The bankers’ oath

This week the name of the fare-dodging fund manager was unveiled. Jonathan Burrows skipped paying his train fare from Kent to London for five years, said the Daily Mail, and then tried to avoid anyone finding out by paying out £43,000 in back fares. That didn’t work.

The police and the Financial Conduct Authority investigated and Burrows has now resigned from his smart job at BlackRock. This is a fascinating story for all sorts of reasons, but for me, the most interesting bit is how Burrows held down his job for as long as he did.

Why? Because he has the kind of attitude to risk that you really don’t want the person looking after your money to have – the one that considers it reasonable to take massive reputational and financial risks for relatively small gains (or thrills). I wonder why no one at BlackRock noticed earlier.

Last week also saw the launch of a report from ResPublica (Virtuous Banking: Placing ethos and purpose at the heart of finance), which suggested that bankers should be made to take an oath to “fulfil their proper moral and economic purpose”, as is now the case in the Netherlands.

They’d promise to do their “utmost to behave in a manner that prioritises the needs of customers”, to “confront profligacy and impropriety” wherever they encounter it; and to note that “the conduct of bankers can have dramatic consequences for society”.

Look north and you will see that this isn’t a new idea for the financial industry: Edinburgh-based managers First State Investments already have what they call a Hippocratic oath for asset managers.

In light of the Burrows story, some of the clauses of this oath are rather interesting. “I will strive to achieve through hard work, sober analysis and sound judgement the best risk-adjusted returns possible for my clients.” And “I will not forget in my search for returns that the primary risk faced by my clients is losing their capital”.

At first glance, the idea of suggesting an oath for bankers or for fund managers seems mildly ridiculous. But it might be a more valuable process than first glance suggests.

How many people go into banking understanding that “the conduct of bankers can have dramatic consequences for society”? And how many trainee fund managers really understand the moral responsibility that comes with having the financial hopes and dreams of millions in their hands? I can tell you for certain that the answer among the young fund managers I knew when I was a young broker was none.

Oaths aren’t the answer to every problem, and nor will they automatically restore trust in our dismal financial system. But taken every year – in public – they might act as a nice reminder to all our brokers, bankers, and managers that working in finance is about more than bonuses.

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