Belfast Telegraph

Why blaming Fred the Shred for everything is far too easy

By Andreas Whittam Smith

Every scandal has to have a scapegoat. In the case of the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, there was one ready-made: Sir Fred Goodwin.

And when the end of RBS - Ulster Bank's parent - finally came, 'Fred the Shred' performed exactly as the rules of these dramas dictate: he put two fingers up to his critics and took so-called 'early retirement' with a pension of £700,000.

Yet when I pursued Sir Fred through the 450 pages of the report on RBS's collapse by the Financial Services Authority, I found a foolish Sir Fred, an obsessive Sir Fred, but I did not come across someone who alone could be blamed. So let us enter the RBS boardroom, as it was.

If we had expected to find a roomful of nonentities, we would be disappointed. The FSA report states: "The board included members with relevant experience and skills and successful track-records in other fields. On paper, it looked adequately strong."

Possibly the members - executive and non-executive alike - were unduly highly-paid, which can be a warning sign. Certainly, they lacked a maverick who would challenge their unspoken assumptions. It was a conventional board of directors.

Perhaps, though, Sir Fred dominated his chairman, Sir Tom McKillop. It appears not. The chairman seems to have done everything by the book.

He thoroughly familiarised himself with RBS's business. At meetings of the board, he took care to allow all members to put forward their views and participate in discussions.

He made sure that the executive could be challenged. And Sir Tom responded to the losses that led to the announcement of a big fundraising in April 2008 by commissioning a review to "understand the background to, and lessons learned from, the events that led to significant write-downs ... with a focus on identifying changes that RBS should make to its processes". This hardly seems like the actions of somebody in thrall to his chief executive.

Even the disastrous decision to buy ABN Amro, the second-largest bank in the Netherlands, in 2007, was properly conducted. Indeed, the board took the conscientious step of asking its lawyers to confirm that it had given the offer proper consideration.

So it was the whole board - fully consulted every step along the way - that signed off on a deal that the chairman later described, when the dust had settled, as having been struck at "the wrong price", paid for "in the wrong way", done "at the wrong time" and which was, all things considered, "the wrong deal".

How about Sir Fred himself? What picture do we get from the FSA report? "Hard driving" is the right description; he was a man who kept a very tight control of costs and who ceaselessly sought cost savings.

He was a leader who established a strong emphasis on growth, which he drove by setting clear targets and incentives. He would not have considered the perverse results that such methods could have.

The recent case of the High Street bank that sold frail old ladies completely unsuitable financial products was the result of targeting and incentivising staff to sell, sell, sell. He congratulated himself on using capital "efficiently", which becomes "over-borrowing" when disaster strikes.

Sir Fred was a ruthless, single-minded manager, who was determined rather than imaginative. Had he seen the big picture, he would have made course corrections before it was too late.

But this still does not make him the sole author of the misfortune. At board meetings, he intervened "infrequently" and followed up points raised by other members. The FSA added: "The picture that emerged was clearly more complex than the one-dimensional 'dominant CEO' sometimes suggested in the media." That is probably the nicest thing said about Fred the Shred since the storm broke.

We like to identify scapegoats because it removes blame from the rest of us. But the real explanation for the fall of RBS was the incompetence of the British ruling and managerial classes, from the Government ministers who expounded the virtues of 'light-touch regulation' to the FSA, whose report reveals much greater failings in regulation than I had suspected, to the entire senior team at RBS, who drove the horses straight ahead and went over the edge into the abyss.

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