Sunday 25 August 2019

The banks must pay for what they've done

Finance Minister Michael Noonan
Finance Minister Michael Noonan

Looking back over the wreckage of the economic crash, there is ample evidence to suggest that the moral economy went bankrupt long before the financial one. With all those billions burned and the burden of debt shouldered by people who had no hand in amassing it, there is still a sense of smouldering injustice which feeds its way into the political mainstream. When it came to finding someone to blame the banks were top of the list, but their culpability and the real cost of their profligacy could never be adequately atoned for.

Today we reveal the biggest financial rip off in the State, which was perpetrated on the holders of tracker mortgages - the cost of which is put at €1bn. For the banks to be still hoodwinking customers is scandalous. At what point is there going to be a clean-up of the ethical culture of our financial institutions?

This is not a case of adding insult to injury, it is plainly one of adding further injury.

It is understood that some of the mortgage holders were either denied a tracker or charged the wrong tracker margin by bank staff. We also learn that across all the banks some 51 people may have lost their homes. Finance Minister Michael Noonan can be stirred to put an end to this mugging of borrowers once and for all. He may have no direct role, but this is unfolding on his watch.

When our banks' balance sheets exploded they left a very big hole and it took an estimated €64bn to bail them out.

So at the very least, the expectation had to be that our banks were purged of all toxicity and the cavalier days of profligacy were behind us.

They say if you spend your time hoping someone will suffer the consequences for what they did to you, then you're allowing them to hurt you a second time. But the banks, it would seem, are not done with us yet. Far from it.

Surely Mr Noonan does not need to be reminded of the fact that there is nothing so keenly perceived or so finely felt as injustice.

It is in no one's interest, certainly not the banks, that an idea takes hold that in banking the laws are "spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught".

Last night, Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Philip Lane, acknowledged that the "tracker mortgage crisis was widescale and unacceptable".

It is, of course, gratifying that he acknowledges the problem, but we are long past the stage where a tut, or indeed a double tut, will suffice.

We need to see that such sanctions are in place as to make it not in the banks' interests to play fast and loose with the livelihoods of their customers.

Last year, the ECB published estimates of the direct cost to eurozone countries of supporting their financial sectors, chiefly banks, from 2008 to 2013. It's hard to stomach.

It has been centuries since Thomas Jefferson wrote: "It is cruel that such revolutions in private fortunes should be at the mercy of avaricious adventurers, who, instead of employing their capital - if any they have - in manufactures, commerce and other useful pursuits, make it an instrument to burden all the interchanges of property with their swindling profits, profits which are the price of no useful industry of theirs."

We need a revolution in the way our banks are run, and how they are held to account.

Of course, banks have a social responsibility to use resources to boost profits, but they are not immune from the law. Open and free competition is one thing, but sleight of hand with the funds of customers has no part in Irish banking and that message must be hammered home.

Clearly it is not getting through.

Irish Independent

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