Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why the culture of the financial sector has to change

I want to say a little about business and cultural norms in the financial sector, how they affect tangible outcomes we all care about, and why they need to change. Norms are inherently less tangible than items on balance sheets, so it can be hard to see the role they play. I want to focus on norms in the financial sector, but to bring them out of the background I’ll start with a comparison to another field.

Doctors and bankers are alike in that they can inflict enormous damage by doing a bad job, doctors with a flick of the scalpel, bankers with a click of the mouse. Both are therefore subject to regulation which tries to trade-off costs of enforcement against risk of damage. But there’s a huge difference in the way doctors and bankers view their work.

Doctors, for the most part, care very deeply about the social impact of their work. Their ethos is one of wanting to do a good job for its own sake. Some make a lot of money, others do well but are not super-rich (this is the typical case in Europe), but from day one at medical school, the ethos is pretty evident. In contrast, bankers tend not to care - or sometimes even think about - the social impact of their work. It is very clearly a fundamentally different ethos. I do not want to idealize doctors - there are clearly some real exceptions - but only to put bankers alongside them to bring out some of the differences in culture.

You can see this difference in culture play out on the supply side of the labour market. Doctors are usually smart, hard-working people who could do well in other areas, but in most countries they have to go through a very long and genuinely tough training phase before they earn really good money (and in many countries the money isn’t even that great). Yet this doesn’t seem to deter applicants: medical schools can almost everywhere afford to be highly selective. This is because medical school applicants are, for the most part, people who actually want to make ill people better: that is, they have a sense of mission. In some sense, the “delayed gratification” acts as a filter: if you don’t care about the mission, you’ll find it hard to make it through to the latter, more lucrative stage of the medical career.

It’s not just medicine where there is a sense of mission, an ethos in which substantive social impact means something. Think of engineers, teachers, technology innovators. People who start tech firms want to get rich, sure (who doesn’t?) but a big part of their motivation is a desire to develop products that are widely used and make things better for people. (In open source you have the extreme case of people – often highly skilled – who care mostly about impact, not earnings.) Analogous to the delayed gratification in medicine is the high risk and opportunity cost of getting involved in a start up. If you’re finishing CS grad school, and have a bright idea, at that point in time it’s by no means clear that pursuing it will make you a millionaire. Yet to chase the dream you may have to pass up on other opportunities (e.g. a steady job). It’s a high risk, high reward choice. Note also that in technology (as in music or sports) a long-running passion for the job is almost a pre-requisite for doing well; in this sense the opportunity costs kick in as early as high school, or even primary school.

In fact, if you look across the economy, it’s hard to find another line of work that offers high rewards as quickly and with as little risk as finance. If delayed rewards in medicine and high risk in technology act as a filter, selecting the passionate over the merely greedy, the quick riches and relatively low risk of finance perhaps act in the opposite manner, selecting for people who simply want to become wealthy as quickly as possible. This view certainly accords with anecdotal evidence. Entrants into finance are often very smart and ambitious, but I would argue that many do not really care very much about anything other than making money and certain positional concerns (i.e. doing well relative to their peers). This is a stark contrast with most other “elite” fields, where money and rank matter, but so does mission.

We can extend this analysis in time and across people by looking at how norms evolve in groups. When groups of like-minded people get together, they tend to reinforce their initial views. So if you like science at high school, four years with like-minded peers at Caltech may take your passion to another level. This effect of reinforcement by clustering can work for good or evil: it helps us all to put wannabe tech innovators together in CS departments and places like Silicon Valley, because they spur each other on in mostly a good way. But it can work against us too: think of criminal gangs, or extremist political groups.

My feeling is that at present because finance offers high rewards with low risk but does not emphasize social value, it attracts a disproportionate number of people who are smart and competitive but who lack a real mission. Note that I am not saying financial activity does not or cannot have social value, only that at present this is not something that is very much emphasized or thought about in the sector.

Norms are intangible, but they have very tangible economic consequences. Enforcement alone is a costly and crude tool: if you had to police everyone all the time, many activities would no longer be wealth creating, net of enforcement costs. In this sense, productivity is a function of both norms and enforcement: if you have good norms, you can get away with less enforcement, but if you have bad norms, you’re better off with strong enforcement (but will do less well overall). The upshot of this is that improved norms can have enormous benefits in terms of concrete wealth creation.

Even a year ago, I think many outside the financial sector (and not a few inside it) would have recognized at least a kernel of truth in this analysis of its norms and ethos. But norms being as intangible as they are, any concerns would not have made it as far as impacting policy. But the events of the last few months have shown us that we ignore bad norms at our peril.

We are in a situation where bad norms in one systemically important sector have brought us almost to the brink. A short-term analysis of the crisis has to take bad norms as given, and construct tough regulation and enforcement regimes which keep the system stable despite its poor ethos. But such stability comes at a price. First, the level of enforcement required for stability will be difficult to achieve and sustain. Second, if the mindset of the sector does not change it will only be a matter of time before enforcement is undermined, by regulatory capture, lobbying, corruption etc. Only a change of norms can reduce this tension, by re-aligning the motives of agents in the financial sector and the society that they supposedly serve. Changing norms is hard, but not impossible. Now is the time to start.


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