A few days ago, I attended a conference on the work of French sociologist Pierre Bordieu and its relevance for accounting. There were many things to take away but one of them was the fact that, in later life, Bordieu increasingly became an activist as well as an academic. In his 2003 work Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2, he famously wrote:
“Those who have the good fortune to be able to devote their lives to the study of the social world cannot stand aside, neutral and indifferent, from the struggles in which the future of the world is at stake.”
He was specifically referring to sociologists, but I think the same is true of business educators and, most relevant to me, finance educators. Following the financial crisis, a writer in The Economist observed the following:
“Most of the people at the heart of the crisis— from Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers to John Thain at Merrill Lynch to Andy Hornby at HBOS—had MBAs after their name . . . In recent years about 40% of the graduates of America’s best business schools ended up on Wall Street, where they assiduously applied the techniques that they had spent a small fortune learning. You cannot both claim that your mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world”. . . and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign.” (Economist, September 24, 2009: on-line edition, quoted in Crossan et al, 2013)
Of course, business schools have always included at least some materials on ethics, and are even starting to consider character, as Crossan and her colleagues set out in their paper, but I do not think this goes far enough. There is a bigger issue that has bugged me more and more in my many years as a finance educator and I would express it like this:
The general assumption seems to be that finance is a technocratic, value-neutral discipline. It is taught the same way all over the world to people of widely different cultures and outlooks. Ethics in finance largely consist of reporting things correctly (sic), ensuring that controls are effective, rules are complied with and that managers discharge their responsibilities to their shareholders or stakeholders.
It does not take very much effort to deconstruct and undermine this view. Jacques Derrida argued that symbols (which include words and numbers) never have a fixed, neutral meaning. Meaning of symbols is always “deferred” into other symbols. In other words, meaning of any sort depends on a complex web of context. Financial numbers mean nothing in isolation, they can only be interpreted in a context, and that context will include values. It follows on from this that, like Bourdieu, Derrida insisted on an activist dimension to his project – “Deconstruction, I have insisted, is not neutral. It intervenes” (Positions).
To take one concrete example, the law in the UK requires directors to act in the best interests of shareholders, which is assumed to be maximising financial return. This is also the assumption behind corporate governance codes and the starting point for most financial analysis techniques. This point is further reinforced by the structure of an income statement, which culminates in the profit or loss attributable to shareholders, inherently conveying the idea that the only really important number is the return to providers of equity capital, as pointed out by Sikka (2015) and others.
It is clear that there is a value system hard-wired into the way we do finance and, to my mind, the best ever summary of that system was set out by the fictional financier Gordon Gekko in his famous speech from the 1987 film Wall Street. If by some chance you have never seen this speech, I highly recommend viewing it. It is an extraordinary piece of film:
Of course, it is obvious to us now that Gekko was spectacularly wrong in his prescription for the USA, and many of us would recoil from his description, but who can deny that his approach is the morality at work in our boardrooms and trading desks? If you have an hour available at some point, a contrary view can be found in this absorbing documentary where the entrepreneur Peter Jones interviews Mark & Mo Constantine, the owners of Lush, along with Chris Dawson, owner of discount store The Range.
Lush is a rare example of a business run to maximise social good rather just profit, although along the way the Constantines have created a spectacularly successful business too. They can do this because the business is privately owned – the reason Mark Constantine declares he would never sell the business is because a publicly-owned company could not operate like this. If he sold the company, it would be absorbed by the dominant paradigm and its values would not last long.
So if we are not happy with Mr Gekko’s approach, are there some alternative approaches which can inform our finance education and practice? I think there are, and will aim to explore these in my next blog post.
Crossan, M., Mazutis, D., Seijts, G. & Gandz, J., “Developing Leadership Character in Business Programs”, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2013, 12 (2), 285–305. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0024A
Sikka, P. (2015) “The hand of accounting and accountancy firms in deepening income and wealth inequalities and the economic crisis: Some evidence”, Critical Perspectives on Accounting, 30, 46–62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpa.2013.02.003