Imagine, if you can, a world in which the big banks subscribe to a code of conduct that includes a pledge that “we seek no more than a level of profit commensurate with the value we create for our customers”.
Wading through the polysyllables and decoding the jargon, that would mean that big banks like Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase would toss aside the pursuit of maximizing profits for their shareholders at all costs – especially when those costs include putting the well-being of their clients and the financial system in peril by cobbling together packages of subprime mortgages or, increasingly, subprime auto loans. Instead, they would take a step back and say: nope, we’re doing too much of this junk, and it’s time to stop.
OK, time to stop howling with laughter.
Does that sound like a pipe dream? Well, it’s only one of a number of proposals tossed into the hopper by contributors to an upcoming book of essays compiled by bank executive John G Taft. Entitled A Force for Good: How Enlightened Finance Can Restore Faith in Capitalism, the anthology is scheduled for release next month by Palgrave Macmillan, just in time for its contributors to be part of the debate over President Barack Obama’s most recent proposal to levy a hefty new fee on mega banks with more than $50bn in assets.
Punitive and restrictive measures like that directed solely at a group of big banks miss the point, argues Karen Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, who won a degree of fame for coining the phrase “complexity risk”. In her contribution to the book, Petrou contends that loading big banks with more rules instead of focusing on who is engaging in behavior that might actually ramp up the level of risk in the financial system “will lead to unintended and often perverse consequences”.
For instance, she argues that while regulation might stop some financial institutions from engaging in risky business, that business will still happen – conducted by “shadow” entities, which she defines as institutions such as hedge funds, private equity firms and others but that also could include offshore affiliates of banks, that are all far less encumbered by the kinds of rules and regulations layered on top of banks in recent years. And while Petrou doesn’t mention it, anyone who suggests that having all the derivatives trading shift to hedge funds from banks might not be a big a problem for the financial system is forgetting their history. The 1998 collapse of a hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, came so close to bringing down the entire financial system that it required the Federal Reserve to orchestrate a bailout.
Six years ago today, I was in the throes of writing Chasing Goldman Sachs, a book that tried to analyze just what had gone so badly wrong within Wall Street. It was an outsider’s analysis, drawing on a lot of conversations with insiders. The essays in A Force for Good are written by insiders, and try to address the same question and propose strategies that can make the financial system more robust.
What is disappointing is the fact that so many years after the financial crisis, a book considering these topics is still news. We’re still wrangling about; still trying to allot responsibility; still trying to figure out how to stop it again.
The problem, I argued, was that Wall Street had begun to view itself as its own best client. Instead of being happy just serving as a gatekeeper of sorts, helping its clients raise capital and identifying investment opportunities for pension funds and mutual fund managers and collecting a fee in the process, the banks wanted to be a bigger part of the action. They would create their own hedge funds; invest in their own leveraged buyouts; trade for their own accounts, and not just on behalf of their clients; and make more money. A lot more money.
Criticism of that behavior surfaced in a lot of these essays, with Stephen Young, CEO of the Caux Round Table, arguing that speculation on the trading floor “is at odds with society’s contract with finance”. It’s in society’s interest to increase wealth – that’s why that “financial pipeline” exists at all, and why Washington bailed out Wall Street. Financial speculation, Young says, “merely moves money from one pocket to another”. Some people end up richer; others lose; society as a whole is no better off.
What is downright dismaying, though, is the fact that not a single essay in this book is written by someone currently working within the banking or investment banking industry. And while there is plenty of input from the “buy side” – folks from investment firms like Pimco and BlackRock get their say, along with Vanguard’s founder, Jack Bogle – there are no contributions from the hedge fund managers or private equity tycoons who generate just as much in trading and deal revenue for banks and have a big influence on the latter’s behavior. The closest readers will get are a couple of essays from “recovering” Wall Streeters likeformer investment banker John Fullerton, an advocate of making finance as sustainable as, say, farming.
Given the ongoing squabbling in Congress over just how to regulate the banks, and the apparent eagerness of Republicans to chip away at Dodd-Frank, it’s worth picking up Taft’s anthology to read when it is released next month.
Still, by the time you turn its final pages you may well share my feeling that it is one of those well-intentioned efforts that probably isn’t going to get anyone very far at all. It’s not that the suggestions the contributors put forth are not excellent – they are. I think it would be great if companies would stop providing quarterly earnings guidance, as David Blood, co-founder of Generation Investment Management and a proponent of “sustainable capitalism”, urges as part of his own five-point program.
But while you can chivvy Wall Street’s leaders, encourage them or even bully them, as the president has been trying to do for several years, ultimately, transformation can only come from within. Maybe if every young banker had to spend six months working within a nonprofit at the beginning of his career to help him understand what money means in a different context, that might help. But the kind of top-down solutions mentioned here risk being incorporated into fabulous lofty-sounding mission statements by banks – and then ignored in practice. And eventually we will have another financial crisis or panic.
Amusingly enough, the scheduled publication date coincides, almost to the day, with the seventh anniversary of the forced sale of Bear Stearns in March 2008 – the official beginning of the financial crisis.