28 June 2009
Stephen Green, chairman of HSBC, recently had lunch with Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, in the Pont de la Tour restaurant overlooking the Thames — and Barber has written an account of the repast in the Weekend FT.
Green, who was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1988, comes over as scholarly, ethically aware, and optimistic. Given the moral turpitude of other bankers, it is reassuring HSBC should have a man such as Green at its head.
Green, who is planning to write an epic account of the broad sweep German history, told Barber that he is convinced that globalisation is a force for the good. He said: “Let’s look at the positives: human cross-cultural fertilisation and enrichment; the delivery of economic development around the world; higher productivity … and in recent times globalisation has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, particularly in China and India. These [benefits] are material, spiritual and cultural.”
The HSBC chairman also said that “rules are never sufficient to enforce morality”, and that too great a focus on shareholder value “inevitably becomes corrosive.” I could not agree more.
He added: “Shareholder value cannot and should not be elevated to the exclusion of all else. It is a by-product of providing goods and services. When the by-product becomes the end, then we distort the whole market. The market is necessary but not sufficient. So ‘No’ to market fundamentalism.”
There’s also an amusing incident in which Green gesticulates so wildly he upturned a glass of water and soaked Barber’s notebook.
Barber concluded by saying: “As God’s banker, Green may have a bleeding heart but he really does possess iron in the soul.”
However something perplexed me in paragraph eight of Barber’s article — this wasn’t Green’s initial reluctance to comment on Fred Goodwin’s astronomical pension (which was understandable in the circumstances.)
It came after Barber again pressed Green on “rewards for failure” and Goodwin’s pension. Green then cited the Biblical story of Zacchaeus, a tale of a corrupt tax superintendent who hands his ill-gotten gains to the poor. To me and presumably to most readers of the FT the analogy is obvious. One possible implication would be that Goodwin was corrupt,and that he might be able salve his conscience by handing some of his ill-gotten gains to the poor — or at least doing some charity work.
But this seems to have been lost of Barber. He writes: “Once again this amounts to an artful dodge: Sir Fred may have been incompetent but nobody is suggesting he was corrupt.”