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Green's advice for happy banks

Evan Davis | 10:11 UK time, Tuesday, 7 July 2009

On a clear day, you can see it for miles - the HSBC tower at Canary Wharf. I had never realised that HSBC occupied all of it, and had rather assumed they let much of it out. But no, it's all theirs and it is reportedly the biggest single workplace in Europe.

HSBC towerI was there to meet the chairman, Stephen Green. and was whisked to the 40th floor, which turned out to be surprisingly funky. A bustling coffee bar, a lounge area, thinking pods and meeting rooms, and shared book cases with volumes on everything from golf to the Aids pandemic.

The one book I couldn't see was the latest work of Mr Green himself, Good Value: reflections on money, morality and an uncertain world.

I'm not surprised it wasn't there. I don't get the impression that Mr Green is the kind of chairman to thrust his book down the throats of his staff. In fact, he comes across as surprisingly gentle and unassuming.

His book reads as a fairly earnest manifesto for the capitalist globalisation that has been an unstoppable force in the world, to be tempered by a certain degree of self-restraint and driven by moral as well as purely financial values.

He makes a useful point in the week our government publishes its banking regulation white paper. Mr Green thinks regulation is necessary, but not sufficient to ensuring banks work in the public interest.

I met Mr Green and chatted to him, and you can hear my interview with him below.

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The conversation we had inevitably strayed into the practicalities of regulation and it is perhaps therefore my failure that what is probably Mr Green's greatest insight rather got lost in it.

This is important, so let me spell it out here.

His point - as I understand it - is not so much that we should exhort bankers and others to somehow be moral against their own self interest when they are making money for themselves. No. His point is that bankers and others should be moral in their own self interest; that they will actually find life more satisfying if they are not narrowly selfish in their behaviour.

In other words, to be happy, you need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and think - I have done something worthwhile for others as well as myself.

Stephen GreenIt turns out that there is a substantial amount of empirical economic evidence for this view. And it is perhaps a finding that should generate headlines more often than other economic news which fills the airwaves: the truly interesting economic revelation is that giving is more pleasurable than taking.

A study by Elizabeth Dunn literally handed money to people either to spend on themselves or on others, and it showed that the givers were happier afterwards than the ones who spent on themselves.

There is also evidence that volunteering is a route to happiness as well. Mr Green is surely right to remind them that there is more to life than making money.

Perhaps they should teach this in school. People do not always seem very able to judge these things for themselves.

But of course, what do you do in a world where many people act according to a different set of principles? Maybe they are not programmed like the rest of us. Maybe they get their satisfaction from being selfish!

I asked Mr Green how many people in banking might fit that bill, but he couldn't give me a clear answer.

Which I guess is why we need to regulate banks.

With people like Stephen Green in charge, one wonders how banks could have allowed themselves to become to so voracious and reckless. The answer is probably that people like him were not always in charge. HSBC, of course, has not gone bust and has not received state aid.


  • Comment number 1.

    I worked for HSBC until 2003, the year they moved to Canary Wharf. I understood from the good old Midland Bank days that the reason bank staff received such good mortgage deals, pensions and other perks was so that they would find it easier to resist the temptation to cook any books they might be in charge of. Now, of course, middle-rank and file bank staff are little better off than purveyors of fast food, and banks rely on computer record-keeping to ensure their staff remain trustworthy. In 2001 or so, HSBC introduced to Midland Bank the practice of publishing within the organisation the names and sentences of all employees convicted of theft or fraud every six months - I wonder if those numbers have increased since conditions of employment suffered the attrition I remember.

  • Comment number 2.

    I got the overall impression that this particular chap being interviewed was calm, confident and composed etc. The sort of person ones needs at the helm during a storm! Yes, and he probably looks quite smug in is reflection in the mirror,why? His bank balance! not forgetting the probable huge pension pot that could pay of a sizable part of third world nations debt! Just like those who profess some form of a religious faith generally turn out to be comfortable in wealth & materials those in the opposite side go to pray for much the same! This study you mentioned by whoever E.Dunn is, did not result in her becoming a bag lady living in cardboard city! And yeah lets all work for nothing as volunteers, who's going to pay our state benefits or will that be abolished, and we'll live on charitable handouts!

