Ethics without regulation won’t cut it
– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –
There has been a lot of talk in Davos about improving business ethics, and mercy knows there is certainly room for that. The past few years, like the end of most booms, have included plenty of fraud, self-dealing, and general all-purpose unethical behaviour.
I think it’s fantastic that business should seek to raise ethical standards. It’s good business, and not before time. I do understand that a lot of what happened was a social phenomenon, and that a change in mores can only help.
But frankly, a new emphasis on ethics is a sideshow, and among some who propose it, a diversionary tactic.
While I agree that mankind is perfectible, as an investor, a citizen and hopefully some day a retiree, I am not willing to bet my future or the future of my children on it.
I want some guarantees.
I want some better safeguards.
And that means no schemes of ethical codes and self-regulation, but schemes of tighter regulation, greater oversight and dire consequences for those who breach them.
The problem is not (just) that people were greedy or self-interested. Greed and self-interest seem to occur pretty regularly, in my experience. It is true that they got a bit more reinforcement in the past decade then usual, and so might have grown, but I really do think we are on a hiding to nothing if we try to solve the problems in the financial markets and economics and avoid future bubbles by more emphasis on ethics. The problem was that the rules under which everyone operated did not do enough to limit and channel greed and self-interest.
I want to make clear too that I’m not singling out bankers here, there was a lot of unseemly behaviour among consumers, house buyers and retail investors too.
But I do think that the financial sector needs to be very careful about how they pitch a new emphasis on ethics. If the intention is to try to minimize regulation, it won’t work and will only exacerbate the backlash they are already facing.
But why do I think I have the right to demand safeguards and guarantees? Well, I, like you, am a taxpayer and a voter and we are ultimately the bag holders for the misadventures of the financial sector. That sector enjoys a government guarantee which has been growing and growing.
Regulation means less leverage, less socialization of risk and privitisation of reward. And yes, I do understand that more regulation and less leverage imply lower growth, but also lower volatility in growth, which we can all agree is expensive.
And among the rewards that the private sector can earn there needs to be a better balance between how those rewards are parcelled out between employees and shareholders. I don’t so much want a much bigger role of the state in deciding who makes what, but I’d like to see better a balance of power between shareholders and employees.
Take for example the trader at a AAA-rated bank (remember them?) who used that rating to borrow cheaply and buy a structured product with a higher yield. He banked his bonus and was still in the money when the trade went bad. He was taking advantage of two groups of people. First the shareholders, who should have gotten more of the benefit of the franchise they fund and second the taxpayers, who ultimately were insuring the whole rodeo.
I don’t expect the trader to suddenly become a saint; I do expect the system to take that into account.
Also at Davos is Maria Ramos, CEO of Transnet, who raised some important questions about the discussion of ethics and business values: