How culture (or lack of it) is becoming the major issue in finance….

Not too long ago, mention of culture in finance space was scoffed. It was seen as this soft issue which does not bring much value. Finance  was this hard subject all about numbers and jazz. This hard bit has taken a huge hit and has become really a soft target now. As a result, again people are going back to talking about the once soft things like culture, ethics etc in finance.

NY Fed has been organising conferences trying to figure the culture bit. The first was in 2014 and second in 2015.

In the 2016 edition, NY Fed chief William Dudley talks about things which central banks never thought they would – norms, ethics etc:

The evidence is pervasive that deep-seated cultural and ethical problems have plagued the financial services industry in recent years.  Bad conduct has occurred in both investment banking and securities market activities as well as in retail banking.2  This has eroded the industry’s trustworthiness.

This erosion impedes the ability of the financial services industry to do its job.  That job is financial intermediation—to facilitate the efficient transfer of resources from savers to borrowers, and to help customers manage the financial risks they face.  Verification—whether through regulation or internal controls—is an expensive substitute for trustworthiness.  Fines for bad behavior drain resources that could be better used to expand access and improve services, but billions of dollars in avoidable penalties are just the start.  The time spent handling a legal crisis is time not spent on more productive pursuits.  Moreover, I worry that, in the long term, an industry that develops a reputation for dubious ethics will not attract the best talent.3 

In contrast, a trustworthy financial services sector will be more productive and better able to support the economy.  Reliable financial intermediaries can help increase the flow of credit, promote economic growth and make the financial system more stable.  This is why restoring trustworthiness must be the ultimate goal of reforming culture. 

The industry’s shared norms—its culture—will not change by mere exhortation to the good, whether from me or from the industry’s CEOs.  In my experience, people respond far more to incentives and clear accountability than to statements of virtues and values.  The latter are worthy and necessary, but remain aspirational or even illusory unless they are tied to real consequences.4  What does it mean for a firm to profess to putting the customer first, if employees are compensated and promoted regardless of what’s good for customers?  Or, worse, if they are not held to account for activities that can harm customers?  If we focus on nothing else in today’s conference, let’s explore how best to structure incentives and reinforce accountability to align with core purposes and first principles.

To put it very simply, incentives drive behavior, and behavior establishes the social norms that drive culture.  If the incentives are wrong and accountability is weak, we will get bad behavior and cultures.  This implies a role for both firms and supervisors.  Firms need to continually assess their incentive regimes so that they are consistent with good conduct and culture.  When they are not consistent, the incentives need to be changed.

He says private sector should play the main role. But even the govt can help:

The primary responsibility for reforming culture—and changing incentives—belongs to the industry.  However, the industry does not act alone.  The public sector can play an important role as well.  I’ll discuss that issue this morning with my colleagues Norman Chan, chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and Minouche Shafik, deputy governor of the Bank of England.  Later this morning another panel will discuss the ways in which supervision can further contribute to improving bank culture.

Let’s also consider ways in which new laws or regulations might help—especially to overcome perennial collective action and first-mover problems that are common across the industry.  Two years ago I proposed solutions to two such obstacles to reforming culture.  First, there should be a database of banker misconduct to combat the problem of “rolling bad apples.”5  Second, a baseline assessment of culture is needed in order to measure progress.  I proposed an industry-wide survey, but there may be other good alternatives.  Once again, I invite the industry to take the initiative on these issues, and to look to the public sector for support.

I also hope that we will attend to issues that we may have overlooked in our earlier discussions.  Gillian Tett of the Financial Times argues in her new book, The Silo Effect, that the key to understanding any culture is identifying and explaining “social silences”—the issues that are not being discussed.

Database of banker misconduct…

There was a time when these databases only reported high salaries and bonuses of the sector. Now it is about misconduct..

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