Saturday, 17 September 2011

Don’t be mistaken, bankers kill (but they give life too)

"In terms of power and influence, you can forget the church, forget politics. There is no more powerful institution in society than business” the equally famous as illustrious CEO and founder of the BodyShop – the late Dame Anita Roddick – said. And of course she was right. The most comprehensive and dominant institution in today’s society is business.

Business is more influential than people often realize, simply because it creates – or destroys – wealth. And wealth impacts pretty much anything we care about. Whether you analyze crime rates in a particular country, malnutrition, happiness, or infant mortality; a huge influence is how wealthy the particular society is. And wealth is created by business.

As a consequence, for example, the 2008 banking crisis undoubtedly killed people. Infant mortality is closely related to wealth and consequently an economic crisis will among others lead to a surge in infant mortality, somewhere, in some country down the road. It also means that the strategic business choices made by CEOs such as Lehman’s Richard Fuld or RBS’s Fred Goodwin indirectly but significantly influence the survival chances of some baby boy or girl born on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit. And therefore, whether you like it or not, bankers kill.

But let’s not forget that they give life too. The inverse of “bankers kill” is true too. If banks make wise choices, given their pivotal role in our economies, they can trigger a huge boost to the prosperity of many industries. And the profits, employment, and general wealth created through this boost will really improve the health and survival chances of the baby cradled by her mother somewhere on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit.

Given the research we have on the link between economic prosperity and infant mortality it would not even be too onerous to come up with some estimate of the direct relationship between Royal Bank of Scotland’s balance sheet and the probability of a baby surviving. We could relatively easily calculate the link between profit and the number of lives saved. I could even imagine that the computer terminals that give live updates of a company’s fluctuating share price – which many corporations have dotted across their entrance halls and offices for everyone to see – would be reprogrammed to display the number of children’s lives saved. Traders walking over to their lunch break could have an immediate update of how many baby lives the deal they just closed saved – or destroyed.

A ridiculous thought? Why? Don’t you care (even) more about the life or death of a baby than your company’s fluctuating share price? I am guessing you do. And you know these bankers aren’t so different from (other) human beings. Your company’s performance also creates wealth, and wealth saves lives. Why then only monitor its financial performance? I tell you, the sandwich you’re having for lunch will taste a whole lot better, knowing that this morning you just saved some unknown baby’s life, somewhere on the outskirts of London, Cairo, or Detroit.

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