Saturday, 16 April 2011

BP vs banks

It's interesting to look at BP and the UK-listed banks and see how various arguments put forward by shareholders and other interested parties stack up. In both cases failure of management oversight of risk led the companies they were responsible to into serious trouble, so you might expect to see some similar arguments appear.

What about regulation, for example? Many people blame poor regulation as one of the causes of the bank failures. Depending on the place on the political spectrum some put more emphasis on this than other - I have seen some on Right try to give it star billing. But is anyone saying anything similar about BP? This isn't the first costly safety-related disaster BP has faced (Texas City for example). So why isn't anyone saying that safety regulation must take its share of the blame?

I think it's because when talking about real-life nuts and bolts stuff we can clearly see that people who are responsible for running companies must take primary responsibility when things go wrong. But people feel less sure of their footing in the less familiar and more abstract world of finance, so they can be talked into the belief regulators must 'share' the blame. I'm not in any way saying that poor regulation wasn't a cause of the financial crisis, but it is interesting to see how much weight is put on it. I don't see what the big difference is in principle.

What about exec pay? I'm thinking of two things here. First, an awful lot of post-crisis reform has focused on changing the structure of remuneration so it only pays out over the long-term, so people don't take short-term risks they know may blow up later. Again, the big difference with BP is? Why isn't there a similar regulatory focus on tying reward to long-term management of safety risk. I'm personally sceptical that tweaking remuneration changes behaviour much, but if we think it works for banks, why not a sector-wide reform of pay in oil companies? In fact there is some interest amongst some shareholders in tying more of BP's pay to safety management but a) not all shareholders like it and b) there is, as far as I am aware, no regulator involved.

Second, it's notable that many shareholders simply repeat back the banks' argument that you can't put to much pressure on pay or the talent will move elsewhere. Would they say the same thing at BP and the like? I'm not sure that they would, or at least not to the same extent. Again, it doesn't quite feel the same when you talk about companies that do 'real' stuff. Yet I see no reason why talented senior people in the oil industry aren't equally rare. It does make you wonder if people just get a bit dazzled by the money in the finance sector and, again, lose sight of things they can easily spot as problematic in other sectors.

1 comment:

john b said...

But Deepwater Horizon did lead to massive questions being raised, public enquiries being raised, and changes being made, in the US oil safety regulation regime.

(indeed, the fact that BP has a good safety record in the North Sea and a lousy one in the US where regulation has historically been weak is an indication that DH *was* significantly down to regulatory failure)