Friday, 21 December 2012

UBS - Whiter than a White Lie?

Back in 2005, I contracted to UBS in London on a Sarbanes-Oxley (risk/governance) remediation project.  Part of the recruitment process was that Kroll Worldwide would run a background check on my CV.

Kroll asked me to clarify what I'd been doing for a period of only a few weeks' gap in part of my CV.  Penna Meridian, the outsourcing company Merrill Lynch engaged as part of my redundancy package in my previous role with them, had emphasised the importance of showing continuity of employment and had advised me to offer any explanation other than 'looking for work' - they recommended that I should say something like I'd been on holiday.

This I duly did, telling Kroll that I'd returned briefly to Australia to visit family and friends - thinking that would be the end of it.  It wasn't.  They came back again seeking a statement from someone who knew me confirming this.  Rather than perpetuate the lie or embroil anyone else in my innocent deception, I put my hands up and explained that I'd been acting on professional advice.

UBS's HR department later contacted me to say that I could never work for them again in any capacity - albeit that they called me back the following year for Phase II of the project.

Although I subsequently contracted to Bank of New York Mellon, I've now been out of work for some considerable time and I occasionally wonder if that minor indiscretion led to me being blackballed by other City employers.

My point is, while my role at UBS ironically helped to put a monitoring framework in place to provide greater transparency and establish internal ownership of specialised investment vehicles, someone as diligent as me was passed over while those who later went on to fix Libor rates or otherwise engaged in fraudulent activities made the cut.

Yes, I'm bitter - and I'm frankly disgusted that more bankers aren't in jail.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Dear Bank Manager (Part 2)

As you haven't responded to my last idea, can you please qualify why whole countries are going down the pan - and the UK itself is living beyond its means - yet you treat us like some sort of criminals for struggling to make up the payment shortfall you've imposed on us with your latest mortgage rate increases? [which, incidentally, became 'necessary' as a direct result of your own recklessness].

Using your threats to exercise your charge over our home as the standard strategy for debt recovery, who would take possession of Greece e.g. when their debt mountain collapses? - where would a whole nation be expected to live?  And why can Governments be bailed out with rescue plans spanning years yet you're already getting trigger happy about what might only be a couple of months arrears?

You seem to have abandoned most of the factors previously taken into account when assessing someone's risk profile and focused entirely on capacity to repay.  In our case, you're not exposed while we have around 50% equity in our home and, despite my continuing inability to find work, I've held some responsible and well paid positions in the past and my prospects are still good.

You also don't seem to grasp that, if you realise on your security, that will be one less loan accumulating interest for you in a market where you're already having trouble getting rid of the stuff.  But that shouldn't change the outcome much - as soon as I find work again, you'll lose my business anyway for failing to be as loyal to me as I've been to you.

You need to get back to basics and stop pigeonholing people - understand your customer and use some common sense.

Monday, 1 October 2012

You're not quite off the hook yet, Santander

After our action group had a win over Santander in their attempt to hoodwink us on Business Banking charges, you'd think I'd be done with beating them up for a while.

Not so.  From tomorrow, they intend to inflict more pain on 400,000 mortgage customers by increasing their standard variable rate ('SVR') by half a percent to 4.74%.  Oh, and yet again, they've reneged on a promise - that the SVR will be never be more than 3.75 percentage points above the Bank Rate - by raising the cap.  The words 'guarantee' and 'promise' obviously don't translate well into Spanish.

Their reason?  They say 'the cost of providing mortgages has risen over the past three years'.  And why?  Because of the 'need to meet tighter regulatory demands, which in part require them to build up a bigger capital buffer'.

The irony is killing.  Why has governance made organisations such as these so top heavy cost-wise in the first place?  Because they couldn't be trusted to give their clients a fair deal on their own.  You can you imagine the contempt they must have held for investors and borrowers alike, to have to be TOLD to treat them fairly - isn't the first rule of business to build trust and goodwill with your customers if you want them to come back?

Coming from the days when retail banking was a profession I proudly represented as a regional manager in Australia, I've now become totally disillusioned with the banks.  Instead of putting service first, they bombard us with reams of the small print that we all fought to eliminate a few decades ago (whatever became of the 'Crystal Mark'?), in which they disguise strategies deliberately calculated to catch us all out at some time or another - just ask any small investor who, perversely, has to change banks every year if they want to avoid an automatic rollover offering only fractions of a percent.  As BBC Watchdog pointed out, they actually rely on us not to check the anniversary of our investments in the hope that we don't notice.  Not to mention their heavy sales techniques (driven by target not need, as evidenced by recent mis-selling scandals).

