maandag 27 juli 2015

Bankers sincerely don’t understand

I must explain that title. I mean that bankers are not necessarily malevolent as they once more bring mathematically smart but risky financial products on the market or use perverse reward systems.

I say that because people (bankers, in this case) will not be willing to talk about their actions when they are accused of malice. But also because alarmingly often this is the case: bankers believe in what they do. They don’t necessarily have bad intentions.

Merel van Vroonhoven, head of the Dutch Regulator Financial Markets, expresses this as follows: “Bankers feel that they have done what has been agreed, so that’s it. They are, unlike the surrounding society in which they operate, insufficiently aware that there is really need for something else. Therefore, the surprise in the sector about the commotion from society is sincere.”

And Joris Luyendijk, in his book Swimming with Sharks, says: “Outsiders see that the amoral financial system leads to immoral outcome, but bankers have learned in their economic studies, especially if that was at an Anglo-Saxon top university, that the result of their work is morally right because it contributes to economic growth. That is their dogma.” That’s what they believe in and much more they sincerely do not see.
In addition, says Luyendijk, that universe is not so exceptional. Rather, the amoral mindset where everybody is so angry about now, has found broad access in society, even in sectors such as education and healthcare. So the problem is the system, in the broadest sense, and instead of furiously blaming individual bankers for succumbing to perverse incentives we should invest our energy into tackling and eliminating them.

The wide spread of Anglo-Saxon management values – such as rational cleverness, priority for thinking over doing and for policy over implementation – allows the comparison of bankers with other professions that sometimes operate in a similar dysfunctional way. Certainly for the illustration of the influence of good intentions such a comparison is instructive, because in those other professions money does not play as big a role. So the accusation of avarice and greed (often directed against bankers) is not needed for an understanding of the type of dysfunctional behavior we talk about. Good intentions and ambitious cunning explain enough.

You can see that for example in the US policy officials who had to carry Obamacare through parliament. Obama’s team consisted of super smart people. But they appeared to have little interest in the concrete implementation and elaboration of the plan. They had terminated the insurance of millions of Americans without telling them they quickly would get a new - and better - insurance.

Obama’s project then was in danger of running ashore. With understated anger the president subjected his team to a questionsession which the participants experienced as “an autopsy and as much worse than shouting”. By doing so, Obama as yet made his policymakers aware of the panic and commotion they had caused to people and which they, with all their cunning, had not seen coming. As bankers do not understand the turmoil that may cause their products in society.

The comparison shows that these policy-makers and bankers have the following in common: a great belief in complicated products, thought-out by high potentials and rolled out downward; a certain blindness to the effects of those products in the daily lives of people; the belief that their products serve a higher purpose.

Anyway, well intentioned or not, if the results of their actions are undesirable, then bankers must be addressed on the risks of their actions, as Obama did with his policy officials.

In order to protect society from this kind of smug smart guys. And also because maybe it is not so nice at all for bankers and policy officials themselves, having to live in the above described value system. Luyendijk: “That’s why I say we should hug them. Because they lead tragic lives.”

Also see Crisis of Ethics or of Thinking?