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A low rate of interest ­­— in ethics

19 July 2013

Outside pressure is needed to reform the City, argues James Jones


City protest: members of Occupy London outside the British Bankers Association HQ on 12 May last year

City protest: members of Occupy London outside the British Bankers Association HQ on 12 May last year

Commuting between London and Liverpool to make the series The Bishop and the Bankers for Radio 4 was like travelling between two universes.

I'm not talking about the usual north/south divide; for there is wealth in the north and poverty in the south - although the scale of it is different in each region. I'm referring to the mood music.

Walking the streets of the City of London, and the piazzas of Canary Wharf, there was little sense of a financial crisis. An air of prosperity swirls around the cranes that peck at the London skyline. Some bankers have lost their jobs, and others have seen their bonuses attacked, feeling the hand of public opinion reaching for the scruff of their necks.

But, listening to people from the banking world, it feels as if things have just been shaken up and are now settling down, admittedly amid a lot of questioning.

Meanwhile, in other cities such as Liverpool, we are struggling with drastic reductions in public spending, with food banks abounding. And here's the irony: food banks

Public money was used extra-vagantly to bail out the banks, with the result that there's little left in the pot to help the poor. But, of course, it's not as simple as that. If the banks had gone bust, then even more people would have been plunged into poverty. The banks have become too big to fail, and some feel that the bankers are too powerful to jail.

The world of finance is complex and, like the rest of society, made up of the good, the bad, and the greedy, and all shades in between. Banking is, of course, all about people.

One encounter I had during the recording of the series really stood out for me. A former worker on the Goldman Sachs mortgage desk told me that I was asking the wrong question when I wanted to know how traders could make sure they didn't lose sight of the personal stories behind their decisions.

He suggested that it was only by removing the human story that you could achieve the efficiencies of scale needed to allocate capital quickly, and meet the need for loans provision.

THERE has been a great deal of talk about immoral and greedy bankers since the financial crisis: people who were in it for themselves with little thought for others. But I am forced to ask whether the banking crisis was the moral failure of individuals or the fault of "the system".

The former head of RBS investment bank, Johnny Cameron, took me through a catalogue of failures that contributed to the crisis. Some of the failures were clearly the result of individual behaviour; others were less clear cut.

Where there were blatant cases of personal immorality and greed, there was also an environment that allowed people to get away with it.

I am interested in what makes some people prey to those temptations, and others able to resist them. The Archbishop of Canterbury, a former oil executive, spoke of not allowing himself to be shaped by a culture whose power he had found "rather frightening". But how long can "good people" remain good in such a culture?

People I spoke to said that they had received some training in regulation - but none in ethics. Questions have to be asked about why those two areas seemed so far removed from one another. The truth is that we need banks to create and distribute wealth, and not just to make money out of money for those working in the system.

THERE is talk in the City today of how to create a new banking culture.

One of those involved is Antony Jenkins, the new chief executive of Barclays. But Andre Spicer from Cass Business School says that it will be the bottom-up initiatives that bring about real change - both external pressure from the outside world and from bankers themselves at lower levels of the organisation. Even the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England has said that the Occupy movement has had a big impact.

It seems to me that the banking crisis held up a mirror to the rest of society, and raised fundamental questions about our values. But a crisis usually brings about change. The degree to which the world of finance changes will, in the end, reveal the severity of the crisis we have endured - until the next time.

The Rt Revd James Jones is the former Bishop of Liverpool. The Bishop and the Bankers is broadcast at 8 p.m. on BBC Radio 4 on 22 and 29 July and 5 August.

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