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Gary's thought for the Month - HSBC and standards

Gary Muddyman | 23rd February 2015

International Bank's challenges

I spent 17 pretty happy years in a division of HSBC, so it was a little sad to see my old employer as the latest bank to be embroiled in a scandal. I know that there are thousands of fine, ethically sound professionals working in that business and the danger with these things is that they create an atmosphere of guilt by association. I hope that is not the case.

Setting aside the debate about whether tax avoidance (as opposed to evasion) is morally wrong, this latest episode does highlight the need for strong standards and controls and a real commitment to good business ethics.

Ironically, there is still a case to be made that financial services are one of the most regulated industries in the world. Certainly, the localisation industry could do with similar regulatory structures and standards. But, for me, this and other similar controversies are more about the culture of a business and of an industry. An argument can be made that the extraordinary rewards enjoyed by some in major financial institutions have bred a culture that considers itself above the disciplines that regulate the rest of us.

I also believe that international banks have unique challenges driven by their cross-border activities. HSBC were subject to over 500 regulatory systems across the world. To manage the strategies involved in responding to 500 different regulators is a huge undertaking as was identified by Douglas Flint, an ex financial director, in 2009. But there is an equal challenge - to embrace the plethora of cultural differences that they will experience across the world. People from different regions will display different values, beliefs and perceptions. They will see and evaluate things in different ways. Behaviours and actions acceptable in one country will not necessarily be so in another. The regulations in each country will be grounded in their own culture.

So although we hear much about the shrinking world and the supposed homogenisation of cultures, it is still those differences that define us. This is not to excuse any activity that is illegal or even morally indefensible. But our dealings with other nationalities and jurisdictions need to be informed with an understanding of these differences.

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