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Purifying finance

9 November 2011 By Edward Hadas

“Our culture must be one where the interests of customers and clients are at the very heart of every decision we make; where we all act with trust and integrity.” The words are from a recent speech by Bob Diamond, chief executive of British bank Barclays. In a way, this is just the usual corporate guff. No boss will tell the world about untrustworthy workers who try to harm customers. But Diamond’s aspirations are a particular challenge for the financial industry.

Not that finance itself is an ignoble activity like drug dealing or contract killing. On the contrary, finance has a noble goal, the support of a just and effective economic community. Banks, fund managers and the like collect funds that is surplus to the owners’ current requirements. The funds are then made available to organisations and individuals which can make good use of them. The gains from that good use are justly shared between provider and user, with the intermediary taking a small fee for its valuable services.

That is a pretty picture, but in the pre-crisis finance world, the intermediaries often lost sight of their economic purpose. Customers came third, after employees and shareholders. Bankers, banks and other institutions were misled by a particular form of greed, the belief that finance is more about gaining than sharing.

These days bankers are often called greedy. The opprobrium is basically merited, but financiers are not that different from other players in the financial game. Investors are greedy whenever they try too hard to outperform the economy, especially when they don’t invest in new projects but only trade financial instruments. Homeowners are greedy when they expect to become richer by doing nothing more useful than borrowing money. Governments, and the voters they try to please, are greedy when they borrow to offer more services than taxpayers are willing to pay for. And shareholders are greedy when they ask for profits which cannot be earned without taking advantage of customers.

Financial greed permeated the economy before the crisis – and it has hardly diminished since. Of course, like lust or pride, greed lurks wherever people are found. But in most parts of the economy, higher aims keep greed in check. Yes, airlines are run to maximise profits and passengers try to minimise fares, but the planes would not stay in the air if safety were not everyone’s first priority. Yes, workers rarely say, “I don’t deserve or need that raise,” but the economy would grind to a halt if workers did not mostly try to do a good job, whatever the level of pay.

Finance really is different. Financial greed is not merely tolerated; it is lauded. Star investors are treated as heroes. Politicians, fund managers and homeowners all welcome sharp increases in the prices of stocks or houses, even though the gains are unearned and asset price inflation benefits the rich and leaves the poor behind. Financial regulation provides little help. It generally aims at making the game fair, not encouraging moderation among the players.

Barclays’ Diamond is on the right track; financial institutions should promote a new attitude. But bank employees do not work in a vacuum. Unless most of their clients also accept that greed is really not good – and regulators stand ready to take a firm moral stance – memories of the last debacle will fade and regulations will be circumvented. The lure of excessive financial gain will soon lead to excess in the markets – followed by collapse and new calls for moral introspection.

There is a better way, and it does not require the exercise of superhuman virtues. Ethical finance demands no more trust, integrity or respect for clients than is already found among airlines. What it does require is a clear understanding of the purpose of the trade: the mutual benefit of all.

That understanding is hardly new. It was accepted by most local banks (think of the community support offered by Bailey Savings and Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life) and it inspired mutually owned financial institutions, which were common – and mostly successful – until a generation or two ago. The mutual structure (banks owned by their customers) makes economic sense, since bank depositors and borrowers are basically the same people and institutions, just in different phases of their economic life.

Demutualisation, which turned careful depositors into greedy shareholders, was a theme during the decades of financial excess. A return to the practice and culture of mutuality should be at the top of an anti-greed financial agenda. The rest of the agenda is a topic for future columns, but Diamond does not go far enough. Nothing will work unless all of us – not just bankers – are committed to trust and integrity. In the words of George Bailey: “We can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though.”

 

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