After years of an active revolving door between banks and their government regulators, their friends in high places are deserting them. Plain talk and sharp criticism are replacing what The New York Times referred to as “a general willingness to assume that everything was fine.”
Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, noted that “The industry still prizes short-term profit over long-term prudence, today’s bonus over tomorrow’s relationship.” Ms. Lagarde added that “the true role of the financial sector is to serve, not to rule, the economy. Its real job is to benefit people, especially by financing investment and thus helping with the creation of jobs and growth.”
At the heart of the new critical spirit by the regulators is a belief that banks are not, in and of themselves, necessarily good things. “In the run-up to the crisis,” Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, said, “banking became about banks not businesses; transactions not relations; counterparties not clients. New instruments originally designed to meet the credit and hedging needs of businesses quickly morphed into ways to amplify bets on financial outcomes.”
These are not new or even original thoughts. But it is highly unusual to hear top government and banking officials speaking them. Mr. Carney spent 13 years at Goldman Sachs before entering public service, while Ms. Lagarde is a former corporate lawyer who served as the French Minister of Finance.
According to Floyd Norris, the chief business reporter for The Times: “An international survey of the public conducted in 27 countries late last year . . . found widespread doubt about whether either business or political leaders could be trusted to act ethically. There was general agreement that there was still not enough regulation of financial institutions.”
What the banks delivered, Ms. Lagarde said, was “excess, in risk-taking, leverage, opacity, complexity and compensation.” And that “led to massive destruction of value.”
The big banks still have powerful friends in Washington, at least in Congress, legislators they have helped to elect, and who have supported them in their efforts to evade regulation. But public opinion is deserting them. In the United States, 45 percent said there was not enough regulation, compared with 24 percent who thought there was too much, and just 18 percent who thought there was just enough, according to the survey conducted for . . . a public relations firm. (See, “After Crisis, A New Spirit of Reining in the Banks.”)
The Times made a slight effort at rebalancing the picture by publishing an account of a mid-level bank executive over the weekend who appears to have had a gratifying career, actually doing useful things without being lavishly compensated. (See, “There’s Nothing Wrong With Being a Banker.”) Then he left banking.
Is that supposed to reassure us that not all bankers are “vampire squids” or irremediably corrupt? Or to remind us that much of banking still serves a useful function? Perhaps the point was that bankers don’t need to make an obscene amount of money to be motivated to do a decent job?
Perhaps The Times thought we needed to be reminded that not all banks and bankers are big or bad — because it certainly is coming to seem so.