Now, I can't understand why the banks aren't making money.  Back in 'my day', banks and building societies could lend out around ten times the amount they held on deposit, on the basis that not everyone would want to draw on their investments at the same time.  So why, when the investments they're offering paltry returns on can generate multiple parcels of borrowing at a higher rate, are they crying poor?  Could it be something to do with needing to replenish the coffers of the investment arms they so irresponsibly decimated? - and which they are now so reluctant to separate from their high street business?

Make no mistake - Joe Average is paying for 'The 1%' to shaft him again and again.  Someone pass the KY.

Friday, 17 August 2012

When does 'Free Banking Forever' mean at least £7.50 mth?

We seem to have a new bank mis-selling scandal on the horizon.

We received a letter today stating that Santander will start charging on a "Free Business Banking Forever" account we opened back in 2003.

Marketeers seem to have a problem with vocabulary - like internet providers and mobile companies' interpretation of the word 'unlimited'!
Don't let them get away with it - I have the evidence in black and white from when we opened the account - call Santander on 0845 606 1721 and lodge a telephone complaint. We’ll be taking it up with the Financial Ombudsman if they don't back down. Enough complaints will hopefully force a re-think, although the Financial Services Authority’s (‘FSA’) Lord Turner has ruled that free banking has to end as it “stifles competition”.  Really?  Is free not competitive?

If we can’t win against the FSA, then perhaps class action is called for through the courts.

Who's with me?

[Would also refer you to this Facebook group - not set up by me]

[Tell BBC's Watchdog about it here - choose 'Finance' in the drop-down box or Rip Off Britain here]

Petition here

ANOTHER broken pledge (this time on mortgage rates) here.

... and did you know the sort code of their business accounts ends in '666'? I just put that in for mischief - I don't actually believe they are: ... (look closely at the logo) ....

Update 23 Aug 12: Just spoke to Ralph Tetlow (Santander Exec Complaint Team Manager - Tel: 01908 934552) to give him a right of reply before escalating my complaint to FOS. I said their written response did not address why they don't think they mis-sold - only to say they were sorry I felt they had. He insists their Legal department says the changes are in accordance with the T&C's.  I imagine, though, that Legal have looked at these in isolation and not in the context of the marketing campaign used to promote the product. Keep the pressure on them - call him, join the FB groups, go to Watchdog, Tweet like there's no tomorrow!!!

Update 6 Sep 12: RESULT!!! Santander have backed off - Reported in HuffPost here. 

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Indie Authors - Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

The world of books is changing.  The recession has seen publishing houses less willing to take a punt on new authors and instead choosing to stick with established names or prostituting themselves with the latest celebrity offerings.

No wonder so many writers are turning indie as, with the advent of Kindle and 'Print on Demand' tools, they're able to reach a vast audience without having to relinquish a slice of their income to either the publishers themselves or the increasingly irrelevant agents the industry still insists on using as go-betweens.

But the downside of this ease of DIY publishing is that the market is becoming flooded with dross, making it more difficult for real talent to rise to the surface.  Quality is being stifled by the sheer weight of titles a potential buyer has to trawl through, often leading to disappointment in the choices they make.

A case in point - this British chicklit author's three books all carry 5*star ratings/reviews but are currently languishing in Amazon bookstore's mid-division amidst a tide of free or have-a-go wannabe titles, due to Amazon's woefully inadequate classification system - amateur pornography sits incongruously next to legitimate romance novels and Amazon doesn't even have anything as straightforward as a 'chicklit' category.

So, while I can't offer advice on how to find that shiny needle in the Amazon haystack, I can at least offer you some tips on how to differentiate the good from the bad and the downright ugly before you commit to making a purchase you might regret:

- Try before you buy.  Most titles on Amazon will give you access to a preview by allowing you to click on the book icon to 'Look Inside'.

- Establish the writer's pedigree.  Look at their star rating, reviews and if they have more than one book in the stable or whether they're just one trick ponies (that said, all writers need to start somewhere, so don't be too dismissive of a debut novel).

- Use social media tools like Twitter or Facebook, or book forums, to seek recommendations from friends or like-minded readers.

- Look for writers with a coherent marketing strategy and read their blogs and web pages to get a further insight of the personality behind the book.

Happy reading!

Please feel free to comment or add your own suggestions.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Praise for the Spirit of Youth

I can't believe I'm hearing myself saying this, but last night's 'Britain's Got Talent' (apart from the sideshow acts) left me emotional and inspired.

While politicians and bankers have been playing self-interested games with people's lives, two acts in particular - 'Only Boys Aloud' and 'Jonathan & Charlotte' - magnificently dispelled the much-held belief that the youth of today is becoming increasingly disaffected or downtrodden.

I'm not ashamed to say I shed a tear watching them sing their guts out in the face of the mess that short-termist opportunists and strategists have made of their generation's prospects.

They've been so badly let down, but last night I caught a glimpse of a future with hope.