  • Comment number 3.

    BA5H has a lovely giclee print that would look lovely on the 40th floor and perfectly sums up the financial mess we find ourselves swimming in.

  • Comment number 4.

    I thought Mr Green gave a charming, but unconvincing,defence of the status quo. He says banks are a specialised form of business carrying responsibilities to the public. And yet, he reckons that if traders' incentives are aligned with shareholders' medium / long term value the public interest will be secured - by operation of benign capitalism with regulation. This is a failed approach. I got no sense from him that reliance on the sovereiegn wrap/bail-out was something deserving of mitigation by the banking sector - he took for granted the 'special' position of banks. He talked of banks self insuring their risks by capital regulations - he didnt talk of the public's need for insurance against the systemic risk the banking sector poses to the real economy.Leverage and the banks' funding models must be curtailed.

    If the argument is that we need global banking players so as not to lose financial services to other foreign banks, why not grade global banks and make them answerable to a global supra national bail-out entity. Otherwise, the UK taxpayer cannot afford to guarantee universal large global banks. We always like to think we can punch beyond our weight - its time to wake up and smell the coffee.

  • Comment number 5.

    I have read that HSBC avoided the worst effects of the credit crunch by self funding their derivatives, tying up capital to do so and maintaining a diversified business across continents. Well done. There were shareholders ( not traders ) at the time who moaned that self-funding was tying up capital which could be used to fund more investment. If those shareholders had gained the upper hand, where would HSBC be now?

  • Comment number 6.

    Stephen Greens Good Value was received with surprisingly little skepticism in the UK. Green investing/preaching is clearly popular over there.

  • Comment number 7.

    All good and well and Mr Green certainly tells speaks the truth in the sense that he has had time to reflect, like any person with experience, and has seen the errors in the ways of humans. Weyhey at last! Oh nothing new really is it? It's like me saying I've discovered the laws of motion and then regurgitating Newton's as if they were my own.

    If banks need this mentality then they need to make sure their staff have a truly Universal education. Greed is natural especially for the young and naive. Like everyone else, banks sell product. They package them and hire sales people to flog-um! regulate them and people will simply not do something because they are told they cant and not because their moral fibre instinctively guides them to do the right thing!

    This is quite cynical I grant you and the truth is not all this bad obviously. Ultimately people educate themselves, but they have to be presented with all the arguments or truths or whatever is there before they become morally wholemeal. Of course we are talking about natural, instinctive morality rather than religious doctrine.

    Ok so the economy and events have shaped some minds into thinking more of value and lifestyle. It seems they may have even started to understand the true value of good products as opposed to throw away ones. My company is in the luxury consumer electronics sector(hand crafted British made and all that) and we have been surprised at the resilience in this market sector.

    One question: Next boom, will this new moral roughage simply end up in the guzunder?

  • Comment number 8.

    This is not specifically about HSBC but about banks and bonuses in general. Much of the current fuss about bonuses assumes cash payments but not to be forgotten are options on shares which will be worth a fortune for the recipients. Most of these were issued earlier this year since when bank shares have risen on average fourfold. Usually these do not vest for 3 years or so but you cannot help but feel the irony - the recipients drive the banks to the brink of collapse then profit when the share price recovers thanks to the intervention of governments using taxpayer money.

  • Comment number 9.

    "Mr Green is surely right to remind them that there is more to life than making money. Perhaps they should teach this in school."

    They do - it's called religious education and it's extremely effective in enabling people to understand their common origin in God, their place in a created world and their relationship with other creatures in that world.

  • Comment number 10.

    With morals like his I wonder how he ever rose to the top. In banking I hear appetite for risk is highly desirable, atleast it was pre-credit crunch!


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