This article has been adapted from our sister site across the pond, Fool UK.
Just a few years ago, the credit crunch was claiming the scalps of banking chiefs like Fred "The Shred" Goodwin and Northern Rock's Adam Applegarth.
Along with their U.S. equivalents at Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, these shamed CEOs slunk out of the back door as the companies they presided over collapsed, with barely time to secure their multimillion pay-offs in triplicate.
But bank bosses are back in the ascendant.
Not only is the financial sector printing money again, but the casino banker's banker, Bob Diamond of Barclays Capital, has just been confirmed as president of parent company Barclays
Today also saw another top dog -- HSBC's
Again, far from skulking off to Argentina to count his money hidden from the public eye -- as the harshest critics expected all senior bankers to do barely two years ago -- Green has taken up the role of Minister for Trade and Investment at the invitation of the Prime Minister.
Green's departure was expected, but his successor has yet to be recruited.
Diamonds in the rough
So yesterday's villains are being rewarded with top positions in banking and government. Have the lunatics taken over the asylum? Hardly:
- Neither Barclays nor HSBC received direct government aid during the banking crisis (though both did benefit from the broader support measures, of course). In terms of the credit crunch, these were the good guys.
- Both Barclays and HSBC are reporting great results. Last month Barclays said first-half pre-tax profits for 2010 were up 44%, while HSBC doubled pre-tax profits over the same period to $11 billion. These banks have navigated the credit crisis as well as any. No rewards for failure here.
- Diamond and Green played very different roles for their respective companies, yet both came through with flying colors. Diamond, widely seen as a brash American, boldly swooped for key assets from stricken Lehman Brothers. In contrast, ordained priest Stephen Green is seen as one of the dying breed of conscientious British bankers, who murmur into ears and shy away from the casino culture.
Some will see an irony in a top banker representing British industry, given how the Coalition says it wants to rebalance the UK economy away from financial services.
But HSBC and Green are widely respected, and the latter's experience in Asia will be very useful when championing British trade. After speculation that the government was having trouble filling the role with a sufficiently senior figure, Green's appointment looks to be good news for Britain.
There'll be much more controversy about Diamond's promotion.
This is, after all, the man who Peter Mandleson dubbed "the unacceptable face" of capitalism, accusing him and his ilk of making millions from "shuffling bits of paper around." A more generous assessment is that Diamond earned his estimated £95 million fortune building Barclays Capital from scratch into one of the biggest investment banks in the world.
Still, Diamond does seem a risky if not unexpected choice, given some shareholders' worries that profits at Barclays are too dependent on the vicissitudes of trading by Barclays Capital. Diamond's division was responsible for nearly 90% of the £4 billion Barclays reported in profits in the first six months of 2010.
Then there's the risk that Secretary of State for Business and notorious bank basher Vince Cable's investigation into banking could lead to a forced break-up of Barclays, in order to separate out retail banking from riskier operations.
Diamond has already set out his stall against such a move with today's announcement, saying:
As a leading global universal bank, Barclays has the right model, the right strategy, and above all the right people to deliver for all our stakeholders. We face the future with confidence.
He may need political skills to match his trading nous to keep it that way.
Too soon to celebrate
Of course, there are those who argue the credit crisis isn't over yet. Bank shares -- and the markets -- are being hit today by a report in the Wall Street Journal claiming European banks fudged the recent EU stress tests. And only last week the perma-bearish analyst Albert Edwards of SocGen warned the S&P will soon trade at just 450 points.
If Edwards is correct that governments simply bought time by kicking the banking crisis-induced crash further down the road, then not even the likes of HSBC and Barclays will be safe -- and David Cameron could be rather embarrassed to have Stephen Green fronting a disintegrating UK economy.
Personally, I think Edwards' doomsday scenario looks unlikely -- and that Vince Cable's investigation into banking will ultimately leave Barclays as well as HSBC intact.
They are both great British companies, at the top of their game on the global stage. Whoever is in charge of them should concentrate on keeping them that way.
More from Fool UK's Owain Bennallack:
Brian Richards, who prepared this article for publication on Fool.com, does not own shares of any companies mentioned. Neither does Owain Bennallack. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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