Greed is Not Good
Unrestrained greed among the investment banking elite has been blamed for much of the world’s suffering in recent years. In a remarkable shift from only two decades ago, greed in all its crude reality, is no longer “good” in the eyes of the world.
Maverick thinkers have warned of the perils of unbridled greed for centuries, yet few were listening. Not until the world turned dark on September 15, 2008 in the perfect financial storm did the rest of society take notice.
That was a day of economic infamy-the day Wall Street investment banking died. Lehman Brothers, one of the most respected and powerful financial institutions in the U.S., came crashing down in an economic shock heard round the world. With its demise, the remaining investment banks went on life support resuscitated only by woeful government rescues.
With the crash of the credit and securities markets in 2008, the relationship between business and the public irrevocably changed. No longer is the old adage, “it’s not personal, it’s business” an acceptable view. The crisis resulting from the misbehavior of bankers at the expense of ordinary folks unequivocally reveals that everything we do in business is indeed personal to someone.
The official theme of this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland is “Rethink, Redesign, and Rebuild.” The unofficial theme could be called, “Greed is Ugly.” We traveled a long hard road to get here from the Ivan Boesky days of last century. With it, we endured a lot of economic pain. Yet as human beings we rarely change when things are comfortable. It is the advent of crisis, either personal or public, that forces us to reexamine our values and reinvent ourselves.
The Economic Crisis of 2008 has brought forth the Economic Epiphany of 2010. The sentiments last week among the world’s business leaders echoed the urgent need for a moral economic framework. Out of the halls of darkness comes the light. Mercy, mercy, hallelujah.
For all those skeptics out there, the 2010 Davos Forum focus on values signifies an enormous change for the year ahead. People are mad as hell and they don’t want to take it anymore.
Yet these are not ordinary angry mortals, like Joe the Plumber or moose shooting hockey moms. The outraged include the banking and business elite themselves. Members of a once admired and revered fraternity hold errant colleagues responsible for destroying good business models. Barclays’ President Robert Diamond said, “Those who stayed strong are angry at those who had poor management.”
Trust is your bread and butter in business. Banking was once a respectable and conservative undertaking that served the community. Not a roulette wheel spun with the chips of pension-less factory workers, ninety-year-old widows, and the working poor. Where had common good values gone?
Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackerman complained to the Davos crowd, “We should stop the blame game,” and “start looking forward.” His remarks were directed against the inevitable new taxes and industry regulation favored by those present. Ackerman did not realize that regulating banks is looking forward-toward creating a system that works for all, not just a self-serving few.
The German banking chief did acknowledge, however, the importance of public opinion. “If you lose the support of society, you are not going to realize your corporate objectives in the long run.” (A belief that seems not to be shared by some American colleagues.)
As WEF’s official theme reveals, the new paradigm is to “rethink and redesign” the global economy to include world interest with self-interest. It is no longer okay to create suffering for others in the savage quest for more. French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that for “those who create jobs and wealth” to “earn a lot of money is not shocking. But those who contribute to destroying jobs and wealth and also earn a lot of money is morally indefensible.”
Survival-of-the-fittest naysayers have become like dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. The only ones who don’t know that seem to be employed by bailed out banks.
Yet “blame”, as distasteful as that might be on most WEF participant lips, is not altogether fruitless. If the perpetrators of this colossal calamity continue to ignore their part through their actions, then the world will continue to point fingers and consequently tighten the strings. Call it blame if you must, but the post-crisis behavior of unrestrained banker bonuses looks greedy to those looking on. And greed no longer looks good.
Mexico’s ex-banking chief pointed out that banks have “misjudged the deep feelings of the public.” The Wall Street Journal reported that banks returned to a “culture of high-risk-taking and lavish pay as soon as they were out of intensive care.”
The President of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, claimed bankers changed the game by using taxpayer money “to guarantee loans at banks…a gigantic amount” and could no longer dictate the new rules.
Sarkozy summed up the general sentiment of the conference by stating that “indecent behavior will no longer be tolerated.” He claimed that capitalism could only be saved “by restoring its moral dimension.”
That morality is being discussed at all in the setting of the formally greed is good culture of Davos is extraordinary. Continuing global economic hardship is yielding remarkable changes in profit perspectives. Glimmers of hope are emerging from the depths of despair.
New economic thought has shifted to a world that cares for the poor, voiceless, and forgotten. The official message of the conference proclaims, “Now is the moment to rethink values as we rebuild prosperity. The interrelated fights against unemployment, global poverty and climate change are not just noble struggles: they are essential for long-term recovery and avoidance of future crises.”
It was not good to be a banker at the World Economic Forum this year. The chairman of Morgan Stanley Europe compared their social status to that of “terrorists.” The comparison is humorous until one thinks about the havoc reeked by what economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “negative value”. Traders, underwriters, lenders, analysts, salesmen bought and sold securities, loan products, and swaps that were based on mortgages that could/would never be repaid.
American Heritage Dictionary defines terrorism as a “state of fear and submission.” Considering the submission of millions of families to banks who took their homes and millions more who lost their incomes through no fault of their own, the fear gripping those facing foreclosure and unemployment, and the millions of investors who face uncertain retirement, the subprime mortgage debacle could undoubtedly be viewed as a form of economic terrorism.
As we begin the second month of the year 2010, it seems clear that greed, defined as the accumulation of wealth and profit at the expense of others, is no longer ”good” to most of those observing. That is a great relief.
The outrage expressed by pillars of the global economy in Davos, as well as the general public, reflects that the new “good” is as much about serving the common good as anything else. I would call that an Epiphany!
Monika Mitchell is the Executive Director and Editor-in-chief of Good Business International, Inc. (GoodB). She writes regularly for the Good-B Blog.