Highly, highly recommended: Dan Davies: How to get away with financial fraud: "Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the Libor conspirators on their chat records; few of the journalists who covered the story would like to see their own Twitter direct-message history paraded in front of an angry public...
...Trading, for all its bluster, is basically a service industry, and there is no service industry anywhere in the world whose employees don’t blow off steam by acting out or insulting the customers behind their backs. But traders tend to have more than the usual level of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance. And in a general climate in which the public was both unhappy with the banking industry and unimpressed with casual banter about ostentatious displays of wealth, the Libor transcripts appeared crass beyond belief. Every single popular stereotype about traders was confirmed. An abstruse and technical set of regulatory breaches suddenly became a morality play, a story of swaggering villains who fixed the market as if it was a horse race. The politicians could hardly have failed to get involved.
It is not a pleasant thing to see your industry subjected to criticism that is at once overheated, ill-informed and entirely justified. In 2012, the financial sector finally got the kind of enemies it deserved. The popular version of events might have been oversimplified and wrong in lots of technical detail, but in the broad sweep, it was right. The nuanced and technical version of events which the specialists obsessed over might have been right on the detail, but it missed one utterly crucial point: a massive crime of dishonesty had taken place. There was a word for what had happened, and that word was fraud. For a period of months, it seemed to me as if the more you knew about the Libor scandal, the less you understood it.
That’s how we got it so wrong. We were looking for incidental breaches of technical regulations, not systematic crime. And the thing is, that’s normal. The nature of fraud is that it works outside your field of vision, subverting the normal checks and balances so that the world changes while the picture stays the same. People in financial markets have been missing the wood for the trees for as long as there have been markets.
Some places in the world are what they call “low-trust societies”. The political institutions are fragile and corrupt, business practices are dodgy, debts are rarely repaid and people rightly fear being ripped off on any transaction. In the “high-trust societies”, conversely, businesses are honest, laws are fair and consistently enforced, and the majority of people can go about their day in the knowledge that the overall level of integrity in economic life is very high. With that in mind, and given what we know about the following two countries, why is it that the Canadian financial sector is so fraud-ridden that Joe Queenan, writing in Forbes magazine in 1989, nicknamed Vancouver the “Scam Capital of the World”, while shipowners in Greece will regularly do multimillion-dollar deals on a handshake?
We might call this the “Canadian paradox”. There are different kinds of dishonesty in the world. The most profitable kind is commercial fraud, and commercial fraud is parasitical on the overall health of the business sector on which it preys. It is much more difficult to be a fraudster in a society in which people only do business with relatives, or where commerce is based on family networks going back centuries. It is much easier to carry out a securities fraud in a market where dishonesty is the rare exception rather than the everyday rule.
Traders at Bloomberg terminals on the floor of the New York stock exchange, 2013. Photograph: Brendan McDermid / Reuters/REUTERS The existence of the Canadian paradox suggests that there is a specifically economic dimension to a certain kind of crime of dishonesty. Trust – particularly between complete strangers, with no interactions beside relatively anonymous market transactions – is the basis of the modern industrial economy. And the story of the development of the modern economy is in large part the story of the invention and improvement of technologies and institutions for managing that trust.
And as industrial society develops, it becomes easier to be a victim. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith described how prosperity derived from the division of labour – the 18 distinct operations that went into the manufacture of a pin, for example. While this was going on, the modern world also saw a growing division of trust. The more a society benefits from the division of labour in checking up on things, the further you can go into a con game before you realise that you’re in one. In the case of several dealers in the Libor market, by the time anyone realised something was crooked, they were several billions of dollars in over their heads...."