“Life is hard enough,” according to Swiss banking executive Sergio Ermotti, “without people “constantly bashing banks.” The UBS chief executive made those remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “I think this constant lecturing on ethics and integrity by many stakeholders is probably the most frustrating part of the equation,” he said, “because I don’t think there are many people who are perfect.”
But UBS isn’t facing criticism based on some impossible standard of perfect behavior. It is facing the consequences of several concrete abuses of economic power by its own employees and its fellow megabanks. Here is a list just a few of the things UBS has done in recent years to bring critics to its doors:
- Came up with a way to gamble on how long Texas public school teachers would live and to profit when they died younger than expected;
- Manipulated a key interest rate, generating huge profits for banks while robbing cities and other investors of billions of dollars, including the bankrupt city of Detroit;
- Sold government-backed entities $6 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities that it knew to be bad investments, eventually leaving taxpayers on the hook;
- Hid $18 billion in U.S. taxpayer money from American tax authorities, effectively forcing American taxpayers to foot the bill for wealthy peoples’ tax evasion;
- Received a roughly $60 billion taxpayer bailout (which it repaid in full).
These examples are specific to UBS, but it’s not as though the Swiss giant is a particularly egregious offender of the public trust. The banking industry has gotten tightly concentrated, with the vast majority of all banking assets held by just a dozen banks. Those giant firms have frequently made headlines for abuses that hurt customers and taxpayers while enriching bank executives. While UBS sold $6 billion in bad mortgage debts to U.S. entities, the industry as a whole pushed $200 billion worth of that same sort of bad debt onto Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. UBS was a central player in manipulating the key interest rate known as LIBOR, but that scandal involved almost all of the largest players in the industry. Along with the big banks’ mortgage abuses, the LIBOR manipulation helped put many community banks out of business.
Ermotti’s frustration in 2014 looks especially strange given that his employees used to brag about how the bank was cheating on interest rates up until they got caught. Surveys of the broader financial industry indicate the industry still has huge ethics problems, in part because bankers and traders can still make huge personal fortunes through unethical or illegal actions. Evidence of those lax ethics seem to pop up over and over again in financial scandals, such as when Enron traders laughed to one another about devastating California wildfires that would benefit that fraud-riddled firm or when a Barclays energy trader boasted that he “totally fukked [sic]” with electricity price markets to make money for his bank.
If Ermotti feels reformers are “constantly bashing banks,” it is perhaps because the industry’s natural tendency to mine profit in unscrupulous ways has pushed reformers and regulators to try to enact stricter oversight of the financial world. But banks fight those efforts, even in the wake of a financial crisis that cost the world economy somewhere between $6 trillion and $20 trillion, and they are often quite successful in fighting regulation. In the three years after the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform package became law, financial companies got 14 times as many meetings with regulators as pro-reform groups.
Furthermore, while harsh words and calls for tighter regulation may make Ermotti feel victimized, his industry has seen its profits rebound to near-record levels just five years after a gigantic financial collapse, while working people the world over have failed to experience a similar return to economic security.