Can Wall Street Sell the Pope on Capitalism?

Pope Francis to Receive Warm Welcome on Wall Street
  • Francis has decried `economy of exclusion and inequality'
  • Bankers say that won't keep them from St. Patrick's Cathedral

Wall Street is turning the other cheek.

Despite Pope Francis’s critique of an inequitable economy and the primacy of profit, finance executives are embracing his arrival in New York next week. Some are seeing the best qualities of their own leaders in the spiritual head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics -- and even holding out hope they may change his mind just a little.

“He’s made it very clear that he has a particular affinity for the downtrodden and the less fortunate,” said Ken Langone, a billionaire investor who co-founded Home Depot Inc. and gave $200 million to New York University’s medical school. “New York, to me, is the city on the hill that demonstrates philanthropy and giving back and caring for others more than any other city. And I think he’ll see that.”

When Francis leads prayers under the pristine ceiling of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on his first official stop in New York Sept. 24, Langone, who’s a trustee, will be in the audience. So will Bank of America Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan and First Data Corp. CEO Frank Bisignano, both of whom contributed to the $175 million restoration of the landmark church.

‘Absolute Power’

The pope, who has decried “savage capitalism,” is hardly a lone voice. Inequality has become a heated political issue in the U.S. and speculation in the mortgage market helped trigger the longest recession since the Great Depression. The largest banks, which required government bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis, have since paid more than $100 billion in fines and settlements over a litany of transgressions.

In a June encyclical on climate change, Francis called for regulating speculative financial practices and reining in the “absolute power” of the financial system, which he said would bring more crises. He has criticized “an economy of exclusion and inequality” and that month sent a message to a conference in London of the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism.

“As the participants reflect on the urgent need to address the scandal of global inequality and to bring economic development and benefit to all people, His Holiness prays that they may keep the good of the human person at the center of all their discussions,” the June message read.

His criticisms haven’t deterred Wall Street executives from praising the pope’s leadership, humility and intellectual rigor ahead of the Argentine’s first trip to the U.S. Some said top financiers share many of his ideals, as well as his management style.

“When you look at some of the great business leaders on Wall Street, they demonstrate a lot of the same attributes the pope demonstrates,” said John Studzinski, a vice chairman at private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP who’s on the board of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Landmark Foundation. “Very clear, strong convictions; strong views on leadership; can’t really be micromanaged; are very stubborn and tenacious, but at the same time are very good listeners and tend to surround themselves with good people.”

Papal Warnings

While some Wall Street executives questioned how much the pope’s warnings were directed at financiers, all said that wouldn’t keep them away from events, including a multifaith service at the 9/11 Memorial and a mass held at Madison Square Garden.

“He’s the pope,” said First Data’s Bisignano, who may also find time amid preparations for an initial public offering to attend the World Trade Center event. “Everyone is talking about the visit.”

Peter Forlenza, Jefferies Group LLC’s global head of equities, is returning to his alma mater in Washington to see Francis at Catholic University of America the day before he departs for New York. While Forlenza said he believes the papal visit will remind companies of their social responsibilities, he also hopes the pontiff will notice the good deeds of many in finance.

“There’s so much philanthropy on Wall Street,” Forlenza said. “My hope is he’ll actually learn more and hear about some of the things that are already happening. Maybe by being on the ground here, he will get an expanded view on that point.”

Income Inequality

Among non-Catholics intrigued by the pope is David Komansky, who was raised Jewish after his Irish Catholic mother converted. The former Merrill Lynch & Co. CEO, who got to know church leaders because the Vatican worked with his firm, said he may attend the pope’s mass at Madison Square Garden after receiving an invitation from Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.

Still, Francis’s focus on income inequality “doesn’t necessarily appeal to me,” said Komansky, Merrill Lynch’s CEO until 2002. “From a very, very macro point of view, his observations are difficult to argue with. However, from a practical point of view, I always ask the question: How do you get it down?”

Francis, 78, is seeking to ensure that people beyond the Wall Street elite see him in person, with a trip planned to a charter school in Harlem and a tour through Central Park, where attendance will be by lottery.

‘Self-Destruction’

In 17 speeches and homilies, including one at the United Nations, the pope is expected to address issues other than inequality, including treatment of refugees and climate change. In the June encyclical, he blamed a “spiral of self-destruction” on rich nations.

“Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations?” the pope wrote.

Langone said he doesn’t see climate change as a result of profit-seeking or as a divisive issue. And Studzinksi, who will attend several of the events in New York, said it’s possible to love the pope even if you don’t agree with him.

“Is there one leader in history where you agree with everything they said?” Studzinski asked.

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