Archive for the ‘Financial Markets/ Finance’ Category

Reforming Culture (in financial services) for the Long Term

March 22, 2017

I just blogged about why importance of preserving local culture and values as SBI merges its associate banks.

So, one just came across this NY Fed chief William Dudley Speech in London on reforming culture in finance. In evening he participates in a panel discussion titled: Worthy of Trust? Law, ethics and culture in banking.

Dudley who was under fire for corporate misgovernance a NY Fed has earlier also made remarks on culture.

In the recent speech he says:

As I have argued before, incentives shape behavior, and behavior drives culture.  If you want a culture that will support your long-term business strategy, you need to align incentives with the behaviors that will sustain your business over the long haul.6

Incentives—compensation and promotion, in particular—are powerful tools for communicating the conduct and culture you desire for your firm.  Of course, the cultures of firms can and should vary.  But, the culture of every bank should share a common theme: stewardship—a word that implies professional care, exercised year after year for the benefit of the firm and its stakeholders.  A commitment to the long term must be at the core of banking.  Incentives within a firm should support that goal, not undermine it.

My emphasis on incentives is not new, but it bears repeating.  Bad incentives were a key contributing factor in the financial crisis.  In the United States, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that “Compensation systems—designed in an environment of cheap money, intense competition, and light regulation—too often rewarded the quick deal, the short-term gain—without proper consideration of long-term consequences.”7   This theme applied to all levels of banking organizations.  One notable example was mortgage brokers, who were paid based on the volume of loans they generated, not their quality.8

The financial crisis came to a head in the fall of 2008.  Fast forward eight years to the fall of 2016.  Wells Fargo’s chairman and CEO resigned after regulators uncovered what appeared to be widespread fraud in the retail bank.  Compensation, once again, seems to be at the center of a scandal.  Neighborhood bankers were paid based on the volume of new accounts opened, apparently with utter disregard for whether customers wanted them or even knew about them.  And, like mortgage brokers in the early 2000s, it appears that job security depended almost exclusively on meeting targets, regardless of how those targets were met.  There was a serious mismatch between the values Wells Fargo espoused and the incentives that Wells Fargo employed.9  

Investigations into what happened at Wells Fargo are continuing, so I will wait before drawing more definitive conclusions.  For now, though, it is sufficient to note the powerful role—for good or for bad—that incentives can play in an organization.  I understand that making progress on culture is difficult.  But, if you want the next round of metrics to look better than the last, use a powerful lever—use incentives. 

Today’s discussions—here at Mansion House and later at the Bank of England—are evidence that the issue of culture is important to the private and public sectors alike.  We have to keep working on this.  The public sector must continue to shine a spotlight on the issue, and the industry must continue to demonstrate that it is taking responsibility for its culture.  And, culture cannot be a subject that only receives attention because bad conduct has occurred in the recent past. 

I am convinced that a good or ethical culture that is reflected in your firm’s strategy, decision-making processes, and products is also in your economic best interest, for a number of reasons:

  • Good culture means fewer incidents of misconduct, which leads to lower internal monitoring costs.
  • Good culture means that employees speak up so that problems get early attention and tend to stay small.  Smaller problems lead to less reputational harm and damage to franchise value.  And, habits of speaking up lead to better exchanges of ideas—a hallmark of successful organizations.
  • Good culture means greater credibility with prosecutors and regulators—and fewer and lower fines. 
  • Good culture helps to attract and retain good talent.  This creates a virtuous circle of higher performance and greater innovation, and less pressure to cut ethical corners to generate the returns necessary to stay in business. 
  • Good culture builds a strong organizational story that is a source of pride and that can be passed along through generations of employees.  It is also attractive to clients.
  • Good culture helps to rebuild public trust in finance, which could, in turn, lead to a lower burden imposed by regulation over time.  Regulation and compliance are expensive substitutes for good stewardship.

Good culture is, in short, a necessary condition for the long-term success of individual firms.  Therefore, members of the industry must be good stewards and should seek to make progress on reforming culture in the near term. 

Well, there was a time when NY Fed would never discuss such issues. They were seen as soft and not of any importance. NY Fed was more about hard finance and fancy stuff.

