Finance

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

Standard Chartered CEO Bill Winters is trying to put the lender's past misconduct behind it -- with a hashtag (what else), and an (inevitably) zero-tolerance policy for padded expense claims.

Lost Ground
Standard Chartered has underperformed European peers over the past year
Source: Bloomberg

Considering the amount the bank has pumped into compliance and supervision in recent years -- $1 billion in 2015 alone -- shareholders will be hoping there's more to Winters' standards drive than a breathless #knowtherules #cliché and the dismissal of a small number of staff.

Regulatory oversight is only getting stricter and Standard Chartered, in particular, has a lot of ground to recover.

Granted, Winters isn't the only bank CEO battling to change a culture of high risk and lax oversight of employees. Deutsche Bank's John Cryan is doing the same, while Credit Suisse's Tidjane Thiam in March admitted to being blindsided by traders who had run up risky trading positions without their superiors' knowledge.

All banks are spending more on risk controls. In capital markets trading alone, firms spent about $2.6 billion overhauling their IT in 2015, up from $2.4 billion the previous year, Tabb Group estimates.

But Standard Chartered has more to make up for than most: It's still under the watchful gaze of an independent monitor following its $667 million fine in 2012 for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran -- a blunder that could have cost the bank its U.S. license.

It faces a more hawkish regulator at home, in particular the U.K.'s senior managers' regime. Under those rules, executives could be thrown in jail for failing to spot serious misconduct on their watch.

And the bank is also retrenching from an expansion spree that last year led to its first annual loss since 1989, a $5.1 billion rights offering and a pledge to slash the workforce by 17 percent.

Discount Value
Standard Chartered trades at a steeper discount to book value than many of its peers
Source: Bloomberg Intelligence

All of which makes for a foul-tasting cocktail for shareholders: Standard Chartered trades at about half its book value, a discount to many in its peer group, according to Bloomberg data.

This backdrop makes Standard Chartered's missives about staff behavior underwhelming. Winters expressed his concern about a "small number" of employees. He cited undisclosed investments in unlicensed peer-to-peer lenders, money-lending among staff and  over-indulgent expenses claims as example of rule-breaking.

It's certainly an impressive amount of detail about misconduct -- but then again, you'd expect that, given regulatory costs totalled $243 million in the first quarter, almost half pretax profit in the period.

Following the Rules
Regulatory costs are accounting for a bigger share of Standard Chartered's operating costs
Source: Company reports

Is this low-hanging fruit easily plucked by a compliance function trying to prove its worth? Or is this a positive sign the lender is through the worst of its compliance woes?

Shareholders are unlikely to find out the answer until Winters completes the bank's internal review into misconduct. That covers more than 150 different potential cases that could lead to bonuses being clawed back, according to the company.

But if Winters wants to give investors a more reassuring indication that he's getting on top of Standard Chartered's free-wheeling culture, he's going to need more than an easy hashtag.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Lionel Laurent in London at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Edward Evans at eevans3@bloomberg.net