Sideways: Barx and the $150 million email

By:
Jon Macaskill
Published on:

Jes Staley can add an entry to his ‘to-do’ list for December 1, his first day as CEO of Barclays: send all staff an email about how to send emails.

Jes Staley sad-R-600
Jes Staley 'will certainly want to impress on the remaining traders at Barclays that beastly behaviour to sales staff simply isn’t on'


Some spectacular examples of how not to send an email were embedded in the consent order released by the New York Department of Financial Services when it extracted another $150 million from Barclays for abuses of its online foreign exchange trading platform Barx. 

The fine was levied chiefly because Barclays was judged to have rejected attempted customer trades unfairly, but the order also revealed how senior trading officials at the bank viewed their own sales staff.

In a 2011 email about how to conceal the fact that Barclays used a 'Last Look’ function on the Barx online trading system to avoid certain unwanted customer trades, the head of automated electronic FX trading said: "Do not involve Sales in anyway whatsoever. In fact, avoid mentioning the existence of the whole BATS Last Look functionality. If you get enquiries just obfuscate and stonewall."

Obfuscate and Stonewall would be an excellent name for a law firm, but it is a phrase that has no place in the email lexicon of the modern investment banker, who should know that every message has a chance of being examined by a regulator keen to extract more money from the industry.

Some may argue that another $150 million is a drop in the bucket for Barclays, which has now coughed up over $2.5 billion in fines for FX market abuses.

Staley will no doubt disagree and will certainly want to impress on the remaining traders at Barclays that beastly behaviour to sales staff simply isn’t on, even if they clearly don’t understand the mechanics of what they are selling.

Jenkins

There may have been a time when it felt right for the traders and automation experts at Barclays to treat their sales staff like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and feed them excrement, to clean the old line up slightly). But that time is now past for a bank that is sticking with its commitment to principles of Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence and Stewardship, even though it has dispensed with the services of former CEO Antony Jenkins, the author of these rousing values and their excellent acronym.

Jenkins would have been just the man to explain how to send an email without leaving evidence of sharp practices and disdain for your colleagues and clients alike. 

Unfortunately he is now gone, and Staley will have to assign the email etiquette monitoring to someone else after he has set a new company line on what you can and cannot say in a message.

Recently appointed deputy chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone might be a good fit for this important job. He starts with a big advantage in having a first rate name for someone who has to make a key point stick. You don’t cross a Grimstone lightly, not if you value your role in a forward-looking bank. And Sir Gerry is a methodical man, as he made clear in a recent interview with the magazine of his Oxford college, Merton. 

He was asked to identify the secret of his success, the key question in any profile of a leading industry figure. As quick as a flash, Sir Gerry replied: "I’m clever and I work extremely hard." It would be nice to think there was a glint in the Grimstone eye as he delivered this summary of his contribution to a long career in Whitehall and the City. But it would be a brave Barclays employee who smirked at one of the great man’s pronouncements.

In the same interview, he delivered sage advice for the young. "Try and finish the day’s work on the day – I don’t like going to bed without everything finished and ready for the next day," Sir Gerry said. "I also like sticking printed labels on things".

How wise... and practical. Sadly, it may be too late to restore customer confidence in the Barx online system by sticking a printed label on it. Clients might wonder whether the label is designed to cover something up. But there are surely many other things in Barclays that will benefit enormously from having a new printed label stuck on them.