The source of a particularly spirited 4-hour debate in a bar in Istanbul with Will Abel (we know how to have fun) – I thought I would bring this debate to a broader discussion in, dare I say it, a more intellectually rigorous environment.
In the lead-up to the financial crisis of 2007-8, senior executives at investment banks oversaw a system in which their firms reaped substantial rewards for selling products which they knew would ultimately lead to substantial losses for whichever firm was left ‘holding the buck’. The result of these actions we know all too well: an international financial crisis which has negatively impacted the livelihoods of billions of people worldwide.
The low number of criminal prosecutions for these actions appears to be due to a combination of the complexity of the financial products involved, the widespread and interconnected nature of the transactions and the fact that it is notoriously difficult to prove harmful intent. Thus, while their actions were dishonest, immoral and reckless, they were not technically illegal.
If a doctor were to knowingly take risks when treating a patient and that patient were to be adversely affected as a result, the doctor would be criminally liable for their actions. Likewise, if an individual takes the risk of driving when overtired or intoxicated and injures another person as a result, the driver would be criminally liable. Yet, in the case of banking, we require an additional proof of intentional malfeasance in order to prosecute.
At the current time, senior banking executives are entitled to large scale benefits while passing on the risk to their shareholders, the taxpayers who are (effectively) forced to bail them out, and a global community which relies on a banking sector in order to function. Sanctions, meanwhile, have focused on fining the offending institutions – punishing shareholders and reducing banks’ ability to lend to individuals and small businesses – rather than the individuals who ultimately made these decisions.
I move that, given the banking industry’s importance to society and the large benefits bestowed upon its senior custodians, they have a responsibility to avert such systemic levels of risk and should be legally liable for creating such levels of risk, regardless of intentional malfeasance. Not only is this a more just alignment of power and responsibility, it is a more effective way to deter reckless behavior in the future, thereby benefiting society more broadly in the long term.
Admittedly, there are difficulties in defining exactly what level of risk is palatable for society, assigning responsibility to specific individuals (since in this case the practice was so widespread) and how to deal with rogue traders such as JP Morgan Chase’s Bruno Iksil. To an extent, however, I think that these issues can be resolved on a case-by-case basis – in a sector which perennially finds new and innovative ways to make money this may even be preferable. But by establishing a precedent that not just intentional malfeasance but a negligent attitude to risk is an illegal act, we can develop a more just reward-responsibility balance and protect the interests of society from the excesses of the few.
Finally, as much as I still hope to see prosecutions brought against individuals whose actions led to the 2007-8 crisis, I do not advocate for retrospective punishment and would intend for the standards outlined above to implemented only moving forward. As frustrated as I have been by the lack of widespread prosecutions, I take solace in the fact that the rule of law has been upheld in the face of strong public pressure. Conducting prosecutions based on retrospective law changes could ultimately create a broader ‘chilling effect’ on society which would be contrary to my intentions.