Reflections, 10 Years On

by Dr Eve Poole

Posted: 30 Aug 2017

When I reflect on the years since the Credit Crunch, my main emotion is one of disappointment. Earlier in my career, I spent four extraordinary years working alongside a variety of financial institutions during my tenure at Deloitte at the turn of the millennium, where I had come both to understand and to appreciate them. My positive experience led me to embark on a PhD about capitalism and theology, because I sensed that the market needed reform. My concern was that any crisis that arose would just lead to a banker-bashing backlash that would not do justice to the good people I had met in the sector. Yet it seemed to me that we needed to find a fairer system.

The Credit Crunch happened, I allowed myself to feel smug about being poised to publish a book about market reform, and I waited for my friends in banking to do the right thing. I felt confident that they would; that they would lead a process of reform before even the politicians or the regulator had time to name their own terms. That was what normally happened, and I had seen the process work well from my curious vantage point within the Church Commissioners in the face of the property crash early in the 1990s. Self-regulation is primarily defensive, to avoid worse treatment at the hands of outsiders, so I just assumed it was a matter of risk and that the Boards would see it that way too.

But no. Nothing that I could see. Perhaps it is true that processes are different now and that cultures have invisibly transformed. But it has not been public enough. And because of that, something enormously tragic has happened.

Banking never used to be the number 1 destination for graduates. Then it became the only game in town, and the source of eye-watering riches. But at the same time, it became about computers, algorithms and modelling, and this is the essence of the unfolding tragedy. Because if after the credit crunch the banking community had shown their humanity, they would have shown us that we need them: that we need real people with virtue and emotions and judgement and honour. But when people behave just like machines, we can't wait to have the machines take over, because at least then we'd know where we stood, and we wouldn't expect better.

Public rage is never pretty. And the simmering resentment that started 10 years ago continues. The trust has gone. As soon as there are credible alternatives, most of the banks will simply cease to be. They have no public licence to operate any more. Perhaps those few who have genuinely tried to do the right thing may survive and thrive, if they can escape the contagion, but they will be unusual.

And the saddest thing is that this slow demise was avoidable, through good old-fashioned remorse and reparation; through apologies and resignations; through serious charity and deep community engagement. Again, perhaps this did happen, but too privately for it to make the necessary impact. One of the reasons that Machiavelli's The Prince has always made people feel morally queasy is because of his belief that reputation can be wholly separated from actuality, and that reputation is more important than reality because it has the greater impact. His point about perception is well-made. Whether or not the banks have changed is now a moot point: what they have failed to do is convince the general public that they have, and that is why I feel sad.


About this author

Dr Eve Poole is a Lecturer at Ashridge Business School, where she teaches leadership and ethics.

Disclaimer

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.