 

When dealing with financial services, one’s default attitude should be distrust and suspicion

March 15, 2017

An interesting post by Dhirendra Kumar of Valueresearch. It is nice when people who belong to financial services warn people to be careful while dealing in finance. After all, financial services business is full of tricks and games around other people’s money. It is for no reason that finance was always treated with suspicion for ages and those who dealt in money highly despised. Despite changing attitude of society towards finance , most financial players contineu to complicate things and missell their products.

He says usually the default option for most activities should be open and trusting. But in finance default should be the opposite which is ironical as finance is all about trust:

Those who have a positive attitude towards what life brings them are more likely to be successful and happy. Or at least, that’s a common belief. There’s more. When you meet someone new, it’s better to assume the best about them since most people are honest and sincere. Generally, things will work out better if your default attitude is open and trusting.

Unfortunately, this is not true while choosing and buying financial services. As a rule, you should assume that everyone who is trying to sell any financial service to you is either hiding something or is actively lying. This maybe only 90 or 95 per cent true but it’s better to assume the worst to protect yourself. The only way to make the right choices when you save, invest and insure yourself is to educate yourself independently, and make your decisions yourselves without having to depend at all on what a salesperson is telling you. Decades of interacting with the customers of financial services and observing how these industries work has left me with the strong belief that when it comes to dealing with them, distrust and suspicion should be the default attitude.

Why should this be the case? Why is buying financial services different from buying, say a jacket or a shoe or a car. There are many reasons for this and while some are to do with specific issues with the way business and regulations are conducted in India, there is a much deeper reason that is fundamental to financial services.

This reason is that the input, product and output of a financial service business is all the same stuff–money, and the only way they can earn more is by ensuring you get less of it. Think about that carefully.

Best way out is to educate yourself:

This has a really important implication: for a given type of financial service, and a given competence with which it is run, the only way the provider can make more money is to give you less of it. If the provider wants more of anything, be it profits or salaries for employees, or more dividends for the owners, then that has to come from reducing what you get. If it wants to increase sales by paying more commissions to agents then that too is paid for by reducing your returns. EVERYTHING comes out of your pocket.

Don’t think that is some esoteric, conceptual model of financial services. This is what drives every interaction you have with your bank, insurance company, stockbroker, mutual fund, and those who are trying to sell you their services. And don’t count on regulators to protect you. In general, India’s financial regulators are always well behind the curve in stopping the malpractices that are rife in all these products.

The only way to protect yourself is to educate yourself with information and knowledge that is not tainted by actually being generated by the same people, and to always be suspicious of everyone who is selling a financial product, and have distrust as your default posture. I know it sounds terrible, but that’s the way things are.

Actually it is sad to see such an article from one of the major spokesperson of financial world.

Are we all macroprudentialists?

March 7, 2017

Julien Noizet of Spontaneous Finance is back to blogging after a break. He questions the government/central bank intervention in financial matters.

In his recent post, he asks the question: Are we all macroprudentialists?

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Lessons from Central Bank of Barbados fiasco: Central Bank chief is a goalkeeper?

February 28, 2017

Finally after much deliberations and total chaos, Dr DeLisle Worrell the governor of Central Bank of Barbados got fired. One of the Deputy Gvernors has been named as the new Governor.

Dr Worrell got fired just a day after the Court intervened that he could keep his position:

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Historically some of the truly radical innovations in finance have come from criminal enterprises…

February 27, 2017

Prof JR Varma has a blog post which debates Uberisation of finance. They key idea here is whether innovations in finance can/should be ahead of regulation. Moreover, should regulation kill or allow innovation?

He quotes from a paper by Pollman and Barry in regulatory arbitrage. The business is done under the assumption that law shall be changed in their favor overtime. In finance we are seeing a surge in technology which also relies on regulatory arbitrage. So, how do we think this will pan out?

Prof Varma points firstly current finance players are fairly tech savvy and know the game. Second and more interestingly is this thing that historically most finance innovations come from criminal enterprise itself!

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Is the banking industry undergoing a change or a transformation?

