“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” has become the bumper sticker by which big banks are known since the most recent, historic settlement on Wednesday. This bit of trader chit-chat is indeed catchy, pithy, and all too deadly. I have a corollary—if you’re not trying, you’re dying. By this, I mean that the industry, and most especially the biggest banks, may soon lose any hope of continuing as for-profit—not for-purpose—entities. Unless or until a persuasive story is told about how big-bank profit ensures something other than big private jets, the largest global banks face one of two fates: death by a thousand cuts or, if there’s yet another scandal, death by public flogging. Either way, it’s going to be no fun at all.
This is, of course, not exactly a radical forecast. A lot of CEOs know that their franchises are facing unprecedented policy risk. There are effective strategic responses to this (e.g. restructuring businesses based on policy drivers), but there’s also a critical political and, yes, PR dimension. There’s only so much one can do with a franchise if all those who govern it demand its demise.
Given the “ain’t cheating/ain’t trying” quote, the formidable backlash to it, and so much else, it’s worth reconsidering the industry’s political and PR response. So far not so good, and I think that’s because so far, it’s been far more rhetorical than real.
The only policy campaign into which large banks have thrown any real effort in the reputation-repair arena is support for an array of financial-literacy and underserved-finance initiatives. All these are fine as far as they go, but they actually don’t go all that far.
Why not? I’m all for both financial literacy and getting underserved consumers better banking—who isn’t? But there’s zero downside to these campaigns for big banks; if they work, big banks get more customers. If not, blame the lawyers and the regulators—often rightly, but still all too easily.
What is harder is designing new financial products that meet both social needs and bottom-line demands. What can big banks do better than anyone else to support sustainability, fund biomedical research, develop communities, and promote growth? If it’s nothing much, then the industry will increasingly become a utility storehouse for deposits and a warehouse for low-margin, if high-quality assets. If it’s something more—and I think it is—then big banks should very, very quickly take all the talk about “corporate culture” and convert it into concrete ventures with clear benefits first to new clients and, then, to long-term franchise value.
I’ve laid out one idea for this in a new way to fund biomedical research. Another set of great ideas can be found in a new book on making finance a “force for good,” in which I am proud to have an essay. Many banks are experimenting with new policy-focused activities, including venture philanthropy, wealth-management advisory services, and other innovative efforts to do both good and well. As long as these are fringe activities at one or another big bank, some directly involved will benefit, but no one else will much care.
Why not also mobilize the innovativeness, intermediation capacity, and all-around power of big banks for public benefit? If big banks don’t do this and do it fast, then powerful political forces will decide what they want big banks to be and, then, compel a utility framework with scant room for private profit. A hypothetical strategic challenge? From the start of the financial crisis, clients have been telling me that each major rule that redefines their franchise was unlikely only to learn just how determined regulators and legislators are to cut them down to size. With the 2016 election looming, still more costly embarrassments all too likely, and the ever-present prospect of systemic risk, big banks have little time in which to stop talking to themselves. It’s past time, in fact, to start not just telling, but also doing, a good deal more to prove their long-term economic value.