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José Ramón Pin , Professor, IESE, University of Navarra

Is your banker reliable?

Thu, 22 Apr 2010 14:00:35 +0000 Published in El Economista (Madrid)

Goldman Sachs was reported by the SEC last week for concealing material information in a CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations) issue whose clients lost 1 billion euros. Why would a prestigious institution do this?

It seems impossible that Goldman and its professional experts could have had an oversight and it is difficult that they were unaware of the risks they would incur if the omission of information was discovered. It was surely the feeling of impunity, together with the greed of its managers, that drove the decision.

The feeling of impunity goes hand in hand with arrogance. The perpetrators of these blunders believe themselves to be the most expert; they hide behind technical complexity. The arcane financial calculations and the halo of magicians give them the feeling of superior beings whom ordinary mortals will not dare to bother with suspicions and inquisitions. Consequently, they make their clients take reckless risks, confident that nothing will happen to them.

Investment bank managers earn such a high income that they are compensated for the risk. They do not pay the fines suffered by the entities they manage and have complex insurances to cover themselves. In case of criminal risk, the only one that is not insurable, the possible years of imprisonment are very profitable.

It is the combination of imprudence and avarice that produces the worst of corruptions: the one that brings with it pride. Aristotle already knew enough about human beings to know that human coexistence is not possible without the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance; especially in the world of finance.

How can you be sure that your investment banker has them? Look for temperance and its partners: austerity, humility and, especially, discretion; if your banker doesn't exercise them, don't trust him. Admire famous artists, but shy away from media bankers.