February 17, 2017

A nice speech by Mr Frank Elderson, Executive Director of the Netherlands Bank.

He nicely mixes the consulting/strategy talk with that of central banking:

Now, the banking industry is facing several challenges. Fintech is rising, consumer trust is damaged and Basel 3.5 is on the horizon. Then there is doubt about the future of Europe, growing criticism of globalisation and uncertainty about the geopolitical landscape. Meanwhile, the world is trying to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and implement the Paris Agreement.  

Banks will have to adapt – perhaps contribute – to this and the question is how. What is an appropriate business model or strategy? And what is the best form for the key functions that banks perform, such as safeguarding money, providing loans, and determining risk and return? Or is there a future in which non-banking entities perform banking functions?

In discussing these questions, perhaps it’s worthwhile to distinguish between change and transformation. To me, change implies an increase or decrease over time of something while its nature remains constant. Money was first metal, then paper and now digital, but it’s still money. And today’s stock exchanges are in essence quite similar to those established centuries ago.

Transformation is different. It implies something essential changes and a new order emerges. A caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. A child transforming into an adult. Philips, as Hans de Jong so eloquently described it, transformed from a consumer tech company into a health tech one. Transformation takes time, vision and the courage to take tough decisions. And it is anything but easy to genuinely transform an organisation’s culture.

Having said that I wonder: is the banking industry changing or transforming? Perhaps both? I am sure this is something we can debate at our tables later on. For now, I would like to stress that transformation is not just an inspiring concept, but also a practical and operational process. People and organisations have a capacity to transform that can be nurtured. In today’s turbulent environment, banks would do well to evaluate this capacity. It could mean the difference between relevance and irrelevance.

Sums up the issue quite neatly indeed.

He then points to some lessons from the central bank on their work on pension funds:

DNB has conducted research into the capacity of pension funds to transform and we found several things I am sure apply to other industries.

For example, we found that leadership is key. Specifically, individual leaders with the capacity to identify changes in the landscape, develop best-case and worst-case scenarios and create a compelling vision. Also leaders who are able to develop a strategy around this vision and then execute it. The leadership team is of importance, too.

There needs to be openness, trust and diversity in terms of personalities and competences. We also found that pension funds need to be appropriately equipped.

They need to be agile, have an up-to-date IT infrastructure, have sufficient budget and task the right people with the transformation process. And pension funds need to have their house in order. For unless everything runs smoothly, the organisation will focus its attention on managing the present rather than designing the future.

Finally, we found that pension funds need to be proactive. If they wait until the environment forces them to change, they are at risk. Instead, they should proactively adapt. Some pension funds began to transition from a defined benefit to a defined contribution system years ago and they are now in a good shape. Those who haven’t, are struggling to adjust to changing realities. So transformation is a process that can be managed. But the process needs to lead to something. Transformation is a means, not an end. So what is or should be the end result of a bank or the whole banking industry transforming?

He says organisations should have a well-defined purpose (vision/mission?) and work towards their purpose. Netherlands central bank purpose is financial stability (as monetary function in hands of ECB):

De Nederlandsche Bank believes in the value of having a purpose and we cherish ours. We are in this world to contribute to the sustainable welfare of the Netherlands by promoting financial stability. Through this, we also contribute to the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals. This inspires us and guides us in relating to our stakeholders. And it seems we are not alone in this. Last December, the Dutch Banking Association published a report in which it explored how banks can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. I wholeheartedly encourage such explorations.

Many issues simplified..

Central Banks are served by club of elite PhD economists and suffers from groupstink…

February 10, 2017

A former Dallas Fed employee has written a stinker of a book accusing Federal Reserve (applies to most central banks) for all kinds of things. The book is titled as: Fed Up:  An Insider’s Take on Why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America.

The WSJ article provides a glimpse:

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Predicting human behaviour is legal, predicting machines is not?

February 9, 2017

Prof JR Varma of IIMA has a food for thought post.

He points to casinos saying they look for whatever possible ways to predict human behaviour and make you gamble more and more (and lose). However, any person who looks to predict these machines and play the game is deemed as illegal. Why?

