On the Lack of Courage in Regulators

I’m embedding the text of a short but must-read speech by Robert Jenkins, a former banker, hedge fund manager, and regulator (Bank of England) who is now a Senior Fellow at Better Markets. If nothing else, be sure to look at the partial list of bank misconduct and activities currently under investigation.

Jenkins points out that regulatory reform has fallen short on multiple fronts, and perhaps the most important is courage. Readers may understandably object to him giving lip service to the idea that Bernanke acted courageously during the crisis (serving the needs of banks via unconventional means is not tantamount to courage), but he is a Serious Person, and making a case against Bernanke would detract from his bigger message about the lack of guts post-crisis.

Now there have been exceptions, like Benjamin Lawsky, Sheila Bair, Gary Gensler, Kara Stein, and in a more insider capacity, Danny Tarullo. Contrast their examples with the typical cronyism and lame rationalizations for inaction, particularly by the Department of Justice and the SEC. It’s not obvious how to reverse the corrosion of our collective values. But it is important to remember than norms can shift much faster than most people think possible, with, for instance, the 1950s followed by the radicalism and shifts in social values of the 1960s, which conservative elements are still fighting to roll back.

When Timidity Triumphs

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  1. James Levy

    We do not live in an economy or a polity that breeds or rewards the kind of public-mindedness and civic virtue that gives you courage. The author thinks the system needs courageous people, but posits no conception of where they would come from and how they would thrive in the current system (news flash: they won’t). So this is a classic “I see the problem clearly but can’t see that the solution is impossible under the current system” piece.

    1. Norb

      In Tavis Smiley’s book, My Journey with Maya Angelou, he recounts an ongoing discussion the two of them entertained throughout the years concerning which trait, Love or Courage, was more important in realizing a full life. Angelou argued that acting courageously was the most important. Smiley saw love as the moving force. While important and moving, the discussion has the dead-end quality of not being able to move past the current system of injustice. I say this because in the end, both support incremental change to the existing system as the means to bring about social justice. The powerful elite have perfected the manipulation of incremental change to render it powerless.

      When trying to change a social system, courage is needed. Courage to form a vision of the future that is based on public-mindedness and civic virtues that bring justice into the world. Our current leaders are delivering the exact opposite of civic justice. Its time to call them out on their duplicity, and ignore their vision of the future.

      The courage that is needed today is not the courage to stand up to the criminals running things and somehow make them change. It is the courage to make them irrelevant. Change will come from the bottom up, one person at a time.

    2. cnchal

      And when one shows up, look what happens.

      The disturbing fact is that laws have been broken but law breaking has not touched senior management.

      If they knew, then they were complicit. If they did not, then they were incompetent. Alternatively, if the deserving dozens have indeed been banned from the field let the list be known – that we might see some of that “professional ostracism” of which Governor Carney speaks. One person who did lose his position and quite publicly at that was Martin Wheatley, the UK’s courageous conduct enforcer.

      Meanwhile the chairman of Europe’s largest bank, Douglas Flint at HSBC, remains in situ – despite having been on the board since 1995; despite having signed off on the acquisition of Household Finance; and despite having had oversight of tax entangled subsidiaries in Switzerland and money laundering units in Mexico. Oh, and you’ll love this: the recently retired CEO of Standard Chartered is reportedly an advisor to Her Majesty’s Government. Standard Chartered was among the first to be investigated for violations of rogue regime sanctions. The bank was fined heavily and may be so again.

      Courageous people get fired, which leads to no courageous people left.

  2. GlassHammer

    Can courage trump careerism?

    I believe that for the forseeable future the answer is “No”. People are highly incentivized to take the path of least resistance and simply go along to get along.

  3. susan the other

    By extreme necessity (created by total dysfunction) we will probably wind up with planned and coordinated economies that do not rely on speculation & credit to come up with the next great idea. Those ideas will be forced to come from the top down. And the problems of unregulated capitalism frantically chumming for inspiration and extreme profits will shrink back down from a world-eating monster to just a fox or two.

  4. Oliver Budde

    It would be wrong to excuse the inaction of the Obama DOJ and SEC crews as being the result of some larger “corrosion of our collective values.” The capos in those crews are the people doing the corroding, and not one of them was forced to (not) do what they did. Notice that every last one of the initial bunch is presently being paid, by Wall Street, to the tune of millions of dollars per year. They opted to cover up crimes and take a pay-off in exchange. And they are owed punishment.

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