Bankers aren’t evil

Today’s FT also contains an interview with Stephen Green, the former chairman of HSBC, who is now a government trade minister. It is for the most part fairly unexceptional stuff – the headline is that Green thinks the banks need to honour their Project Merlin commitments to SME lending – but one paragraph did catch my eye:

But one populist refrain – that bankers are “evil and greedy” – is enough of a red rag to prompt even the discreet Lord Green to speak up. “I have known many, many bankers in my time. To say there have been episodes and evidence of greed, of course, [but] evil is a very strong word to use on other people and I don’t do it, and nor would I think it’s helpful.”

Later, Green continues:

“I’ve got many banking friends, and I know what high-calibre people [they are], not just in a commercial sense, but also in the sense of wanting to do the right thing. The notion of demonising an entire industry for the undoubted failures that did occur in the banking industry is neither helpful nor fair.”

This is a point I’ve often tried to make to left-wingers, usually without success. Too many people are so blinded by hatred of the financial industry, that they simply assume that all its problems are caused by bad people with bad motivations. It leads them to completely overlook the very real structual and systemic problems in banking, and produces little more than shallow, populist rhetoric.

It’s why so much public debate has focused on marginal issues like executive pay and bonuses, and so little attention has been given to the all-important skewed incentives created by bailouts, central banks, and government regulations. Political discourse seems inevitably to focus on the personal, which hardly matters at all, and ignores structures and systems, which matter a great deal.

Perhaps it was ever thus. But regardless, it’s not a sensible way to discuss, let alone make, policy.

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