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But it's the money that is the ethical issue, Mr Jenkins

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 19 Mar 2014

St Paul's Cathedral full is quite a sight whatever the nature of the event; when it's for a discussion about 'Good Banks' it represents a sign that something important is happening in the churches in the interest they are showing in the economy. When as last June it brings together the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Executive of Barclays, Antony Jenkins in conversation with John Fingleton, the former Chief Executive of the Office of Fair Trading, and Laura Willoughby, the CEO of Move Your Money then you start to wonder if some of the concerns of the churches are at last being registered where it matters most, in the boardrooms of our major banks and financial sector corporations.

Antony Jenkins had gone to a good deal of trouble over his presentation, and spoke persuasively of his conviction that the ethos of his bank needed to change, that the change needed to be pervasive - you might call it a change of culture, since that's the vogue word for what corporations are telling us they are seeking to achieve - and that he was determined to bring that change about.

Of course, we might reflect - and some of us did on the night - that he certainly needs to. What has gone on at Barclays, not least in terms of rate-fixing, may have been - just - on the right side of the boundary between criminality and lawfulness; but most 'ordinary' people would think there was no doubt that what happened was very much the wrong side of the line as far as morality is concerned. It's hardly likely that anybody much will place trust in Barclays if they don't succeed in cleaning out their stable, and the culture to which Antony Jenkins aspires is without question the minimum needed to regain trust - and that's only if it is a basis for action and not mere words.

What is more, there will have to be some sense that the words and the actions get somewhere near to the heart of the matter. It is important, of course, that far more transparent forms of accountability are put in place, alongside clear statements of what the policies are that will be counted as acceptable in the organisation. It is important as well to give some sense that longer term aims are being given priority over successes in the financial market place.

Those things matter. But so does the character of the incentives that are used in the organisation to encourage staff to work successfully and in accordance with the company's new found virtuous ethos. And here lies the most significant requirement: when it comes to incentives the medium is the message.

And at the risk of exhibiting moral arrogance towards someone at the top of his profession we now have some evidence that Antony Jenkins doesn't take that point. On the night of the St Paul's event there was simply a disquieting sense that what he was saying was just too smooth to be true, and that if there was any abrasion between his point of view and the Archbishop's enough oil had been applied to eliminate most signs of friction.

But then in the early months of 2014 more disquieting evidence emerged that he wasn't going to let the message determine the medium. He appeared on Today in the context of Barclays' bonus announcement. No sign of repentance there. The bonuses were going to be massive - as before - and the money numbers were pretty eye-watering to most of the listeners. But not to him - large money numbers hold no terror for him. Immunity from eye watering in the face of sums of money with many noughts on the end is part of the person specification for a bank chief executive.

And the arguments hadn't changed either. "We have to pay these bonuses because other people do, and they are our competitors." "If we don't pay the rates that good people can command in the market we'll lose them and we won't be able to make a success of this business." Let's pass over the awkward question whether all these 'good' people were quite that good (given where they took us in 2008); let's also pass over the unexamined assumption about what 'goodness' is involved here. But the question remains, even if we pass over those two crucial questions, can he be unaware that it is precisely the lure of such financial rewards that brings people into the industry who have huge ambitions towards the making of money? Can that be good for the industry in the long term?

The people involved may be good in all sorts of ways - not least at home, with their children, and even, we may hope, in the communities they inhabit and sometimes in the philanthropic generosity they can display. But good people are no less vulnerable to being deflected from true ethical standards by the mesmerising effects of large numbers. And the real problem with money is that (if what the Christian faith says about it is true) it is extremely difficult to combine with a real willingness to prioritise the justice and hope that are the hallmarks of God's commonwealth.

The warning about the difficulty a camel faces confronted with the eye of a needle is not simply about 'spiritual wellbeing': it's about life in the real world, the real Barclays. If money in those quantities is what you use as your primary incentive, then money will remain as the primary measure of achievement. The medium is the message, Mr Jenkins. Your new ethical culture requires you to address the primacy of money. And that, I fear, you seem not to want to do.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.

Peter Morgan - Posted: 8 Apr 2014

You tell em Pete!


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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.