Why have so many well paid, highly educated men (and it is almost entirely men) working in financial services caught the disease of fraud and theft? There is manipulation of LIBOR and FX rates, alleged dubious dealings in derivatives, insider trading; even down to evasion of train fares. Is the infection caused by greed, hubris, poor leadership or a corrupting culture? What is to be done?
Financial services is one of the most heavily regulated, monitored and controlled environments. Yet, even allowing for the gross incompetence of the regulators, the level of wrongdoing is breath-taking. It is essential, for the survival of the already low levels of trust in financial services, that the infection of thievery and self-enrichment is tacked with the vigor of attacking an epidemic.
Are societal norms to blame? Over the last few years we have seen enormous growth in tax evasion, expense fiddling and influence peddling (and that is only the politicians). It is arguable that the environment among the well off and those who should be setting an example in society is that obedience to the rules, both the spirit and the letter is for the little people. Even when caught the response is often that nothing wrong has been done; it is the rules that are at fault or that the regulations are to be gamed to the highest extent to the advantage of the individual. In that context I guess that a little rate manipulation is seen as quite acceptable. Informal sub cultures have developed, despite all the regulatory training and people development: where criminal or near criminal behavior is not just acceptable but encouraged. The disease spreads tenaciously, secretively, hidden from the cleansing light of day until it is too late. Certainly Human Resources appear to have lacked any form of X-Ray vision to detect the wrongdoing not just at an early stage but at any stage at all.
The Epidemiological approach
It is time that an epidemiological approach to the problem is taken. Examination of the causes, spread, transmission and monitoring of the disease in the hope of finding a cure or eliminating the causes of this epidemic is necessary and timely. We have big data tools, masses of data, specific examples and outbreak centers’ – perhaps even a patient zero or two. Trying to kill the diseases by punishing the host (in this case by large fines on the banks paid for, ultimately by the shareholders) is akin to killing the dog in order to get rid of the fleas.
If we do not take the epidemiological approach now we risk simply driving the behavior underground making it harder to find and with even more painful consequences for the bank customers and the little people who always seem to carry the cost burden be it via higher taxes, austerity or erosion of personal wealth. This is the winter of our discontent, it is time to let lose the weapons of disease control before it turns in to a cancer that destroys the entire body of financial services.