Business Ethics, Bank Failures and Government Bailouts – Are They Compatable?

Just last night I was having dinner with with the head of a company and two retired physicians, none of whom I knew before my wife and I were seated.  As one might expect, the conversation turned to career as we played the get to know you game.

“What do you do,” one of the retired physicians asked?

“I speak across the country to businesses and associations on ‘ethics’,” I replied.

“Well,” the business exec at the table spoke up immediately, “you should be booked solid now.  I’ve never seen it so bad.  Seems that those guys on Wall Street and in Washington need your service desperately.”

With those comments the table broke into a sad sort of laughter, although the comment made was no laughing matter.  Rarely, if ever, in my lifetime (and I’m 51) have we seen a time in our country where the choices that have been made have had the potential for a more disastrous outcome.

Before the month of October begins in earnest the headline late on a Sunday night on CNN is: U. S. bank failures almost certain to increase in next year. Based on all that we’ve seen in the short scope of the last two months I tend to agree.  And here’s what is more baffling – people much smarter than I must have known that we would one day face this outcome.  The writing was on the wall.  You can’t extend credit to someone who can’t afford to pay you back and assume that everything will somehow work out.

Every choice has a consequence.  That is a universal law (although it seems that many people would prefer to ignor its existence).  All we heard for the past several years is how robust the US economy was.  The housing market was strong in most sectors of the nation and it would appear that we were set to continue to enjoy long term economic prosperity.  Really?  Here’s a segment of the CNN story:

Weakened by huge losses on risky home loans, the banking industry is now on the shakiest ground since the early 1990s, when more than 800 federally insured institutions failed in a three-year period. That was during the clean-up phase of a decade-long savings-and-loan meltdown that wound up costing U.S. taxpayers $170 billion to $205 billion, after adjusting for inflation.

Now, like many who read this, I was around during the Savings and Loan crisis.  It wasn’t pretty and friends, I hate to say this, but this is no savings and loan crisis.  That economic hardship pales in comparison to what we could face based on bad choices and business ethics gone awry.  The government bailout – hum, let me rephrase – the taxpayer bailout may preserve some of the “stronger” institutions, but there is a substantial belief that many more will fail, buried under the weight of their poor choices.

The following quote from the CNN article is very accurate:

“I don’t see why things will be that much different this time,” said Joseph Mason, an economist who worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in the 1990s and is now a finance professor at Louisiana State University. “We just had a big party where people and businesses overborrowed. We had a bubble and now we want to get back to normal. Is it going to be painless? No.”

I think it is interesting his choice of words, “people and businesses overborrowed.”   That statement is factual, but the more significant underlying question is how did that occur and why?  The answer to that is where – ETHICS – comes into play.

Now let me simply define ETHICS for the purpose of this discussion:  “Ethics is the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.”

So let me get back to the comment “people and businesses overborrowed.”  While the comment is true neither people or businesses had control of the purse strings.  People were “unethically” encouraged to overborrow.  Rarely a day would go by without the mailbox being filled with credit offers.  “Zero percent this and transfer balance that.”  We saw big burley viking men touting Capital One and God knows my college aged son received more offers for credit than he could count – even though he had no source of income.

While there is plenty of blame to go around, YOU CAN’T BLAME THE PEOPLE.  People did what people do – they responded to effective marketing campaigns and accepted offers made by many of those very banks who soon will be buried in the business grave yard of failure.  Poor business choices combined with poor business ethics will equal business failure.

We hear all too much about the mortgage crisis again with many stating that people over borrowed.  That may be true, but the bank or financial institution again controlled access to the money.  Now if a bank is so overzealous to prop up growth and earnings that they make loans to unqualified individuals or loan against property that is overvalued, I contend that is unethical.

Banks have more than a duty to earn money and grow, their greater duty is to do both of those things and (most importantly) survive!  Their moral duty and obligation (their ethical duty) is to survive while achieving success.  I agree with my dinner mates, if there is ever a time for ethical reflection it is now!

Another comment from the article that has alarming numbers attached:

Using statistics from the S&L crisis as a guide, Mason estimates total deposits in banks that fail during the current crisis at $1.1 trillion. After calculating gains from selling deposits and some of the assets of the failed banks, Mason estimates the clean-up this time will cost the FDIC $140 billion to $200 billion.

The FDIC’s fund currently has about $45 billion, a five-year low. But the agency can make up for any shortfalls by borrowing from the U.S. Treasury and eventually repaying the money by raising the premiums that it charges the healthy banks and S&Ls.

Perhaps next is the issue of Goverment Ethics.  By all accounts, Alan Greenspan reported to Congress many years back – talking in “Greenspeak” about what was likely to happen and how it could be avoided.  Did the government take action?  NO!  The concern, it seems, for most politicians is staying elected or getting elected, not making ethical decisions.  The moral duty and obligation that our elected officials have (or should have) is to represent those they govern and protect them from the disaster we are now facing.

And, not to be a cynic, but when have you known any financial projection to come in at or under the budget or estimate.  In my lifetime – never!  So by guess is the $700 billion will be more like $2 trillion when it is over.  The bailout here and proping up the FDIC there, not counting what else will arise that is undisclosed at this time.  It all adds up and is dumped on our shoulders.  In reality all we, as a nation, are doing is on a bigger scale exactly what the “people and businesses” did – borrow to pay off what we could not afford in the first place.

So back to the question – Bank Failure and Government Bailouts – are they compatable?  Neither represent good business ethics and yet both will happen.  Perhaps the comment was right at dinner, I need to camp out in Washington and NY – although now it might be too little too late.

For information about my presentations visit my web site.  Your comments, by the way, are welcome.

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3 Responses to Business Ethics, Bank Failures and Government Bailouts – Are They Compatable?

  1. Andrew says:

    Chuck,

    That both banks and governments acted in an unethical fashion in failing to take reasonable steps in order to prevent the crisis is, in my view, beyond dispute.

    Banks, in particular failed there ethical obligation in two respect – first, by supplying credit to individuals whom they knew or should have known had no realistic means of meeting the loan commitments, and second, by not adequately managing their own exposures so as to ensure a solid footing or grounding for long term survival.

    Banks had an ethical obligation in relation to both of these matters – an obligation which they did not fulfill.

    However, with respect, I must disagree with your viewpoint that borrowers are not at least partially responsible. I firmly believe that borrowers face an ethical obligation to refrain from undertaking debt commitments beyond what they are confident that they have the means to fulfill.

    Regardless of extensive marketing effort from lenders, the bottom line is that borrowers did have a choice, and they choose to take on more debt commitments they can handle.

    Borrowers are, and will always be, bear the responsibility for their own debt commitments.

  2. […] responsibility of borrowers Some commentators, such as business ethics motivational speaker Chuck Gallagher, feel that borrowers need not accept responsibility for the current […]

  3. raimond says:

    This video shows the lack of ethics in banking:

    It is Claudio Aguirre, a Spanish banker ex-CEO of Merril Lynch.

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