The business: prepare for another festival of hatred against the banks, as they announce record annual pre-tax profits totalling [pounds sterling]25bn. So will they now clear our cheques more quickly?
Banks are universally disliked. I remember a news magazine cover in Australia a few years ago that carried the headline: "Why the banks are bastards". The phrase should preferably be growled in a sardonic outback drawl, but the sentiment could have been heard anywhere in the world any time in the past, well, 2,000 years.
Anti-bank feelings will be well aired over the next six weeks because we are at the start of the bank reporting season, when British banks divulge how much lolly they made in 2003. Expect superlatives. The banks are plum in the middle of an unprecedented golden era.
Tot up the figures and the chances are the big UK banks will have reported in aggregate a record [pounds sterling]25bn or more in pre-tax profits. That, depending on your preferred currency, is 250 medium-sized hospitals, 2,500 secondary schools, 8,000 Challenger tanks or five times the entire annual overseas aid programme. HSBC alone will have clawed in [pounds sterling]7.5bn, Royal Bank of Scotland [pounds sterling]6.3bn, while Barclays and the Halifax group are in line for [pounds sterling]3.9bn apiece.
The banks are at the perfect point in the credit cycle with demand still booming but--with unemployment and interest rates low--loans not yet starting to turn sour. The sharp bounce in financial markets has added to the cream.
So there will be plenty of resentment from the many casualties of banks. Roughly 100,000 bank employees have been canned in the past decade. With branch closures, rampant mis-selling, opportunistic charges and maddening call-centres, most customers can find something to moan about.
On the credit side, banking in this country is relatively cheap. Bankers have come up with some genuinely customer-friendly new products, such as offset mortgages and excellent online banking platforms. And if you're nimble and creditworthy, money these days is virtually free. Moreover, those profits don't just go into the maw of other people. The yields on bank shares pay a sizeable chunk of private pensions.
But the banks have been terrible at communicating the positive side. Remember Matt Barrett, the Barclays chief, who incensed MPs by telling them that "excess profits" was simply not a phrase he recognised? If they want to gain brownie points, I suggest the banks start making some concessions on the ludicrous time it still takes to clear a cheque or other financial transaction. Payment clearing, as I've argued before in this column, is the dark heart of the banking system, a cartel where the main clearers make far more money than they will ever admit to, a clogged and ancient plumbing system to which successive governments have failed to apply the plunger. Every day, the internet makes it obvious to ever more people that money can, in reality, be moved from A to B at the speed of light. The five days it still takes to clear many financial transactions is as much an anachronism as a chariot in a car showroom.
A senior banker told me the other day that speedier clearing was difficult because none of the banks' systems was compatible with any of the others, but cheerfully assured me that it would happen "within my lifetime" (said banker was under 40). That isn't good enough. A shove from the government and the Office of Fair Trading, plus a tiny fraction of that [pounds sterling]25bn, could crack the problem inside two years.
Almosthalf of all UK company directors have turned down a board position in the past 12 months because they felt the risks involved were too great. The research comes from Korn/Ferry International, the headhunters who fill many of the most senior posts in British business.
Apparently the recent changes to boardroom rules and the [pounds sterling]3.3bn lawsuit from Equitable Life against its former directors have made directorships less enticing. Though [pounds sterling]10,000-[pounds sterling]40,000 for eight or so meetings a year sounds good, the downside is that you can be personally liable when things go wrong. David Wilson, the housebuilding entrepreneur who was a non-executive director at Equitable Life, could in theory be sued for his entire [pounds sterling]320m fortune. The Trade Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, has just announced a range of possible remedies, including one that limits director liability against claims for negligence.
But, in truth, lawsuits against negligent directors are still very rare. Most are shielded by liability insurance. And if this reluctance to serve encourages firms to seek out non-executive talent from a wider pool, that can only be a good thing.
Meanwhile, the next time a company director delivers you a sermon on the laudable appetite for risk of the capitalist class, hoot with derision. For every Dyson or Branson who really puts his own wealth on the line, there are a thousand listed company directors who make sure they risk nothing.