“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 organizations 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 maximize profits and passengers try to minimize 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.