As a consequence of the global crisis, financial services executives are preparing for a regulatory overhaul. But probably few have considered how to deal with the intensive scrutiny of their sector that’s now coming from all corners – the public, NGOs, foreign governments, the media, think tanks, and organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
If the experiences of the oil, gas, and mining industries are any guide, such scrutiny will be a long-term force to be reckoned with. In response to outcries against diamond trafficking and corruption in oil-producing and other resource-rich countries, a coalition of organizations has kept extractive companies under a microscope for the past decade, demanding transparency and accountability. This has changed how those companies operate, prompting them to take such measures as appointing sustainability managers to their executive committees and performing in-depth assessments of the societal effects of their operations. Anglo American, for instance, produces a lengthy “Report to Society” detailing the company’s impact on indigenous peoples and its management of human capital, among many other things.
With the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (which involves NGOs, the numerous national governments, and international institutions) closely monitoring transactions between governments and businesses in those sectors, it’s increasingly rare for resources policies to be formulated in off-the-record discussions between politicians and executives. In fact, many oil, gas, and mining companies have come to recognize that increased transparency can be in their own best interests, especially in corrupt or unstable countries, where requests for bribery can be common.
Banks and asset management firms are bound to see the same kind of pressure applied to policy making in their industry. Some of the most influential figures in the good governance movement, which has exposed and challenged the corruption that has been hampering economic growth in Russia, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, have begun studying whether a lack of transparency in the drafting of financial regulations contributed to the global crisis. Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the IMF, has argued, provocatively, that governments must break the “financial oligarchy” that he believes is blocking essential reform. And Daniel Kaufmann, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who has conducted research on governance and corruption, has spoken out about weak banking regulations in wealthy countries, asserting, “We in the field of governance and anticorruption – let’s face it – we were asleep at the wheel.” Kaufmann says that once the world recognizes that “legal corruption” (the use of legal political contributions to get preferential treatment in the area of regulation) was at the root of the financial crisis, we’ll have to have more transparency. The G-20 nations have already taken a step in this direction, endorsing a peer review process by which member countries would assess the stability of other countries’ financial systems.
Rather than hoping that the public pressure will simply go away, banks and asset management firms should embrace transparency. Doing so will help them rebuild their reputations more quickly. Indeed, banking executives, like their counterparts in the extractive industries, may well conclude that they stand to benefit from a “Banking Industry Transparency Initiative” focused on overhauling regulation in a deliberative manner in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. Without such an initiative, regulatory reforms may turn out to be extreme or driven by populism. The last thing the financial industry needs, after all, is politicized legislation made hastily while public anger is at its highest.
This article was originally published in the July-August 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review.