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Value and Values: Where the Problems Lie

by The Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy

Posted: 07 Nov 2011

 In general conversation, the outcome of asking one question is almost always the wish to ask another. The more interested we are in the person we are talking to or the more complex the area we are enquiring about, so that desire will grow.

St Paul's Institute's survey of 515 professionals working in the Financial Services sector in London, shows that the truth which applies to conversation applies equally to the results of opinion polling. The outcome in almost all areas of the survey is the wish to know more. Such frustration is unavoidable given the nature of an on-line poll but it should not detract from the much greater value of bringing such important issues to our attention and whetting our appetites.

Commissioned to coincide with the 25th Anniversary of the deregulation in the City known as Big Bang, the poll provides a fascinating insight into the attitudes and understandings of people currently working in the financial services sector. If those who claim that a market is no more ethical or efficient than the people who participate in it are correct, then at a time when entire systems are being questioned, it is all the more valuable to learn about these very participants.

One of the most helpful aspects of the survey is that it offers a manageable amount of information rather than swamping us with too much. This makes it easier to reflect on what can be learnt and will no doubt allow the survey to speak to people in a variety of different ways.

Three particular areas struck me:

First, the lack of interest in financial services history. Whether it is an ignorance of the Stock Exchange's motto, 'My word is my bond', a misunderstanding of the nature of Big Bang or uncertainty about past economic recessions, the overriding impression is of people absorbed by the present. It is hard not to think that there is a link between such apparent lack of awareness of the past and the short-term thinking that seems to be such a weakness of current practice.

However, we should not necessarily conclude that lessons in economic history would help cure some of the failings of the system. Those with experience of past banking crises and especially students of economic history are curiously accepting of the frequency of their occurrence. A visit to the IMF website which identifies 125 systemic banking crises in 95 countries between 1975 and 2007 suggests that participants in the banking system are reluctant learners from the past, even when they have an awareness of it!

A second area the research highlights is the difficulty of accepting where responsibility actually lies. A majority of financial service professionals think that bankers, lawyers, bond traders, FTSE Chief Executives and stock brokers are paid too much and 75% of the survey agreed that the gap between rich and poor is too great. Add to this the finding that 51% think deregulation has resulted in less ethical behaviour and we get a clear sense of a system that is not at ease with itself.

Yet interestingly participants reveal strongly (82%) positive views about the high ethical standards their own companies maintain, which standards are broadly aligned with personal standards of morality. Add to this that ethical behaviour is discussed and incentivised and that a small (58%) majority think companies should invest directly in deprived communities and you get a sense of a system that is at ease with itself.

By unearthing these attitudes and allowing us to place them alongside each other, the survey shows a familiar human trait; recognition that there is a problem but resistance to thinking that we ourselves might be part of it. No wonder we would have liked the survey to ask supplementary questions.

Thirdly, the place of the church. It should not be a surprise that 76% of the survey disagreed with the statement that the 'City of London needs to listen more to the guidance of the church'. In part the statement may have been too bald, but the outcome suggests that if the church is to have a voice it will have to earn the right to be heard and certainly not assume it. Listening and conversation must precede any comment.

Having said this, the roots of such a negative attitude to the church's involvement are laid bare in the survey. The dual convictions that 'my company maintains high ethical standards' and the feeling that 'the financial services sector is not valued for the role it plays in the wider UK economy' suggests plenty of scope for misunderstanding - from both the participants in the system and the observers outside it who may or may not be making helpful suggestions.

So where does the survey leave those of us who believe that the church does have a contribution to make to the debate about the great financial issues of today?

The statement that 'The return to shareholders should be the top priority in business decisions' received only 54% agreement, whilst 39% disagreed or strongly disagreed with it. For me these were the most illuminating responses of the whole survey. The need to maximise returns is a mantra so frequently trotted out for both businesses and charities, that I was surprised that the numbers of those agreeing with it were not much, much higher.

Once again I long to ask a supplementary question - if only 54% think that returns to shareholders is not the top priority, it begs the question what else might be. In other words this part of the survey suggests that there is room to ask fundamental questions about what business decisions are actually for.

Such a discussion is one to which the church should be equipped to contribute. For it is a debate about values and purpose and allows a conversation from a bigger perspective than the short term with which many participants in the financial services are so immediately absorbed.

Furthermore to ask of any activity, 'What are you for?' is subversive, for it assumes nothing. In this way such a question can also be a necessary part in the dethroning of a system or set of values and thereby prevent it from becoming an idol.

For all of us, financial service professionals or not, who have been beholden to the power and influence of money far more than we might care to acknowledge, the conversation about what money is actually for has taken on considerable urgency in the past three years. This survey suggests that the church's role in such a conversation of principle might be welcomed by more people than we realise.

About this author

Revd. Andrew Studdert-Kennedy is Rural Dean and Team Rector of Marlborough.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.