It takes a village to maintain a dangerous financial system – and a corporate governance system too

Hillary Clinton popularised the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” when she adopted it as the title for her 1996 book. A lawyer representing victims of abuse by Catholic priests in Boston extended when interviewed in 2015 by observing that “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child.” Anat Admati, George G.C. Parker Professor of Finance and Economics at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, translates this sentiment to the financial sector in her in chapter in Just Financial Markets? Finance in a Just Society, a collection of essays edited by Lisa Herzog, published by Oxford University Press[1].

Admati’s focus is on the banking system. Her thesis is that the failings in the system, illustrated by the 2008 crash, are a result of the failures of a wide range of players, not just those working within financial institutions, but a host of regulators, commentators and other stakeholders. Very powerfully, she comments on the contrast between the finance industry and other industries (eg aviation) where safety is paramount and all consequently all the stakeholders work together to design effective regulation and where the case for compliance is compelling. But, as she points out, even the most obvious case for regulation to drive safety may require disasters and egregious failures before regulation and compliance catch up with the need (eg in nuclear power and the motor industry).

Her chapter provides a compelling account of the “wilful blindness” of principals, stakeholders, regulators and commentators on the financial system and suggests that even after the dangers inherent in the design, operation and lack of necessary regulation of the banking system were revealed in the crisis, the underlying problems remain unaddressed.

Her arguments are applicable far more widely. She has written an important paper about that should be read with an eye to how her observations can be applied to other industries and, indeed, beyond the commercial enterprises into public sector organisations and not for profit bodies.

[1]Chapter 13, It Takes a Village to Maintain a Dangerous Financial System. Abstract: I discuss the motivations and actions (or inaction) of individuals in the financial system, governments, central banks, academia and the media that collectively contribute to the persistence of a dangerous and distorted financial system and inadequate, poorly designed regulations. Reassurances that regulators are doing their best to protect the public are false. The underlying problem is a powerful mix of distorted incentives, ignorance, confusion, and lack of accountability. Willful blindness seems to play a role in flawed claims by the system’s enablers that obscure reality and muddle the policy debate.