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How storytelling drives finance and economics…

February 6, 2017

Brendan Markey-Towler who is an Industry Research Fellow at The University of Queensland has a nice piece.

He says whatever the model and its logic, finally it is the story which leads people to invest in markets:

In his recent presidential address to the American Economic Association, Nobel Laureate Bob Shiller drew attention to the importance of narratives in economics and, particularly, in financial markets. This corroborates some recent research by the author and colleagues at the University of Queensland into the psychology of economic behaviour.

When we tell ourselves stories, we link up a number of different events into a coherent whole. In financial markets and across the economy as a whole, these stories not only affect expectations but are expectations. And expectations shape behaviour.

Our research shows that the more simple a story, the more it extends and agrees with preconceptions, the more persuasive it is. A good story becomes embedded in investors’ minds; the story becomes the expectation.

If a narrative embedded in the mind of an investor tells a positive story about, for instance, profitability, they will act on it. A positive story results in good news in the financial markets.

It is a pity that this building of narrative was once a major strength of economists. This is how they captured the imagination at the first place. Now it is all hopelessly lost.

Reviving PIMCO..

January 31, 2017

Nice Story of how Jackie Hunt is trying to revive PIMCO. PIMCO saw a shocking decline post exit of its star Bill Gross. Now the fund is slowly trying to come up once again:

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Betting on Nordic rain pays better than your average Hedge Fund

January 27, 2017

Jesper Starn of Bloomberg has a nice piece showing how Nordic electricity utilities gave better returns than hedge funds last year.

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Hedge-fund managers are buying air strips in New Zealand in case…

January 24, 2017

An interview of Rob Johndon, President of INET.

He says one indicator to look for is the elite anxiety which is rising . As a result, the top elites in US are buying private spaces in New Zealand and private planes to fly there:

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Legislating Instability: Adam Smith, Free Banking, and the Financial Crisis of 1772

January 20, 2017

This is the title of a book by Prof Tyler Goodspeed. A brief of the book is here.

The failure of Ayr Bank in 1772 was a turning point in financial history. It led to change in thinking of Adma Smith who till then favored banking free of government regulation. Thus, this event continues to inspire financial historians who look for different viewpoints to explain the crisis.

Prof Hugh Rockoff reviews the book and sums up:

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Financiers of Victorian England would marvel at our nativity about markets and economics

January 19, 2017

An old post written in Oct 2016 but really fascinating.

Andrew Odlyzko, Professor of Mathematics (?!) and an interdisciplinary researcher writes about Victorian Finance:

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What I learned from Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger?

January 19, 2017

Shane Parrish tries to answer the question.

We make a big deal of skills of investors and financiers but deep down it boils down to basic human qualities.

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How culture shapes conversations about money, financial abuses and respectful relationships…

January 17, 2017

This is a part of economics/finance which is least studied but is important. Who controls financial purses (the male or female) in a household and why? Most of the time why is related to the cultural practices.

Prof Supriya Singh (Sociology in RMIT University) shares her recent research with a colleague on the topic. She looks at two cultures in Australia – Anglo Celtic and Indians:

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Will Brexit change history of financial centres?

January 5, 2017

There is just so much of financial history here.

Earlier talks of financial centre moving from London were dismissed. But now talks seem to be picking up pace and steam.

Paris is meeting London based bankers to shift base to French capital:

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British bank branch network decimated with move to mobile…

December 15, 2016

Chris Skinner points to a report which shows nearly 1000 bank branches (10% of total branch network) have closed down in 2 years. Reason? People have moved to mobile banking:

Building on yesterday’s news, the consumer research organisation Which? just released a report with a whole bunch of stats on UK bank branch closures.  Over 1,000 branches have closed in the last two years, with HSBC being most aggressive, shutting over 27% of their network.

A total of 1,046 branches – equivalent to 11%  of the total UK bank branch network – closed between January 2015 and January 2017, with rural areas affected the worst.  As the map below shows, it’s particularly bad if you’re in Scotland, Wales, Devon and Cornwall.

HSBC claim they can be this aggressive because footfall has reduced by 40% in their branch network as more and more people are online.  However, 20 million people don’t use online services and many of these people are in the areas where the most aggressive closures are taking place, as in rural villages with limited access to broadband services.

