Who robbed the banks?
Go to the movies and find out. A powerful new Hollywood documentary, Inside Job, tells the story of the biggest bank robbery of all time. The film depicts the blow to the global economy (and to people's livelihoods) precipitated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the fall of Lehman Brothers, and the failures of big banks. Written by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon, Inside Job is as gripping as a George Clooney-Las Vegas heist flick — but real, and the stolen money was ours. This robbery was pulled off by banking and insurance insiders who walked away with billions of dollars.
Complex new financial packages with a taint of gambling and a tinge of a Ponzi scheme, the film says, were sold by bankers with the support of ratings agencies, government policy-makers, regulators, and academic economists — many of whom had overlapping ties and moved among sectors. Several economists interviewed on camera stumble over their words when confronted with their own inaccurate but influential predictions based on weak empirical data and clear conflicts of interest. Those conflicts were sometimes obfuscated or undisclosed — e.g., being paid by those being reported on
Others say "I told you so" in retrospect, some with more credibility than others. A credible voice is that of former New York Attorney General and Governor Eliot Spitzer, who zealously prosecuted Wall Street. Throwing in some sex and conspiracy theories, Inside Job puts the Spitzer prostitute scandal in perspective. The film interviews a Wall Street Madame who asserts that patronizing prostitutes is common practice within the highest ranks of the financial world. Spitzer's persecution emerges as revenge for his attacks on Wall Street. Spitzer was clearly wrong. But why were top bankers not dragged into the same mud?
Did anyone suspect that a massive house of cards would fall with the House of Lehman? And did anyone act on it? Insider after crony insider is shown resisting preventative action or strong remedies. But in stark contrast, Christine Lagarde, finance minister of France, who was called by Newsweek in 2007 a "French powerhouse with an American sensibility," led European responses to the crisis, including tighter regulation of the banking system.
In short, a woman stands out as the only real hero in Inside Job. This is noteworthy because there is a growing global movement to ensure that there are larger numbers of women in top positions in the economy. This includes quotas to require more women on corporate boards in Norway, in public offices in Rwanda, and with management positions in large German companies. That movement leads me to a question.
What if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters?
Around the same time that I saw Inside Job, the gender gap, not the financial crisis, was the theme of a World Economic Forum/Harvard Kennedy School conference. At the event, experts presented research data implying that women are more trustworthy, risk averse, and altruistic, at least in the sense of negotiating more effectively for other people than for themselves. A preliminary study by Canadian researchers at the University of British Columbia business school offered an unproven but provocative hypothesis that high testosterone levels (men of a certain age) are associated with more aggressive decisions that throw caution to the winds. A National Council for Research on Women report showed that investment management, a field at the heart of the financial crisis, has one of the lowest, and most stubbornly persistent, percentages of women of any major U.S. industry.
Thus, an equation was born in my mind:
more women = less self-interested greed = less imprudent risk = more solid asset values = healthier balance sheets.
Would closing the gender gap to increase the number of women financial leaders improve financial institutions and prevent further damage to the global financial system?
I am cautious about this idea, because good stereotypes of women can be just as confining and inaccurate as bad stereotypes. And of course, increasing numbers of women won't by itself change institutions; theoretical economics, deregulation, and undoubtedly pure greed were major villains in Inside Job. But getting more women on the inside with greater power and influence could be a useful step. When elites become more diverse, certain crony strangle-hoods are loosened.
Crony capitalism perpetuates itself because the brotherhood passes favors among brothers and rewards hired guns. Inside Job slams the ratings agencies for giving high ratings to securities that turned out to be a trash collection. But, the film points out, the agencies were paid by the purveyors of items entities they rated.
Let's call a halt to crony capitalism in which robberies can take place from the inside. Inclusion and diversity should be as important as transparency and full disclosure as standards for the next economy.
Disclosure: I saw Inside Job at a private screening hosted by Executive Producers Christina and Jeffrey Lurie. The Luries are personal friends, and I wrote about Jeff Lurie and his Philadelphia Eagles in my book Confidence. I spoke at the Gender Gap conference. There was free popcorn at the movie.