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Jesús Ignacio Ferrero Muñoz, , Professor of Business Ethics

Can we continue to trust the financial sector?

Mon, 05 May 2014 10:22:00 +0000 Published in The World

The Greeks, those of classical Greece, affirmed that crises were processes of rupture or separation, which offered an extraordinary opportunity to think critically about the causes of that collapse and to learn for the future. That is why one of the etymological meanings of the word "crisis" is judgment, reflection. There is no doubt that the financial crisis, which has degenerated into a global recession, offers us an ideal scenario to learn from experience and improve, not only to avoid making the same mistakes again, but also to seek excellent behavior. Well processed, crises can be of great help financial aid.

But how can we learn from a phenomenon as complex and articulated as the current crisis? The causes that have led to this cataclysm are multiple and intertwined, the agents involved have been numerous, and the failures very dispersed and excessive. The list must necessarily be incomplete, but we must not forget the monetary authorities with their expansive and contractionary policies; the regulatory and supervisory bodies that acted with little diligence; the financial engineers who created mortgage-backed securities and other highly complex products without a proper analysis of their possible consequences; the rating agencies that, at least, lacked professionalism; the debtors who allowed levels of indebtedness that were difficult to bear; the real estate companies that did not calculate the risks of the current crisis; and the real estate companies that did not calculate the risks of the current crisis; the real estate companies that did not properly calculate the risks they were taking; the security agencies that forgot their role as guarantors; and above all, the banks, both commercial and investment banks - the abolition of the Glass Steagall Act has put them on a similar footing - that granted mortgages and loans without assessing the risk, which they also securitized to get them off their balance sheets and avoid the regulatory limits; etc.

Despite this amalgam of agents and causes, there is a general consensus on the decisive role played by greed in the gestation and development of the crisis.

Greed is not far from ambition, but this distance is essential. While ambition is a vehement desire to achieve something, greed becomes an immoderate desire that has no regard for the legitimacy of the means. It seems evident that ambition has helped mankind to overcome obstacles to improve living conditions, expand knowledge, develop science, Education, health, housing, etc. But from ambition to greed there is a small step, and it has happened too many times throughout history. It is precisely to prevent this that the law exists, but neither the current wave of deregulation nor the lack of diligence on the part of auditors and control agencies have helped. 

Greed has thus become the fuel that has fed a very powerful engine designed by the conditions of the financial market - ease of obtaining credit at very low interest rates, exponential growth of very sophisticated financial products, extreme mobility of money - which has provoked a crazy degree program at full speed focused on the very short deadline, in which almost all of us have participated, driven by the general disorder, generating levels of speculation and leverage never seen before.

If greed has been the virus that has ended up causing the crisis to explode - etymologically it also means the culminating moment of a disease -, the way to correct it will be to inject the antidote into the system. This is none other than the virtue of prudence, accompanied by temperance, justice and fortitude, at final, a good dose of virtue ethics.

Prudence is the essential virtue of the manager, since financial aid to make the right decisions, looking at what for and how, moderating ambition so that it does not degenerate into greed, attending to justice in commercial relations both by complying with the law and providing the client with truthful and relevant information for good decision making, and being strong to focus on the client in the case of conflicts of interest. This is especially important in a market where decisions are made with other people's money.

To the question of whether we can continue to trust the financial sector, the answer is yes, because a refusal would be like denying trust in people, and that would be the ruin of society, but calling for virtuous, prudent managers and agents who generate trust, who pay attention to the why but also to the how, and without forgetting that we are all also part of the financial system and that our own prudence will help to generate prudent behavior in others, and thus we will all learn from this crisis.