Saturday, February 7, 2009

Notable Quote

In the course of my research for my thesis on executive compensation in the banking industry, I stumbled across a quote I just couldn't exclude from my paper. The irony was too perfect. In his book, A Banker's Life, George S. Moore, the former president of Citibank, writes:
Speaking from a perspective of sixty years in banking and in business, I have to say that banking is the surest, safest, easiest business I have seen or known….If you’re not actually stupid or dishonest it’s hard not to make money in banking.
Now, a few preliminary comments about this quote. Moore ran Citibank in the 1960s, when banking, like most businesses, was considerably simpler. It was far more regulated, far less exciting, and consisted of, as my Money, Banking, and Capital Markets professor put it, "Fat men in suits playing golf." Since the 80s, banking has grown more interesting and more complex. Part of this can be tied to the proliferation of securitization of assets and the competition for financing. Nevertheless, even though the specifics of banking may have changed, the fundamentals are pretty much the same: Take in money, lend out money, take in more money, lend out more money.

Also, he is obviously understating the importance of intellect in banking. It is the "surest, safest, easiest business" if you have the business acumen to spy good investments. It seems easy to those who can do it.

That said, I find this quote hilarious for the obvious reason that so many bankers seemed to fall into the "stupid or dishonest" category in recent years. (Dishonest with themselves, and therefore stupid with their businesses) If I had to venture a guess as to the reason for the prevalent stupidity, I would blame the growing trend of business to align itself with the government at the upper level. For evidence, see Robert Rubin, the former Treasury Secretary who served on the board of Citigroup after his tenure in the Clinton administration until his recent resignation in disgrace. Also see Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial who abetted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their affordable housing binge in exchange for favors.

Putting government pull-peddlers at the tops of corporations sets the corporation up to serve the government, not its shareholders. That is exactly what happened in the mortgage crisis, and now the government, with its increased role in bank decision-making, is trying to repeat that catastrophe.

Lesson: If you want to run a business the way business is supposed to be run, don't stuff your boardroom or your corner office with "Men from Washington" whose only strategic advantage is that they have lots of "friends."

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