With each financial scam/hoax/fraud, we hear people decry capitalists not acting as they once did — with honor and so forth. David Rhode has a new short piece for the Atlantic about this topic regarding the Libor scandal. In summary, bankers are behaving unethically and their lack of ethics hurts all of us. And I basically agree with that.
I do take issue, however, with the idea that somehow the past was better. Remember that time when Jay Gould tried to corner the gold market? Remember that time when rampant speculation and poorly regulated credit markets led to the Great Depression? (Oh yeah, did I mention that a bunch of financial wizards tried to overthrow the government?) The amorality of the S&L is on par with the amorality of today.
Capitalists have always pursued profit above all. That’s the point. It would be folly to expect them to do otherwise. That’s exactly why blunt, dumb regulations, rather than public scoldings, are needed to hold the line.
Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times. His forthcoming book, Beyond War: Technology, Economic Growth and American Influence in the New Middle East will be published in March 2013. More
– David Rohde is a columnist for
The Libor Scandal and Capitalism’s Moral Decay
Jul 13 2012, 2:45 PM ET
The scandal engulfing the financial industry is yet another sign that our business leaders no longer respect the rule of law.
Maybe the acronym at the heart of the scandal is too confusing. Or Americans are simply tired of hearing about greedy bankers. By any measure, though, the Libor bank scandal is an extraordinary example of the 1 percent stealing from the 99 percent – and our crumbling ethics.
If an organized crime group was accused of breaking into the Nassau County Treasurer’s Office on New York’s Long Island and stealing $13 million, outrage would be widespread. And if the same group was accused of stealing millions from the City of Baltimore and other struggling municipalities, they would emerge as an issue in the presidential campaign.
Instead, the Libor scandal is emerging in dribs and drabs and drawing little public attention. The middle class is being victimized, and there is little protest.
Last month, the British bank Barclays agreed to pay $453 million to American and British authorities to settle allegations that it manipulated key interest rates for profit between 2005 and 2009, specifically the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor. American and British investigators are now examining whether traders at a dozen other banks — including the “too-big-to-fail” U.S. banks JPMorgan, Citibank and Bank of America — also manipulated rates.
It is hard to overstate the impact of the Libor benchmark, which is used to value some $360 trillion in loans and financial contracts worldwide. It affects lending to governments, businesses and consumers, and even student loan and credit card rates.
So Barclays’ victims weren’t just other banks and traders. They included taxpayers in dozens of communities who are believed to have paid millions more in interest than they should have at the height of the financial crisis. Teachers and other public servants may have been laid off because of bankers’ pursuit of ever-higher profits.
Lawsuits filed by the City of Baltimore and dozens of other parties against Barclays, JP Morgan, Bank of America, Citibank and Deutsche Bank have been consolidated into a single case in a New York federal court. Banks are denying any wrongdoing, and the true scope of the losses — and the role of American banks — is expected to emerge in the complex legal battles ahead.
I do not believe all bankers are evil. I admire business owners who innovate, create jobs and strengthen communities. But theft — whether the perpetrator is clad in a business suit or blue jeans — is theft.
And let’s not kid ourselves. Our ethical decay stretches beyond Wall Street. It spans industries, political parties and groups. In April, systematic bribery by executives of the U.S.’s second-largest company – Walmart – was reported across Mexico. In June, American sports officials accused cyclist Lance Armstrong of engaging in a massive doping conspiracy. And Jesse Jackson Jr. appears to be the fifth member of Congress to be embroiled in an ethics scandal in two years.
Around the world, a globalized economy is creating planetary-sized profits — and relentless pressure. A May survey by Ernst & Young of 400 chief financial officers around the world found that a growing number of them were willing to pay bribes and falsify their firm’s financial performance to survive the financial downturn.
The number of chief financial officers who said they would engage in bribery to stay in business grew from 9 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2012. And the number who said they would misstate their company’s financial health to get though a downturn rose from 3 percent in 2011 to 5 percent in 2012.
“One of the most troubling findings of the survey is the widespread acceptance of unethical business practices,” Ernst & Young said in a statement. “It is particularly alarming that respondents are increasingly willing to make cash payments.”
Corporate boards and other overseers, meanwhile, appear to be looking the other way. Eighty-one percent of those surveyed worldwide by Ernst & Young said anti-bribery and anti-corruption codes of conduct were in place in their companies. But nearly half said they did not believe employees had been punished for violating those polices.
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