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Olympians and Bankers

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With news of banking scandals never-ending and the London Games having now come to a close, it is worth reflecting on what bankers might learn from the Olympic movement.

Remember the badminton players booed for intentionally trying to lose? Eight players were judged not to have used their best efforts to win qualifying matches because they wanted to secure a more favorable draw in the competition. They paraded their values for the world to see: What counts is to win and if that means throwing a few matches to game the draw, so be it. The end of winning the competition justifies the means.

A single-minded focus on winning also characterises banking. Here, too, gold is the reward and winning at any price has led to booing onlookers. Bankers' values are seemingly apparent from the cumulative evidence of misconduct that has emerged in recent years, from the deception of customers and counterparties (Goldman Sachs) through to the systemic corruption evident in attempts to rig LIBOR, a benchmark rate influencing trillions of dollars of transactions (Barclays and other banks).

A Harris poll of US adults found 70% believed "most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law if they believed that they could make a lot of money and get away with it". The perception is that the taxpayer-bailed-out bankers are back to business as usual, where ethics and even the law are not going to get in the way of making a buck - or, rather, megabucks.

There are many people of integrity in banking. However, in teaching thousands of MBA students I have observed that former bankers are much more ready to engage in the deception described in a banking case, to the surprise of peers from other sectors. Is there something about banking that attracts people more willing to engage in unethical conduct? Or is it that people become acculturated once they enter banking and adopt a practice of casual dishonesty?

If greed is to blame, banking has offered opportunities for massive self-enrichment and generally through risk taking with other people's money. The crisis revealed that these financial rewards were not necessarily commensurate to talent and were often attributable to questionable if not illegal practices.

Would people in other sectors also cheat to get ahead, given the opportunity and the gains to be had? Are most businesspeople no different to the badminton players willing to throw a match if it improves the odds of winning the competition? Why would Rajat Gupta, the former head of McKinsey, wealthy beyond the dreams of most people, jeopardise his life's achievements by sharing insider information obtained as a board member of Goldman Sachs? Apparently, his ambitions were unfulfilled because he had yet to join the ranks of the super-rich.

A famous B-School professor in an earlier time would ask his class: what is the purpose of business? Eschewing answers that it exists to serve society, he would simply draw the $ sign on the board. The message was dramatically delivered and powerful. We don't do this today. Our students arrive already with the idea that business is all about making money - for themselves as well as their company. Surely there is more to it than this? In too few schools is there any real scrutiny of what we teach about the role of values in business. Promises of greater attention to ethics following the crisis have fallen by the wayside.

What do we learn from the Olympics? The badminton players got booed for poor sportsmanship but were also expelled from the Games. One lesson simply is that regulations can work. Solutions that could reduce banking misconduct encompass more effective regulation, stronger and smarter enforcement of regulations coupled with higher penalties (lengthy prison terms and bigger fines), and a separation of retail banking from investment banking, if not a break up of the big banks. Regulation will get us part of the way there, but it is not enough. We also need more integrity in banking.

The response of the Games regulators was grounded in values: winning at any price is counter to the ethos of the Games. Expressing the ideals of the Olympic movement, a former International Olympic Committee president said: "The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the important thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Personal financial success is important, but there are other values that surely preclude cheating to get ahead in line with an overarching goal of maximising financial gain. Equally, while making a profit is essential to business survival that is not the same as profit maximization at any price. As bankers, businesspeople, regulators or business school professors, the Olympics reminds us that how you compete is as important as the outcome.

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