It may be the season for peace on Earth and goodwill to all men, but you don’t have to look very far in the financial pages to find stories about businesses doing exactly the opposite. NatWest, for example, has just agreed to pay US$35 million (£26 million) to the US authorities after pleading guilty to fraudulent activities in the financial markets.
KPMG, one of the largest professional services firms in the world, has temporarily resigned from bidding for UK government contracts. It is under pressure from the authorities to reform after being fined £13 million by an industry tribunal for serious misconduct relating to the collapse of bedmaker Silentnight, and an investigation by the Financial Reporting Council that has found that KPMG partners provided false and misleading information during routine audit inspections.
Meanwhile, chief executives and other corporate insiders have offloaded a record US$69 million in shares in 2021. Much of this is through a legitimate type of insider trading in the US, where executives use a system known as 10b5-1 plans to sell shares even when they have material information about the business which has not been publicly disclosed. This has prompted hasty new proposals from the US authorities to clamp down on how such sales can be carried out.
All these activities fly in the face of the high standards of integrity and protection of the public interest that are supposed to exist among banks, listed companies and consultancies. It’s tempting to think that there is a simple solution when such things come to light: a change of the rules here, a fine there, a temporary ban on bidding for contracts somewhere else.
Unfortunately something deeper is required. Here there are similarities to the huge debate about how to move to net zero emissions. Most of the emphasis is on moving to net zero technologies like wind farms or electric vehicles, rather than addressing the underlying problem of the corporation’s fundamental relationship with nature.
Whether we are talking about carbon emissions or corporate executives acting ethically, the issue is the same: economics and business have become a chainsaw on the very fabric of our interconnected world. We cannot escape a fundamental re-examination of our beliefs about money, markets, and a transactional, individualist and competitive society.
Learning from religion
Fortunately for us, faiths have been reflecting on the nature and limits of money for hundreds of years. They see business as a servant of society, never its master. Ancient traditions give us a caring and respectful attitude to planet Earth, where human greed is restrained, and kindness and compassion towards all living beings encouraged.
In Christianity, caring for the weak and the poor has always been central to its practices, and Christmas is intended to be a time for charity and generosity. It teaches us to control our greed, to experience interdependence and the joy of giving.
The Dharmic traditions of India – Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and my own tradition, Jainism – have never treated animals and nature as separate from humanity. It was under the Boddhi tree that the Buddha attained enlightenment. Trees provide safe havens to birds without charging them for parking, and offer them the choicest fruits without trying to turn themselves into restaurants.
Trees stand firm even on hot days, freely giving shade to those who come under their embrace. The interdependence of sun, soil and rain is understood by the tree. The silent actions of trees give us a timeless science of non-violence (ahimsa), non-possession (aparigraha) and humility (namrata).
At root, money has always been a medium of exchange, a fiction which we humans have created to help us deal with everyday needs. Its value derives from the trust that we give to each other. The more we turn money into a factual, materialistic and overarching reality, the more insecure and selfish we become as a society.
Financial institutions and professions have forgotten these basic truths about the nature and limits of money. They have distanced themselves from the trust, relationships and conscience which ought to be central to how it is handled. Too often they have become the vehicles for spreading distrust and inequality, by using their political and economic power to benefit themselves at the expense of nature and society.
India invented the zero, and it also has thousands of saints who even today live with zero wealth. These people are devoted to exploring the possibilities of inner security and freedom that lies beyond material existence.
In a similar way, the corporate world and finance education needs to go back to the fundamentals of money and its social roots to renew its culture. We have heard a lot about the need to transition to net zero emissions, but we also need to try and bring about a contented and sharing culture. Business needs to live in harmony with animals and nature, help support the weak and enable everyone to survive, not just a chosen few.