Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

An impossible task | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

I know some friends who work as bankers and whenever they are asked in a public gathering or a party to introduce themselves, they lower their voice and mumble their profession, barely uttering a few words. This is because today the banking profession is not as it was in the past; it no longer has the same prestige, status, appreciation and respect. Since the 1980s, banking has been associated to a number of high profile scams and violations that have become known as “white-collar crimes”.

Today, the global financial crisis continues to reveal a variety of new transgressions within a number of major international banks, where alarming financial violations have taken place, as expressed by the investigation authorities. In this context, the long-standing Barclays Bank has been greatly shaken and was forced to sacrifice its chairman, several Swiss banks are tottering under current investigations, and Standard Chartered is facing a series of charges lodged by the US judicial authorities. This is in addition to similar crises being suffered by other giant international banks.

Did this rushing torrent of charges, suspicions and allegations instill fear into the heart of the international banking industry in Switzerland, in a manner that prompted major banks there to issue an important circular to their senior executives urging them to spend their annual leave within Swiss borders and not leave the country, fearing the legal prosecution of the US judicial authorities across the world?

Banks, in their dominating and prevailing form, have transformed into an influential and effective tool for social engineering, and to check or sometimes disturb the balances within a society. In this endeavor, banks are assisted by a weak and unaware supervisory system that sometimes plays the role of the accomplice in some central banks, where some officials directly “derive financial benefits” via partnerships, bribes, “special” bonuses and incentives, or through recruiting their cronies in important posts, aiming to consolidate and extend their influence. This created a corrupt environment allowing for the transfer of hot, suspicious, dirty money to be re-circulated in bank accounts and behind appropriate facades, whereby such finance could then be transformed into legitimate sums and figures. This criminal circle could only be achieved with internal assistance and through the officials within these banks, as well as with the approval of those who observe them.

I remember a businessman friend of mine telling a joke he had heard from a university professor in the US, when giving a description of bankers. The joke is as follows: Why are bankers always safe from heart attacks? Because none of them have a heart in the first place. The university professor added that banking is an industry lacking in values, conscience, morality or a frame of reference. It is not a case of survival of the fittest or the smartest; in this particular domain it is survival of the lowest!

Today, in the West, there is an extensive review of the “quality” of employees who are accepted to work in banks. The career ladder and the incentives offered are all being reconsidered in a manner that ensures both the moral considerations and the prospected financial elements are taken into account. This is a new approach to a profession that has long been a glaring example of exploitation, greed and bloodsucking, regardless of the glamor of skyscrapers, advanced technological mechanisms, fashionable suits and striking elegance. Liters of expensive cologne cannot mask the rubbish that lies beneath.

The world expects to see a moral uprising in the banking sector so that the profession can regain some respect, yet there are some who would wager that such a task is impossible.