Value and Values: Where the Problems Lie
by The Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy
Posted: 7 Nov 2011
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.