By Jo Poole on December 2, 2010
At the recent Quaker Business Conference 2010, senior Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett explained why she thought the answer to the above question is ‘yes’. Before becoming a journalist, Gillian worked as a social anthropologist in Soviet Tajikistan while studying for a PhD. One of the things anthropologists observe is what is discussed and, perhaps more important, what is not discussed. Applying this approach to the financial markets in late 2004, Gillian observed that most of the media coverage concerned stocks and shares while debt and derivatives were largely ignored. She found that there had been a revolution in capital markets finance with innovations such as the ‘slicing and dicing’ of debt to create composite debt packages known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) which were then sometimes ‘sliced and diced’ further to create CDOs squared! She drew her colleagues’ attention to the ‘social silences’ on these topics by means of what became known within the FT as ‘iceberg memos’ and was permitted to write about them in the FT, but unfortunately in the capital markets section which is a low-profile, inside-page section of the newspaper. Her recent book, Fool’s Gold, sets out her analysis of the events leading up to the financial crisis.
Gillian commented that there had as yet been little input from religious groups on the banking reforms required to prevent another crisis.
Gillian closed with two key thoughts. First, if confidence in the financial system is to be restored, only those financial innovations that have a socially-useful purpose should be accepted. Second, one of the means elites use to stay in power is by controlling what is discussed and what is not discussed. Many aspects of modern life such as medicine and engineering are controlled by experts and are seen by most people as ‘geeky’, boring and technical.
In the other plenary session James Bradbury, Manager at Central England Quaker Meeting, talked about five main governance issues that had been addressed in the last five years. Two comments struck me as particularly noteworthy. First, change is seldom popular but good communication can soften the blow. Second, feedback from clients of the Meeting’s conference facilities indicates that that the commitment to ethical trading and sustainability and the fact that the profits are remitted to a charity are highly valued.
In the afternoon delegates could choose two workshops from the following: decision making, how to ensure our employees know they are loved, action planning, fair trade in cotton: a practical example and Quaker principles: help or hindrance in business?
We left refreshed, ready to tackle again our home and business issues with new ideas and contacts.
Report written by John Nairn – The Quakers & Business Group