Opinion: Barclays saga highlights banking's scandalous neglect of the tech sector

By Robert Marcus
29 Jun 2012 View Comments
Barclays Bank sign

The news ticker of financial misdeeds keeps streaming across the screen. From investment firm MF Global failing with $1bn (£640m) in client funds disappearing, JP Morgan trading risky derivatives leading to losses that could reach $9bn (£5.7bn), to the latest revelation, Barclays being fined £290m for manipulating the Libor rate among banks to benefit their own trading position. Not to mention the five other banks currently being investigated for the same "systematic dishonesty".

Trading in high-risk, exotic, barely understandable financial instruments and shady dealings is the same insanity that caused the financial crash in 2008. A wild cycle of unrestrained risk-taking led to the bubble building and then bursting, followed by furious taxpayers' attempts to rescue the situation.

A report by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), an organisation of government central banks, says that large banks continue to over-leverage themselves because they have no fear of failure. They expect the public sector to bail them out as before.

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"After a brief crisis-induced squeeze," BIS says, perilous proprietary trading in the form of high-risk debt "has again become a major source of income for large banks."

This is shocking because of the danger of another collapse. It also raises the simplest of questions: have banks forgotten why they exist? They are not here to wring money out of increasingly exotic financial manipulations. They are supposed to make money by lending it to companies that build real products and services. Those loans end up driving the economy as consumers buy those needed goods.

This is having a major impact on a variety of sectors, including technology, where the innovators, powering up the $2.5tn-a-year (£1.6tn), six-billion subscriber mobile internet market, presenting a significant economic and job-creation engine for the global economy, cannot get the most basic of bank loans. Even though sovereign funds have been put at the disposal of private banks for just such lending, it's not happening. Most simply give up.

Here's a radical idea. Why, instead of making exotic bets with other people's money, don't banks build a plan for tech investment? A generation of entrepreneurs is growing up around the mobile internet, driving innovation worldwide. Silicon Valley is no longer a region, it is a platform. It's happening in Tech City in London's East End and in garages around the world. This worldwide technical flowering could well offer a solution to the world's current economic crisis.

First, a high-tech Marshall Plan would take money out of self-serving financial manipulation and into something productive. Second, the loans would be small and the risk would be widely spread. No one would lose billions in a single speculation. Third, these plans would ignite a wave of innovation that would lead to high-paying jobs and capital growth with a phenomenal return. The impact would be particularly great among young people, who as a group suffer the highest unemployment.

To repeat a one-time financial ad, banks will be forced to make their money the old-fashioned way: they'll earn it.

Robert Marcus is the chairman and CEO of QuantumWave Capital, a mobile internet investment banking firm

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