SPIEGEL Interview with Banker Steven Green: The New World Order 'Is Already Underway'
In a SPIEGEL interview, London banker and lay preacher Stephen Green, group chairman of HSBC, discusses the divide between his Christian faith and the pursuit of profit, the morality of being involved in the subprime mortgage business and whether he and his fellow bankers have learned anything from the financial crisis.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Green, when was the last time you were ashamed to be a banker?
Green: I haven't felt ashamed when it comes to my own work. However, over the past few years there has been a portion of the global business that was simply unacceptable. Some financial products were much too complicated and not transparent enough. Moreover, they were sold to people who often had no idea what they were buying. This sort of business was very successful for a few years, but it resulted in catastrophe. In this respect, it was disgraceful for all of us.
SPIEGEL: You are not just the group chairman of Britain's HSBC, the world's largest private bank. In your free time, you also serve as a lay preacher in the Anglican Church. Have you ever prayed: "Please God, rescue capitalism"?
Green: Well, I was certainly never at a point at which I felt that it was so diabolical that it ought to be abolished. All economic systems have their faults and capitalism is the best of a bad bunch -- that is even though, only a year ago
SPIEGEL: ... shortly after the Lehman bankruptcy...
Green: ...it was truly on the brink.
SPIEGEL: When did you last give a sermon?
Green: Last Sunday. My sermon was about the gospel and the financial crisis.
SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes hear personal reproaches from the members of your flock?
Green: Rarely, because people are thoughtful, and they know that the problems were -- and still are -- complex. Of course, many people feel that they lost their jobs because of the irresponsibility of some financial managers. I can understand this anger.
SPIEGEL: Are these two things even compatible: being religious and being a banker?
Green: It's a conflict that we must all confront. However, it isn't just possible, but necessary, to resolve the contradictions.
SPIEGEL: Do you truly believe that Christian faith and the uncompromising pursuit of profit can be reconciled?
Green: The pursuit of profit must be guided by morals, because not everything the market considers legal is also legitimate. If we accept capitalism, we must also accept this challenge. That's where religion, among other things, plays a role.
SPIEGEL: Your fellow banker Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of the US investment bank Goldman Sachs, recently said that he was doing God's work. How did you feel about that?
Green: I prefer not to comment on Blankfein.
SPIEGEL: How often do you experience naked greed in your industry?
Green: Very often. But the overwhelming majority of people want to be convinced that their work makes sense and has a purpose. Profits alone are pointless. This also applies to bank employees. In this sense, all cultures and religions are very similar. However, working for the common good, coming up with an effective social welfare system -- all of this also needs functioning banks too.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the crisis has led to surprisingly few changes so far. There are hardly any new laws and bankers are once again giving themselves breathtaking bonuses. And the financial products that triggered the crisis in the first place are already being traded again.
Green: There is more happening than you think. Everyone is learning in, and from, this crisis. However, this process has just begun.
SPIEGEL: Are you asking for patience?
Green: The reform of the capitalist system, which is necessary, is far too important for us to be acting precipitously. Caution is important. We could make mistakes if we act too quickly.
SPIEGEL: But acting too slowly is an even greater risk. First in with a suggestion for change, first served. And that could lead to nothing changing at all.
Green: I consider that risk to be low. I'm more optimistic than you are in this regard. And too much protection and regulation could stifle trade, which in turn would first affect the poorest countries. That is precisely what we should be trying to avoid.
SPIEGEL: If there is too little regulation, there is the risk of the next bubble bursting.
Green: Of course, which is precisely why I believe that we should examine very carefully the issue of where and how we can begin with any changes.
SPIEGEL: Is Prime Minister Gordon Brown doing the right thing by drastically taxing the bonuses of British bankers?
Green: That's a political question
SPIEGEL: to which you, as chairman of the British Bankers' Association, ought to have an answer, particularly as the association has already criticized the new law.
Green: All I can say is this: The system has to think and act for the long term, so as to prevent instability. The taxation of bonuses is merely a short-term measure.
SPIEGEL: This sort of thing can sometimes be helpful, if only to allay public outrage over the conduct of bankers.
Green: Certainly. But it doesn't guarantee the system's long-term survival.
SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you considered Brown's venture to be populist.
Green: That's what you say.
SPIEGEL: We also say that we expect to see huge excesses in terms of bonuses in the coming weeks and months
- Part 1: The New World Order 'Is Already Underway'
- Part 2: Bankers Big Bonuses 'Not Particularly Important'
- Part 3: 'We Made it Possible for Poorer People to Own Homes'
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