The Co-operative Bank, one of Britain’s smaller financial institutions, has recently gone through several spectacular stages of self-destruction that has left many of its advocates, having trumpeted the fact that the bank initially emerged from the financial crisis of 2008 relatively unscathed, eating hearty slices of humble pie. Earlier this year its planned acquisition of more than six hundred branches from Lloyds Banking Group fell through when it was revealed that the bank was harbouring a large capital shortfall, most of it stemming from bad debts that were incurred as the result of an earlier merger with Britannia Building Society. The resulting rescue attempts by The Co-operative Group – its outright owner – left seventy per cent of the bank in the control of its bondholders, many of whom, such as US hedge funds, are precisely the kind of outfits that this “ethical” institution did not wish to emulate. Then, in November, the bank’s chairman at the time of its crisis, the Reverend Paul Flowers, was filmed allegedly purchasing illegal drugs from an acquaintance days after his appearance before a Treasury Select Committee during which he was unable to answer basic questions about the bank’s operations during his tenure, and had apparently organised drug fuelled orgies with rent boys from his bank email address, in addition to other past indiscretions. To make matters worse it has been alleged that Reverend Flowers’ influence extended to the leadership of the British Labour Party, expanding the Co-op’s in-house crisis into a political one. This succession of events has highlighted not only the hypocrisy of The Co-operative Bank in striving to maintain and promote an ethical stance and status (an aim that it is shared by its parent and the wider Co-operative movement) but also those who have used this institution as a political tool in holding it up as a paragon of virtue in the wake of the havoc and destruction caused by those greedy and unethical city banks. But this raises a very pressing and pertinent question – precisely what is ethical banking?

The Co-operative Bank’s ethical pride appears to centre on its mutual, member-owned status (or at least that of its parent) that allegedly offers an alternative to the shareholder model, and its Ethical Policy that prevents it from extending banking services to arms dealers, polluters, oppressive regimes, animal testers and so on. Having apparently brought itself to the brink of collapse through over-expansion and bad loans on the watch of a junky chairman who didn’t even know the size of the bank’s loan book does not appear to give much credit to this. Nevertheless, as far as the basic ethics of banking are concerned, all of this is pretty irrelevant. Rather we must conclude that banking, as far as it is practised in most of the world today, is inherently unethical. The Co-operative Bank, regardless of its ownership or its lending policy, was still engaged in the fraudulent cartel of fractional reserve banking under the aegis of a central bank and in that overriding respect it was no different from any other financial institution – and it was this fact that is at the foundation of its weakness. It took money from depositors and lent that very same money with which it had been entrusted to borrowers, expanding the supply of money, lowering the rate of interest and diverting resources to otherwise unsustainable capital projects and investments. It is this that marks the grossly unethical conduct of The Co-operative Bank and one cannot claim to be an ethical institution while at the same time engaging in this kind of fraud, the outcome of which can only be to lead the economy on to a destabilised path. Thieving depositors’ money is not made any better simply because it is lent to politically correct, environmentally friendly and do-gooding borrowers (indeed given that Co-operative Bank has apparently extended several million pounds worth of loans on favourable terms to the Labour Party some might say it makes it much worse).

Genuine, ethical banking can only come about only when a deposit institution issues one, single title to each penny that is on deposit. Where a bank extends a loan this must be met either from its own funds, or from fixed term deposits that mature at a date specified to coincide with the repayment of a corresponding loan. Naturally a bank can specify that it will only lend to certain borrowers in order to attract a certain class of saver, but that is only a distraction from a bank’s basic ethical duty – to safeguard the funds of its depositors. Any bank, regardless of the characters and qualities of its borrowers, puts these funds at extreme risk under the fractional reserve system if those same borrowers cannot repay the loans. Whatever went wrong with The Co-operative Bank’s particular peculiarities, one should not allow them to detract from this central fact of the banking system and focus should be diverted to its direction if we are ever to have truly ethical financial institutions.

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