Financial Institutions and Ethics – Some Just Do Not Get It

bankI am starting to repeat myself – it is a sign of old age (ask my wife), or maybe I have a point to make. I have written several times about financial institutions and the need to embrace a culture of ethics and compliance. This is not so controversial. It is plainly obvious. All you have to do is look at the list of recent enforcement actions against banks – a who’s who of large banks with multi-million, even billion, dollar settlements with the government.

You would expect that banks would have some humility, maybe a weak gesture here or there indicating that they understand the importance of ethics and compliance. Your expectation may be wrong.

The question I ask myself is how could they miss the point so badly? How could they be tone-deaf to this message that has been demonstrated through numerous enforcement actions.

In a recent speech, Chairperson Yellen raised concerns about Wall Street’s culture and ethics. She was quoted as saying, “It is unfortunate that I need to underscore this, but we expect the firms we oversee to follow the law and to operate in an ethical manner.” She went on to say, “Too often in recent years, bankers at large institutions have not done so, sometimes brazenly.”  “These incidents, both individually and in their totality, raise legitimate questions of whether there may be pervasive shortcomings in the values of large financial firms that might undermine their safety and soundness.

The response from the banking community — nothing. Nada. Not a word of support or demonstration that they have heard the message.banks2

Earlier, BB&T’s Chief  called culture “the new rabbit” Washington is chasing.

Talk about tone-deaf – there are so many responses to such a stupid statement. The banking industry just does not get it.

To suggest that somehow the lack of ethics is something of concern only to Washington and not the financial industry is to basically invite  Washington to hammer the banking industry. It is sticking out your jaw and just begging someone to hit you.

Further, the absence of any recognition that the banking industry may have some ethical issues is unbelievable.  Instead of ignoring the problem, or whining about Washington policymakers, banks need to roll up their sleeves and start to focus on ethics and compliance. No more questions, no more delay, just action.

ethics2Just take the facts in the BNP Paribas case – US compliance officers repeatedly wrote to their French supervisors in the compliance office and stated that BNP was violating US sanctions laws in its dealings with Sudan. Despite this clear record of warning, French officials basically ignored US warnings citing the importance of the customer relationships with prohibited banks and persons in Sudan. No where in the documents cited by the government was any awareness of ethics, let alone legal requirements, cited as a constraint by the French.

BB&T’s Chief may want to reexamine his values and his perception about who is really responsible for a lack of ethics and the need for ethics in the financial industry. If this attitude is typical of banking executives, then they deserve the full wrath and consequences that the government may throw at them.   Let’s hope they wake up soon and smell the coffee – ethics has been here, and will be here to stay.

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