RBS's John Hourican: Is He A Fall Guy For Alleged Libor Misdeeds ?


It may be hard to summon tears for John Hourican, who could soon be obliged to leave Royal Bank of Scotland with £4m in bonuses.

But here's why some sympathy is in order for RBS's head of investment banking: his employer seems to be setting him up as a fall-guy for the bank's soon-to-be-revealed Libor misdeeds.

This looks to be an ugly case of shooting a deputy who doesn't sit on the main board.

Clear thinking and firm principles are Royal Bank of Scotland's best defence as it tries to negotiate its Libor fine, which could end in UK taxpayers, in effect, dispatching £400m to American taxpayers. But, in the case of Hourican's exit, it's hard to know what point RBS is trying to make.

On the one hand Hourican's head (we are led to believe) will be offered up in acknowledgement of the seriousness of the Libor penalty. On the other hand RBS is likely to undermine the force of this resignation by saying that Hourican would have departed anyway because his investment banking unit is to be split in two with the new heads of each section – markets and international – reporting directly to the chief executive, Stephen Hester.

Since there's no suggestion that Hourican knew about attempted Libor manipulation in the ranks, he will keep the bonuses he earned in past years.

That's a muddle. If RBS directors were thinking clearly they would state that the Libor misdeeds were so serious their first thought would be that the buck should stop at the top, meaning the board itself.

In practice, there may be good arguments for concluding that no current director should automatically resign, even though some of the Libor shenanigans continued as late as 2010, well after the 2008 state-funded bailout.

RBS could argue, for example, that Hester and his chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, were so busy fighting fires on other fronts that the failure to detect the later Libor abuses was excusable. (The former arrived in November 2008; the latter became chairman in February 2009).

They could argue that a risk committee was established under Philip Scott only towards the end of 2009, too late in practice to make a difference. They could point out that the former chairman of the audit committee, the former KPMG partner Archie Hunter, had already departed, having left in April 2010.

Alternatively, they could argue that the real board-level failure occurred during the old discredited regime of the chief executive Fred Goodwin and the bank's chairman Sir Tom McKillop.

Such arguments may or may not convince. Either way, Hester and Hampton should stand up and make them. Shoving Hourican out of the door, and hoping to end the debate about accountability, just looks weaselly.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nils Pratley, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 29th January 2013 15.08 Europe/London

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