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An interview with Marcos Eguiguren

Economist, PhD in Business Administration. Professor at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (www.gabv.org), co-founder of SingularNet (www.singularnet.biz) and an advisor for several associations.

Questions

  1. What does ethics of radical responsibility mean to you?

I would summarise it in one simple sentence, “doing what is right according to your human values, when no one sees you and without anyone obliging you”.

I am going to link this with a very serious current problem, especially in the western part of the world, which is causing a very dangerous crisis, and we are starting to see it in terms of politics and we don’t know where it can take us. This is driven by the non-assumption of radical ethics by citizens and economic agents. And, what will happen when this occurs? Well, obviously, this responsibility will be outsourced to third parties, in other words, to the state, the public administrations.

Therefore, public powers become the “guardians of ethics”, and they end up regulating everything so much that people become immoral, because the only necessary morality, my only responsibility, is to obey the law. When we delegate ethics within the state, we run a serious risk as a species, as humanity, because we transfer our responsibility to a third party. And as it is impossible to regulate everything, we have tons of rules that nobody understands and that cause people to become disillusioned and dissociated.

When citizens abandon their ethical responsibility functions, this is what happens and this trend does not occur only in Europe, I see it all over the world.

  1. You are currently the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV), an independent network of banks and banking cooperatives with a shared mission to deliver sustainable economic, social and environmental development. Is it possible to bank on values and be profitable?

Fundamentally, yes. At the GABV we do a yearly comparative analysis of the sector’s financial performance and the data indicate that the alliance’s banks are more financially sound than systematic banks. They have more cash flow, a slightly higher profitability and, the most important thing, very small volatility.

But this doesn’t just happen in banking, and there is nothing indicating that, except for some corruption in our brain, you don’t have to act in accordance with ethical values to manage a company and for it to be profitable. A company that acts with human values in its relations with its stakeholders and that makes sensible and values-based decisions, if it does it well, it will be a company that achieves greater loyalty from employees, more satisfaction and loyalty from customers and, finally, also adequate profitability.

If someone believes “or I am ethical or I am profitable”, they are very wrong.

  1. We have witnessed a reputation and credibility loss in the financial sector for years. Recently, the draft of the “Principles of Responsible Banking” was launched in Paris, promoted by UNEP FI and 27 banks, among which are BBVA, Banco Santander and Triodos Bank. Do you think that this initiative, as a whole, can make it possible for banks to be fundamental catalysts to guide the economy towards “the truth” to improve people’s lives?

We have witnessed a loss in reputation over the last two decades and I am not surprised because banking, with a few exceptions, has played an unfortunate role in economic activity. When a company wants to act in a genuine manner and according to certain values, economic benefit cannot be its main objective. Other aspects should be considered beforehand, such as what it is here for and in what way it will satisfy the rational needs of society, and since this has not been the case, an enormous systemic risk has been generated all over the world.

If we say that the crisis broke out with subprime mortgages in the USA in August 2007, we can see today similar actions being carried out eleven years later. A bank that pushes people into debt, that does not act sensibly with trade policies, is simply not credible. These banks have a big image problem and will continue in this sense if they do not take it seriously

It is true that the “Principles of Responsible Banking” have been raised and this is without a doubt an appreciated and positive fact, but I still have doubts about it. I am very sceptical that it really means a change in the sector. Because the driving banks are huge banks, banks that hold a very important role of their business off balance, with trillions of dollars in assets. If banks that sign up really want to be serious about applying these principles, they should be forced to make profound changes in their systems and business models, in their balance structure and trade policy. What scares me is that the majority of cases seem to be a cosmetic gesture. I hope I am wrong. A bank is its balance and changing it is difficult. It requires a great transformation, a lot of time and real commitment.

  1. In recent years, awareness on banking with values has sky-rocketed, but what is needed for more people and institutions to adopt it as an option and an effective solution?

In Spain it is growing by 25%, with more than 350,000 customers currently operating in banks with values. We are still at 1.5% of the global volume of customers, but if we compare this percentage to a few years ago, there has been a significant growth.

In Europe, with high bank performance rates, we are still far away even though we have gained volume quickly. But in countries with a lower bank performance level (such as Paraguay, Bolivia, Mongolia, Bangladesh…), banks with values hold a second or third place on the market.

What can we do in Europe? Clearly, I appeal to rationality and the values of citizens as consumers, of customers. A person who has an account in a financial institution must seriously ask themselves what their bank does with their money. Because banks operate with depositors’ money. We should ask banks the following, in this order:

  • Who are you going to lend my money to, what for and why?
  • How do you manage money and what level of security can I expect?
  • And, finally, what profitability are you going to give me?

I ask citizens to be more critical with the way they consume. They must ask themselves which companies they trust: Are things done sensibly? Where are they manufacturing? Do they apply criteria to respect the environment? The bank I trust my money with, does it have a transparent trade policy? To whom do they lend money?

This is a fundamental element. And this should come with certain institutional support, but without falling into reversing functions, as mentioned before.

  1. In one of your articles you state that we are moving towards ethical leadership business behaviours and models in which values aimed at producing a positive impact on people’s lives are increasingly present. What would characterise these leadership models?

If we start with Rousseau’s concept that human beings are good by nature, with reasonable human values, we must apply the same values from our personal lives to the professional and business side.
My weekend values are the same as those I should apply from Monday to Friday.

These leadership models have a series of characteristics:

  • They are authentic, genuine people, who do not have another side to them. Authenticity is a very important element.
  • These are people who prioritise transparency, as an additional element, making it more feasible for a company to be guided by ethical criteria. Because transparency itself is not good or bad.
  • They are people who prioritise justice in decision-making, understood in a broad sense, but not as egalitarianism.
  • They are leaders with a high understanding of the company’s mission and purpose. An ethical leadership model is one in which leaders understand the company’s responsibility regarding the “mission-oriented” society, providing solutions for society. We need missions that flee economic elements.
  1. Finally, in three words, what does incorporating ethics in decision-making mean for you?

Authenticity, firmness in the application of human values, justice in decision-making.

Incorporating ethics into the decision-making process is having the courage to do the right thing over what a short-term economic benefit can mean.

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Read the original interview in Spanish here.

Courtesy of beEthik.

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