.

When I walked to the lectern, I aimed to convey two points. Firstly, that the financial crash had forced many people to re-evaluate how they conducted business.

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I hoped the terrible consequences of the financial crisis of 2008 had encouraged more managers to place the emphasis on displaying empathy and compassion towards their staff. Greed and stupidity triggered chaos. Perhaps it’s time to conduct business with a human face?

Secondly, I also argued that a new generation of workers was emerging, whose lives had been built around the culture of disclosure, thanks to the rapid growth of social media. They were more likely to openly seek help for mental health problems. A topic is unlikely to remain taboo if everyone is talking about it.

After I returned to the newsroom, I wondered if I had been too optimistic, at least on the first point. Before 2008, many people really did buy in to the myth that we had finally ended the days of boom and bust. The crash shattered confidence in the financial services sector.

But have the lessons really been learned? And could we be sleepwalking towards another disaster? These questions are not as outlandish as they might sound.

For one thing, those responsible for the crash have never been punished. The Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake has called for the prosecution of bankers who got away with causing the financial crisis despite “clear evidence” of wrongdoing.

Mr Hollinrake, who is the co-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fair Business Banking, believes economic crime agencies must get the funding they need to bring criminals to justice.

Mr Hollinrake is concerned that the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency Economic Crime Command and the newly established National Economic Crime Centre don’t have the resources to protect the public. The number of prosecutions remains pitifully small.

At the same time, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that risks to the global financial system have risen over the past six months.

The IMF fears these risks could increase sharply if pressures in emerging markets escalate or global trade relations deteriorate. The IMF also noted that, while the banking system has been shored up by regulators in the decade since the global financial crisis, easy financial conditions are contributing to a build up of vulnerabilities such as high debt levels and “stretched” asset valuations. New bank resolution regimes meant to avoid future bailouts are largely untested, the IMF warned.

“Overall, market participants appear complacent about the risk of a sharp tightening in financial conditions,’’ the IMF said.

IMF capital markets director Tobias Adrian said potential shocks to the system could come in many forms, such as higher-than expected inflation that triggers a sharp jump in interest rates or a disorderly Brexit.

In the report, the IMF said economic growth appears to have peaked in some major economies while the gap between advanced countries and emerging markets was widening.

It also urged global regulators to keep in place measures taken since the financial crisis. It believes regulators should heighten supervision of market liquidity and raise the amount of capital banks have to set aside to cushion any downturn.

Now is not the time to let errant bankers off the hook. If there is no deterrent, how can our financial system be secure?

While Brexit remains a national obsession, a new crisis is brewing under our noses. Who will stop banking misconduct on an industrial scale from bringing the economy to its knees?

Human nature is flawed and history has a sad habit of repeating itself.