Greed unfettered by conscience reigns again

Five years ago, the US government and regulators allowed investment bank Lehman Brothers to collapse.  The bank was to be the example to the industry of what happens when greed and the pursuit of profit at all costs prevails.

Sadly, it appears they didn’t learn a thing. Greed unfettered by conscience remains the order of the day.

Investment banks exist to grease the wheels of the economic machine, bringing investors and businesses together. These servants of company development and economic growth, however, appear to have transformed themselves into the masters of the corporate universe.

Investment banks’ role is to arrange companies’ borrowing, issues of shares and conduct a lot of the share trading and broker merger and takeover activity. They put people with money together with people who want that money to invest in their business. This means they have a vested interest in promoting lots of activity, which is what generates their revenue. So it doesn’t matter whether a deal creates long-term social and economic problems or not, their only interest is deals being created. How else will they hit the targets that pay their gigantic bonuses?

Now the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer is going into bat for the financial services sector to protect their ‘right’ to receive uncapped bonuses. There is grave concern that the bonus cap may led to an increase in base pay and that top ‘talent’ may go to non-European competitors who don’t have to comply with the cap. To be clear, the bonus cap will only apply to those who earn more than €500,000 (~$AUD720,000) a year….so they are hardly on struggle street. But a pay packet of this size is not about being paid what someone is worth, it is a way of gaining status through a comparison with peers.

Perhaps a walk along struggle street might help the investment bankers reassess their views about the reward they need to carry on their work. It may also give them some perspective about the devastating impact of their sector’s behaviour and how long it takes to recover. Right now, More than 46 million Americans are living in poverty and the median household slipped, all thanks the hangover created by the global financial crisis. While job growth may by recovering in the richest country in the world, the jobs are in low paying sectors of retail and restaurants. Meanwhile, the stock markets are recovering and the bankers are getting their bonuses again.

Earlier this year, the investment banking industry was asked to explain why they charge institutional investors for access to the chief executives of their client companies, often without the companies even knowing. The investment banks don’t provide the money for anything, institutional investors on our behalf do. Institutional investors need to exercise their financial muscles to wrestle the investment bankers back into their role as servants.

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