Part 1 of 4 in series "Finance and the Common Good"

Discussions on bankers’ financial rewards, the regulation of banks’ buffers, and fraudulous practices have been ongoing ever since the onset of the financial crisis of 2008. A common thread in this debate is that the financial sector seems/is detached from society’s concerns. This is exactly the topic of the book  Finance and The Common Good (Amsterdam University Press). On July 3rd the book was presented to Kees van Dijkhuizen, CEO of ABN AMRO bank, an event visited by some 60 participants.

The book is the outcome of expert seminars which Dutch NGO Socires organized in The Netherlands in 2017. During these seminars professionals from the financial sector and scholars together discussed the sector’s challenges. These challenges have become even more urgent now that we are facing an economic boom similar to the 2008 crisis. The book builds on the idea that the financial sector was, however, not the only cause of this crisis. In his introductory speech at the book launch, editor Cor van Beuningen argued that society as a whole has transformed into a system of “anonymous and systemic transactions” rather than relationships.

How the financial sector can and should relate to society as a whole is discussed by various contributors to the book, including former Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende and his minister of Finance Wouter Bos, EU chairman Herman van Rompuy, as well as Dutch scholars such as economist Lans Bovenberg, and philosophers Govert Buijs and Haroon Sheikh. Chapters include, for example, Will Ethics Ever Trump Finance? (Christiaan Vos), Reconnecting Finance and Society – About Rules and Purpose (Theodor Kockelkoren) and Is Relational Thinking Wishful Thinking? (Johan Graafland). The full table of contents can be found on the book’s page at the Moral Markets bookshelf.

During the book launch, Kees van Dijkhuizen en Annemieke Roobeek, two important change leaders at ABN AMRO bank, talked about the transition towards a more purpose-driven strategy at ABN AMRO. One indication of the shift the bank has, according to CEO Kees van Dijkhuizen, made in the past years, is the renewal of the bank’s mission statement: ‘Banking for better, for generations to come’. This statement was the result of a company-wide reflection on the bank’s purpose and ideals. Especially since the crisis, the need for a sustainable care for society and ecology is felt on all levels of the bank’s operations, he claimed. One result of this is the increase in the bank’s portfolio of the share of green finance, on which both private and institutional investors are keen to act.

Annemieke Roobeek, member of the board of directors of the ABN AMRO bank, stressed how the crisis has induced the bank to do things differently rather than continuing business as usual. Moreover, she emphasized that there always exists an undertow and uppertow, or both a challenge and an opportunity. While there is much demand for sustainable finance, the ABN AMRO is still a major player in the Dutch financial market. Institutional change is therefore inherently slow-paced, and should be done with care. However, there are many signs that ABN AMRO has chosen the right path, she asserted.

All the while, Roobeek worries about the fast rise of unregulated FinTech initiatives, not in the first place by small start-ups, but especially by big (online) media companies. While the promises posed by these new entrants seem great at first hand, it remains to be seen if and how these new financial service providers will care for the common good. Final speaker Haroon Sheikh, working at the Dutch Council of Scientists (WRR), also stressed the importance of technological developments in the financial sector. Technology may have harmful effects on society. However, he argued that rather than stressing all dangers that technology may bring, one should look at this in a more positive way, arguing that: “how to change these technologies in such a way that we can do profoundly good things with it?”. His remarks echo the assertions of another important book on the financial sector: Robert Shiller’s book on Finance and the Good Society (2012).

An important issue raised during the (short) discussion after the talks was the fact that the initiative of Socires might be already too late given the ongoing developments in among others technology. Participants expressed the need for a sustainable financial alternative which will express a clear European vision on how the common good can best be reached. Rens van Tilburg, moderator of the book launch and director of the Dutch Sustainable Finance Lab said that such a new vision will soon be put soon on their website.

The book and the seminars from which it resulted are, I think, still much needed wake-up calls for the financial sector to put human flourishing first, urging bankers to relate to society and address the common good. The choice of presenters for this event highlighted the efforts that banks themselves can and have to make. However, the role of broader structures and institutions should not to be overlooked in making this re-connection. For example, last weekend the Dutch minister of Finance expressed his inability of restricting the bonus systems of bankers in case a bank needs to be bailed out: this is impossible due to European competition law. If the financial sector faces a crisis again (which is likely, given the current amounts of debt in society) such constraints will be at the cost of society and the common good. The book’s call for a transformation to relational finance is therefore not only necessary, it is highly urgent.

The author thanks Kees Buitendijk who provided valuable additions to an earlier draft, and Ilse Oosterlaken for editing the final draft.