The MT Diary

Can Walker fix the boardroom?; Chinese PM gets shoe'd; Putin's personal iron curtain.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Well, that'll learn David Walker not to write smart letters to the newspapers. He dropped a line to the Financial Times in December about banks' boards of directors. The thrust of his argument, as they say in Whitehall, was that boards had failed to constrain the executives and had let assorted Freds and Andys run rings round the risk managers and audit committees. That, he thought, was one of the reasons for the pickle in which we now find ourselves.

But what is the answer, apart from sacking them all and starting again? Walker advanced two ideas: first, introduce a new class of director, halfway between an exec and a non-exec, able to spend enough time with the business to understand it properly; second, allow or require non-execs to take independent advice, especially on risk.

The letter did not provoke much reaction. But it was read, marked and inwardly digested in the Downing Street bunker. So when the bonus issue exploded in February, Walker was the obvious person to carry out a review. It's a tricky assignment. He may regret licking that stamp.

What are the merits of the ideas he suggests? In a sense, there already are two classes of director. The regulators expect more of the chair of the audit committee than they do of the board's rank-and-file. But that expectation relates to a particular defined function. Would it be possible to define the roles of a broader class of semi-execs - AC/DC directors, if you like? It would need to be done carefully to avoid making them vulnerable to shareholder suits. If not, there might not be many volunteers.

The second notion seems to have more legs. At the moment, directors tend to take external advice on remuneration - and then often from the same consultants used by management. The added value is low. By contrast, an independent view of risk and of the control systems (emphatically not carried out by the external auditors) could allow non-execs to challenge management more effectively. Consultants might be able to produce some usable comparative data, which is typically in short supply in the boardroom.

Would that be enough to right the balance and make non-execs more effective? Possibly, but there may be a bigger issue to address. We've seen that banks that over-gear and under-provision can be costly for the taxpayer. Perhaps board members need to have an eye to the public purse as well as to the shareholders.

A few years back, the New York Fed published academic research on governance structures for banks that made the case for a two-tier board model - with a supervisory board on German lines, sitting above the executives, operating under a broader remit to consider stakeholder interests. It would be hard to fit that into the UK legal framework, but the Walker review should allow it to be debated.

No doubt other wheezes will be advanced. Huge losses and less-than-deft handling of public communications by the banks mean that the genie is well and truly out of Pandora's box. Judge Walker can't deliver a not-guilty verdict.

Meanwhile, the real economy looks as fragile as the England batting line-up. I went to visit the RE in Birmingham - or at least to talk to those who bank, advise, audit and receive it.

Curiously, the Brummies were not as gloomy as the panjandra who assembled in Davos - even though they had as much reason to be. Of course, the regional speech inflexion makes them sound depressed even when they've just won the lottery. But I spotted - if not a Vadera green shoot - at least a belief that on the other side of the slough of despond there'll be a sunlit upland to explore.

In the rarefied air of the Alps, no such sentiment could be heard. Far from performing the usual 'problem shared, problem solved' trick, this year's World Economic Forum pushed the confidence index down further. The unwritten rule in sessions I attended seemed to be that every speaker had to be more pessimistic than the one before: 'Orders 50% down? Is that all?... Luxury.'

Unfortunately, few German autopart manufacturers have seen Monty Python's Yorkshire- men sketch, so my attempts to cheer them up with the occasional cry of 'you were lucky' fell flat. There must be a German joke, but it wasn't on offer in Davos.

There were quite a lot of Germans in Davos, and a large British team captained by Brown, G and York, Duke of. But in the absence of the US administration, the Russians and Chinese ruled the roost.

Premier Wen Jiabao was direct but subtle. And his security presence was understated. There must have been a few Red Guards on the lookout for a Cambridge shoe, but they weren't obvious. Putin also spoke well, but was surrounded by a phalanx of steroid-enhanced shotputters. I was flattered to be thought significant enough to be brushed aside as I walked past the tsar.

Big, bad Russians throwing their weight around made me feel young again. I was 38 when the Wall came down. It seemed like a good age then, and increasingly does now. There were wicked communists in Moscow, and capitalism was delivering rising living standards for all. Now that the second part of the equation looks a touch shaky, it is reassuring to find the Russians reverting to type. That's probably not the way they see it in the Ukraine, however.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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