Don't be too quick to condemn the financial industry

For better or for worse, we need our financial industry, says Merryn Somerset Webb.


John McDonnell: still thinks banking is evil
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2018 Shutterstock. No use without permission.)

September 15th is approaching. The exact date might not mean much to most people. But if you were an employee at Lehman Brothers in 2008 it will mean a great deal. It was the day you lost your job.

Ten years on from the bank's collapse and the ensuing financial crisis, some of its ex-employees are planning a reunion. They will, says Financial News, be getting together somewhere in London for cocktails, canaps and a catch-up. The rational among you, if you can spare the brain space to think about something so minor at all, will think that is just fine: after all, why shouldn't a group of (mostly) entirely innocent ex-employees who went through a traumatic and career -defining event meet to talk about it?

You aren't John McDonnell. For the shadow chancellor, the whole thing is "sickening" and he is sure that most other people will find it as "absolutely disgusting" as he says he does. What McDonnell says doesn't always matter, but this is worthy of comment because his oddly divisive language reflects the still prevalent view that there is something inherently evil about banking and about bank employees; that the financial crisis was all their fault (whether they were junior analysts or middle ranking MDs); and that that is that. It isn't.

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Firstly, there was plenty of blame to go around at the time. Sure, some in the banking profession behaved badly. But so did fund managers, mortgage applicants, governments and central banks (the ones who effectively incentivised everyone else's rubbish behaviour with easy money).

And secondly, the financial industry is not evil. Bits of it are rubbish. But when you find yourself about to demonise the entire sector it is worth remembering Adam Smith's point on this. It is, he wrote,"not by augmenting the capital of the country, but by rendering a greater part of that capital active and productive than would otherwise be so, that the most judicious operations of banking can increase the industry of the country".

The efficient allocation of capital is the thing that underpins capitalism and hence our collective prosperity. For all its faults, we need our financial industry. We need bankers. And we shouldn't be shy of saying so. Rather than aggressively fretting about a few hundred people getting together for a drink to commiserate about the bad old days, most of us should just be getting on with capitalist wealth creation by allocating our own capital correctly.

To that end, turn to this week's Pensions page to see how you can use the UK's SEIS scheme to invest in (risky) growth and to cut your tax bill along the way; to our cover story on companies with long-term "moats"; to the Investing in Property page for an interesting and remarkably high-yield way to buy into some of the fastest-growing places on the planet (in Africa); and finally, see Max King's take on one of our favourite small investment trusts, Miton Global.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.