Friday, January 9, 2009

50,000 Feet: Restoring Confidence

Restoration of trust in business and government to manage our complex economy will only return when the most essential ingredient of ethical behavior is addressed openly and vigorously—the integrity of business leadership. It’s going to be a tough sell.

I recently attended a meeting of communicators primarily involved in financial communication—banks, Wall Street, real estate, and some very large financial businesses. The banking communicators were busy explaining how difficult it was going to be to figure out how to resolve the mess created in the mortgage markets and elsewhere. As they fumbled, stumbled, mumbled, and bumbled through things clearly too complicated for me to understand, I raised my hand and said, “From the public’s perspective, only three things are necessary to resolve the banking crisis and re-establish trust. 1) The leadership of one or more individuals in whom the public can have absolute faith and whom, perhaps, these organizations genuinely fear. 2) All of the financial organizations and institutions that failed need to begin begging for increased regulation and oversight, as they vigorously and sincerely apologize and take responsibility for the horrendous damage they have caused so many people, families, and businesses across the planet. 3) Many business operators will have to lose their jobs and go to prison as a result of their behaviors. Even though much of what happened was deregulated or unregulated and, therefore, was thought to be unpunishable, an angry, direct message needs to be sent to the financial marketplaces. Enough already. The bottom line for these communicators? “We’re not all bad guys.” That’s really helpful.

As for those who are getting or anticipating a bailout . . . we’re still waiting for a little humility and plans for extraordinary openness about what these companies plan to do and actually do with the money. If you take public money, you have an affirmative obligation to report the uses and plans for those funds, and validate that they are being put to the use that was intended by the public, as though you had become a citizen-owned public company. When you take public money you, in fact, become the public’s property.

My Forecasts:
  1. Expect the opposite. There will be even bigger bonuses for bankers, Wall Street types, insurance executives, auto executives, the new banks and financial institutions created, and their financial geniuses. They believe they deserve to survive.
  2. The seeds of the next crisis are being sown as we dig out of today’s problems. Business regulation always tends to protect profitability, wealth, and survival.
  3. The reality of regulation is that those who make the regulations end up profiting from them.
  4. Regulation generation will create a tremendous industry of lawyers, ex politicians, and former government and corporate functionaries who will fight any new regulatory structures until they are imposed. Then these same individuals will find ways to get around the new regulations, through them, and profit from them all over again.
  5. Business leaders with integrity begin to step forward and raise their voices in support of better behavior.

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