Friday, November 29, 2013

“be first, be smarter, or cheat”

In the movie Margin Call, which “[f]ollows the key people at an investment bank, over a 24-hour period, during the early stages of the financial crisis,” one of the main characters says: “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.”  Given that only a few folks will be first or smarter, it may not be surprising that a “new report finds 53% of financial services executives say that adhering to ethical standards inhibits career progression at their firm.”  In a piece over at The Guardian, Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street trader describes why.  What follows is an excerpt from that piece, but you should go read the whole thing here.

After a few years on Wall Street it was clear to me: you could make money by gaming anyone and everything. The more clever you were, the more ingenious your ability to exploit a flaw in a law or regulation, the more lauded and celebrated you became. Nobody seemed to be getting called out. No move was too audacious. It was like driving past the speed limit at 79 MPH, and watching others pass by at 100, or 110, and never seeing anyone pulled over. Wall Street did nod and wave politely to regulators’ attempts to slow things down. Every employee had to complete a yearly compliance training, where he was updated on things like money laundering, collusion, insider trading, and selling our customers only financial products that were suitable to them. By the early 2000s that compliance training had descended into a once-a-year farce, designed to literally just check a box….

As Wall Street grew, fueled by that unchecked culture of risk taking, traders got more and more audacious, and corruption became more and more diffused through the system. By 2006 you could open up almost any major business, look at its inside workings, and find some wrongdoing. After the crash of 2008, regulators finally did exactly that. What has resulted is a wave of scandals with odd names; LIBOR fixing, FX collusion, ISDA Fix. To outsiders they sound like complex acronyms that occupy the darkest corners of Wall Street, easily dismissed as anomalies. They are not. LIBOR, FX, ISDA Fix are at the very center of finance ….

[So,] where is the real responsibility? … [T]he people who really should be held accountable have not. They are the bosses, the managers and CEOs of the businesses. They set the standard, they shaped the culture…. The managers knew what was going on. Ask anyone who works at a bank and they will tell you that. The excuse we have long accepted is ignorance: that these leaders couldn't have known what was happening. That doesn't suffice. If they didn't know, it's an even larger sin.

Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink


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