Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On the contradictions of banking

Their tension is built into their business: they are looking after other people's savings, yet they make their profits from lending them out, which must entail risks. "If we don't take risks, then we're not real bankers," says Tom Clausen, who ran Bank of America before he took over the World Bank. Bankers often stress that they are merely reacting to external events: like women in Victorian times, they are not required to take initiatives, only to say yes or no. "I'm just trying to deal with a succession of accidents," says Walter Wriston. "It's like surfing," says a partner of Barings, "just waiting for the next wave, and trying to keep upright." Yet the more they compete, the more aggressively the seek to lend. "This bank, " says Harold Cleveland, historian of Citibank, "has a tradition of being very conservative and very aggressive"; and other banks claim the same combination. It sounds contradictory, but it is the bankers' dilemma. A small customer who trusts a bank with his savings may be shocked to learn that his money has been lent aggressively across the world; or that what a bank calls its assets are in fact its loans. But bankers ever since Shylock have been accustomed to being reviled; their long suffering style assumes that their true value will never be appreciated. (pg. 21)

This is from The Money Lenders by Anthony Sampson, an interesting diversion through the history of banking until the late 1970s.

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