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Banks have their heads in the Trough again while ours are in the Sand

Despite the Base Rate holding at 0.5%, we have a swathe of banks lining up to increase their lending rates.

Lets just remind ourselves that they mugged us once already and, like the gamblers they are - or addicts chasing the dragon for that next buzz - they're back cap in hand to gullible Aunty Public hoping to recoup their losses.  Never mind that they've written off billions to countries on the brink of bankruptcy - who, ironically, borrowed at rates far cheaper than you or I can negotiate due to their 'sound' credit rating!

Or maybe they're just looking for ways to fund the compensation they're having to fork out for the PPI they also mis-sold us.

Bend over again, everyone - this might hurt a little. It wouldn't be British to complain, but we can all look on and tut.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A Look at Conflict: How Long can you Hold a Grudge?

History at school bored me - I'd rather have been told loads of interesting stories than to have to keep going over a select few on the curriculum, with the emphasis on our ability to commit dates and people to memory.  There were reference books for that if you needed them, although I appreciate you need a broad grasp of chronology to know where to look.  It was only later in life, after coming to Europe and seeing firsthand the wonderful landmarks I'd only ever heard about, that I realised there was something of historical importance on virtually every corner and my natural inquisitiveness took over - someone famous may once have passed there or over here is the site of a significant building or event.

I understand that our diverse cities and cultures wouldn't exist were it not for the blood, sweat and tears of previous generations - and it's important to historically preserve both our physical achievements and the memory of those who accomplished or protected them - but when it comes to continually reminding ourselves of the religious or political motivation behind CONFLICT, shadows remain cast over many generations and tracing back grudges becomes increasingly convoluted and unreliable.  You only have to look at the scholarly accounts of the Napoleonic wars to realise how events can be interpreted so differently in a relatively short period of time.

In my simplistic view, this becomes an obstacle to current (and hence future) world inhabitants being able to strive towards harmony - wherever they were born or whatever their domicile today.   It would be great just to be able to say "Let's just have a 'Day Zero', a point of mutual forgiveness, whereafter you should try to live peaceably with your neighbours from wherever you are right now".  But that wouldn't be fair to the living ancestors of those born in exile, longing to be reunited with their loved ones ... unless there was the further will to remove the very territorial borders that caused the squabbles in the first place.  We should all be free to tread broadly anywhere on this shared globe.

Or is it actually worth it, for the sake of future generations, for this one generation of misplaced tribes to just suck it up and endure the heartache of separation from kin or homeland to allow its offspring a real shot at a new beginning? - to start their lives without being indoctrinated into hating the enemies of their forefathers and rather to be taught to truly love their new neighbours?

A kid is a kid to a kid.  Is it right that past disagreements should continue to blight new lives to the extent that some have never known an existence without conflict?  It's worth noting that, by the end of the '100 Years War', the original protagonists were long dead. What would the world degenerate into if no-one knew better than kill or be killed? We may as well have never strayed from the caves.

If an aggressor seeks to breach the peace, they should face immediate prosecution for the very first crime committed in their name - why should anyone be above the laws to which the rest of us are expected to conform (including those for inciting violence)?  There shouldn't be degrees of looting and harm to another individual, depending on whether you're 'A. Citizen' or the leader of a country.

One thing I know for sure - we shouldn't dwell on past grievances, except to learn valuable lessons about how we can create a better, peaceful future.  People quip "Never forget where you buried the hatchet".  I disagree - I say "Melt it down - make a monument of it if you like - but burn the handle".

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” (Mandela)

"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" (Gandhi)

Monday, 30 January 2012

The Case for Hester

In case it escaped your attention, and despite my own close association with the finance industry, I've become increasingly disillusioned with the self-serving monster that the City has become.

So it might come as a surprise that I count myself amongst those who feel that, both morally and contractually, RBS Chief Executive Stephen Hester was entitled to his bonus.

If you or I had entered into a challenging role on the understanding that a bonus would be forthcoming provided we delivered on an objective serving the public interest, we'd feel pretty shafted if the rewards for our labours didn't materialise.

Now this isn't a case of an employer reneging on their part of the deal - Hester's bonus was rightly placed on the table in accordance with the provisions of his engagement and in acknowledgement of the fact that RBS has begun to turn around under his stewardship.

Instead, this is the story of a man compromised into foregoing his entitlement because a Government too toothless to regulate effectively wanted to make an example of him by demonstrating they are coming down hard on the excesses of a banking industry responsible for getting us all into this mess in the first place.

And who were there, gutlessly baying over Cameron's shoulders?  The double-speaking Labourites who, in language suggesting they intended to stitch Hester up all along when first negotiating his pay deal, are trying to salvage some credibility by claiming "There is nothing in the employment contract of Stephen Hester which binds the company or its remuneration committee to pay a mandatory bonus".