Tut, tut.  The British Bankers Association are updating their guidelines about how banks close branches.  Meanwhile, as can be seen, most rural users are moving towards mobile banking.

This is interesting. 1000 branches in 2 years is a big number (needs to be verified). One would also be interested in the job losses due to closure of so many branches.

I hope Indian authorities are looking/aware of this aspect as well while making rapid strides against everything digital.

The Swiss private bankers should be a model for bankers everywhere (and the lost Indian ones)…

November 30, 2016

Mention Swiss banking and we either have the image of them as hiding wealth of uber rich across the world or the UBses of the world. But the region also has a much lower profile and glamorous set of bankers called Swiss Private bankers.  They are these century old bankers which have held the principles of banking for a long time.

Marcia Christoff-Kurapovna writes about these bankers:

The strong showing in banking stocks may show some optimism following the presidential election victory of Donald Trump. But, a healthy future for US banking will only take root if that industry comes to terms with the original purpose for which banking was intended — wealth management. As such, the great American bank in generations to come will not be of the calamitous Wells Fargo or Bank of America type — or even Facebook’s Electronic Money Institution license or Google’s Mobile Wallet. The most solid banks will be remakes of that timeless classic, the Swiss private banker. It is this “back to the future” philosophy of banking, already prevalent in some of the past decade’s best performing and least known banks in the US, that must become predominant if that sector is to remain resilient……

The focus instead must be on the cultivation of localized, community-centered but nationally ambitious banks that one rarely reads about amid the stories of pointless bail-outs, fake-account scandals, ZIRP, and robo-trading. Superbly managed and often family-owned, these banks profited throughout the post-crisis period, enduring regulatory mayhem, Fed mission-creep, and the rise of ‘alternative banking” fintech and mobile-app technologies. They did it by sticking to sound fiscal fundamentals and never underestimating the “psychological” preference on the part of the public for sturdy institutions whose owners or managers are members or descendants of that founding banking family itself. Though PriceWaterhouseCoopers gloomily predicted that traditional banking would not survive beyond 2025, it is precisely highly successful banks like Beal Bank of Dallas, Texas, or the 100 year-old Bank of Fayette County in Tennessee, that will be the only banks to survive the next decades and beyond.

These Private Bankers are not Private banks:

To understand the real next-generation banking, let us look to the forefather role model that embodies the very best of ultra-traditional banking principles: Switzerland’s national legend, the unlimited liability banquier.No American bank, including the two examples mentioned above, follow this ‘severe’ Swiss model. Still, such Geneva, Zürich, and Basel-based aristocratic workhorses in the art of wealth management and no-frills (not even on-line) banking are the kinds of institutions where money still means gold and Ms. Yellen’s machinations an amusing, yet comfortably distant, American curiosity.

First off, a nuance of definition. The expression is “Swiss private banker,” and not “private bank,” or “private banking.” This first refers to a very specific institution, defined by 1934 Swiss law and, as an expression (“Swiss private banker”), is a registered trademark. These are not UBS- or Credit Suisse-type banks (which are, for all intents and purposes, American banks), nor simply lesser-known tax-evasion vehicles shrouded in glamorous secrecy. Instead, the term refers to a narrowly defined privileged few “houses,” often centuries old and almost always still family owned, that, by law, must adhere to unheard-of (on these shores) personal liability among their partners and high reserve requirements, among other standards. Indeed, in the last three years alone, the number of these banks has dwindled from twelve to six, as pressures from the global economic crisis forced several of them into limited liability companies. 

They are in a class of their own, synonymous with unbounded responsibility. The six remaining are: Baumann et Cie.; Bordier et Cie.; E. Gutzwiller et Cie; Mouge d’Algue et Cie; Rahn & Bodner; and Reichmuth & Co. “Private bankers” as these are: (1) exclusively organized in the legal form of a partnership or limited partnership; (2) run by partners who are usually family descendants of the banks’ founders; (3) invest their own capital in their banks and maintain high cash reserve ratios; (4) defined by a special private-banker status that is dependent upon the presence within management of one or several partners with unlimited liability for investment obligations. This last is their greatest distinction. Other Swiss banks offer wealth management services but their maximum liability is confined to equity capital. With private bankers, liability is not solely limited to the company equity, but partners are additionally liable with their private assets.

Thus, their primary duty is to their clients, to their own families, and to their own vested responsibilities — a quaint notion these days, to be sure. They are run by a flat management structure; decision-making chains are short; they do not develop their own products and are therefore not subject to any conflicts of interest in investment advice. Investments must be tradable and liquid at all times; bankers can’t act as brokers and they are not on-line banks. They are not allowed to sell their own instruments, tend not to invest in global real estate, and, as mentioned before, have strict rules on reserves.

India too had these bankers which were called as indigenous bankers. They were called as Shroffs, Multanis, Marwaris, Chettiars and so on. But they have all disappeared from the mainstream banking scene. They were mostly given bad names by the media and experts alike failing to look at how some of them actually excelled in banking for many years and even centuries. Some of them like Chettiars in Madras even used their banking skills  to form joint stock banks like Indian Bank, Indian Overseas Bank, Karur Vysya Bank and Laxmi Vilas Bank and so on.

There was this tiff between the Government/RBI and Indian Private Bankers. The former wanted them to be regulated as per banking regulations which latter refused as they found the regulations highly restrictive and so on. Till the 1970s there were efforts between the two but now we hardly hear about them.

Many mistrust banks, but why you mistrust banks says a lot

November 15, 2016

Erica Vause, Assistant Professor of history at Florida Southern College writes on this dilemma on banking. Banks run on trust but remain on of the mistrusted organisations. Why is this so?

Since the early 19th century, banks have thrived, and are foundational to modern economic life. Yet the ambivalence surrounding them has not dissipated. Over the course of the 19th century, the ideal of the independent property-owner, upheld by the classical republicans, gradually faded. Instead, factory labour became the ideal form of ‘real’ value, beside which finance seemed dubious and fictional. The heroes of many 19th-century novels, such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855) and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875), preferred the ‘real’ work done in factories to the ‘fictional’ and often dangerous fortunes to be reaped from financial speculation.

Viewed in light of this long history, present-day distrust of banks, so salient since 2008, appear less as novel reactions to our changing times than as the latest chapter in the long-running paradox of trust and credit. On a day-to-day basis, most of us trust banks well enough. We’d prefer to deposit our money in a bank account than, say, stuff it in a mattress. Yet no single capitalist institution compares with the bank in terms of the sheer amount of unease and antipathy it engenders. Polls show that a mere 18 per cent of Americans trusted banks in 2010. The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer, a yearly survey of attitudes across 27 industrialised nations, indicated that, among major industries, only the media is less trusted than banking and finance.

Suspicion of banks today traverses the political spectrum. Different political viewpoints tend to linger on different aspects of the original critiques of the banks. The Left sees finance as integrally connected with a parasitic elite of largely idle profiteers. Much like the classical republicans of yesterday, they see banks as guilty of fabricating fictitious value and avoiding ‘real’ work. The Right portrays banking as a threat to personal or national sovereignty. They evoke the classical republicans’ anxiety about banking and despotism. In the United States, for example, conservative commentators such as Glenn Beck and Ron Paul have not only charged the Federal Reserve with causing inflations and depressions, but denounced it as an instrument of tyranny. Outside mainstream discourse, conspiracy theories about the banks are often tinged with anti-Semitism. Try searching for ‘banking’ on YouTube. In these conspiracy theories, rumours such as the one about the Rothschilds and Waterloo thrive.

No institution more clearly relies on trust than the bank. That is precisely what makes banks a lightning rod for suspicion. From the time modern banking emerged, it has been the subject of intense misgivings. Many of these suspicions are with us still. How and why one mistrusts banks, however, tells us a lot about the way one sees the world politically.

This is all very interesting aspects of banking and finance.

Given what is going on in India at the moment, it is not difficult to see rise in mistrust in banks.  Earlier they impacted lives of the big and mighty, now they impact life of one and all.