Hester's reward for stepping up to the plate?  A poisoned chalice, shimmering enticingly … at the end of a stick.  He was never going to win against the full weight of our conveniently united reds and blues, both trying to appease a public rightly disconcerted by corporate greed.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Barclays Wins Award! Oh, hang on .......

A short post today, on a theme close to my heart.

To coincide with the World Economic Forum currently being held in Davos, Switzerland, Barclays Bank today (27 Jan 2012) won a Public Eye "shame award" for [purportedly] speculating in food prices (story here).  So much for CEO Bob Diamond's appeasement to the Occupy Movement that banks should become "better citizens".

Those of you who know me will be aware of my Facebook page "Let's Sink Anthony Ward ("Choc Finger", Armajaro) and his greedy ilk", first set up when Mr Ward's company Armajaro caused heavy fluctuation in cocoa prices in 2010 (you'll have to start right from the bottom of the threads to get to why I set it up in the first place).

Since then a number of people and companies have been added to my 'Hall of Greed / Corruption (Allegedly)' and I urge you to look at the page and then get behind organisations like the World Development Movement, who are campaigning hard for tighter trading regulations.

An update to the above story, posted by the World Development Movement (26 Apr 2012) can be found here
Denied (twice) at AGM - WDM have been advised "Barclays creates commodity derivatives which it sells to clients, but it doesn't technically speculate itself." More investigation required ... views on this would be appreciated by commenting below.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Getting down with the Kids

How many social media sites can you join before it becomes overwhelmingly, administratively burdensome?

Having been a Facebooker since the Year Dot (and experimenting with MySpace, MSN etc. along the way), it's been a blessing to keep up with family and friends in Oz.  I'm also on LinkedIn and, more recently, Twitter (second attempt, after failing to see the advantage first time round).

I've now had to pare down some Facebook game peripherals (I've farmed, gambled with virtual money - what's the point? - and was even briefly a hitman for the Mafia) because suddenly social networking has got serious for me as I explore ways of monetising my web 'influence' in the continuing absence of a regular job.

It started with Klout, a measure of your 'reach' on the web, i.e. how many people you engage with who go on to proactively share or comment on your output.  You add all the places where you have a web presence (FB, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube, Blogger to mention a few) and it pulls in all the data and gives you a rating of 1-100.  At first, I was suspicious of a site seeking access to so much of my personal information but, hey, I decided my life is an open book anyway and I have nothing to hide.

And today I finally awoke, blinking into the light of a brand new world of possibilities as I started to develop my contacts in an initiative I recently found on Klout called Wahooly. It cleverly capitalises on your influence by joining with partners to help develop and promote new business start-ups in exchange for a share in their equity.  At the same time it gives those companies a new kind of traction (as an alternative to conventional marketing) to hit the market running.  It fits well with my social conscience, because it might just be that missing link between Capitalism and Socialism where more people get to share the prosperity, rather than all the spoils going to 'The 1%'.

But it's piled on more web admin ... cross-following, making Twitter lists, keeping up with group discussions and exchanging details, etc.  I only hope I'm using my time productively in between usual jobsearch techniques.  That said, I feel energised by the buzz I'm getting from all the Bright Young Things that have subscribed.  Of course, the super-competitive go-getter Americans have gone into hyper networking mode! Gotta love 'em for it. Failure is weakness.  :-)

We'll see, but at the moment I'm an excited bunny waiting for the first proposition to land in my portfolio!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Somebody mugged us ...

... and then disappeared into the crowd.

Why are we sitting back and allowing the gamblers and speculators to get away with this financial hit'n'run? Where's the forensic analysis of who ended up sitting on a pile of gains at our expense? - and for which we'll keep paying?

My belief is that the investment houses knew for many years that the continuous splitting of financial instruments was unsustainable - rumours had been circulating well before the meltdown that it was inevitable the whole flimsy pack of cards would have to come tumbling down (if only because it was becoming too administratively burdensome) - but the dealers knew that for every desperate new position they took, they were still raking a nice little commission regardless of the outcome.  They might not get as big a performance bonus, but it would be enough to pay their exorbitant salaries in the meantime.  If the writing was on the wall, why not go totally mental, keep playing "pass the toxic parcel" and hope you got out of there with enough feathers to cushion your cosy little nest egg before it all went tits up.

The truth we have to face up to is we're in a self-perpetuating tailspin and, regardless of politicians and financiers trying to talk us up (no doubt in the hope of dusting off their balaclavas and doing it all over again at some point in the future), no known strategies are going to work - not austerity, not even honesty.  It's way too late for that - society is in exponential decay as our population explodes.  I read yesterday that we'll have to produce as much food in the next 50 years as humankind has consumed in history to date.

An optimist by nature, I don't like to entertain or promote doom and gloom - someone either tell me I'm wrong or show me a platform I can rally behind.