Can Finance’s Brand Be Fixed?

One step forward, three steps back. It seems that every time the finance industry makes an effort to stabilize and repair its tattered image, it promptly shoots itself in the foot. The latest case of foreclosure “robo-signings”—where foreclosure documents were signed en masse without certification of basic information—certainly won’t help boost finance’s reputation in the eyes of customers and investors. Can the finance industry fix its brand in the eyes of stakeholders, or is it too late?

Advertising agency founder David Ogilvy once defined a brand as the intangible sum of attributes, such as name, packaging, price, history, and reputation. However, with a $2 trillion dollar mess still looming from the 2008 financial crisis, “Main Street” rage bubbling over financial bailouts of large institutions and minimal credit supplied by financial firms (despite interest rates at all time lows), there is much for financial companies to do in terms of brand repair.

In the United States, the finance industry still supplies a significant portion of gross domestic product. With so many people employed by the finance industry, and the importance of credit to an economic system, it is certainly in the industry’s best interest to restore consumer trust. Enclosed are two steps (there may be more) towards this effort.

Realize Perceived Shortcuts Are Rarely Shortcuts

A wise teacher once counseled that “anything worth doing is worth doing right.” This is a lesson that the finance industry has continually failed to learn. James Surowiecki from The New Yorker points out in “Back Office Blues” that banks have created another PR mess that could have been easily avoided. He says, “(Banks) have foreclosed on homes without having the proper documentation and (instead) relied on unqualified people to sign affidavits attesting to things they didn’t know. In a few cases, they seem to have actually tossed people who didn’t have mortgages out of their homes.” And now, Surowiecki notes, “As a result, federal regulators and attorney generals in all 50 states are now investigating.”

The costs saved by employing minimally qualified personnel to daily sign thousands of foreclosure documents will likely be dwarfed by litigation costs and an eventual settlement that could range in the billions. Surowiecki continues, “Banks have preferred to do things on the cheap, which is an open invitation to trouble, including fraud.” Indeed, cutting corners to save a buck, in most instances ends up costing two.

Consider Health Before Wealth

In a letter to the editor of the Financial Times, dated Nov. 9, 2010, twenty professors from prominent universities, such as Stanford, MIT, and Berkeley, openly criticized regulatory reform passed by most advanced economies. “Banks high leverage and the resulting fragility and systemic risk contributed to the near collapse of the financial system,” they wrote. The authors suggest that higher capital requirements—or a buffer against volatile markets—are in order to ensure a healthier banking system, rather than focusing on “high returns for banks’ shareholders and managers, with taxpayers picking up the losses and economies suffering the fall-out.”

A healthy banking system is still one that takes risks, but also has an appropriate capital buffer for turbulent times. Holding a sufficient capital buffer makes it less likely the financial system will need another taxpayer bailout. Ultimately, better risk management strategies will help renew trust in the banking system.

When asked about qualifications needed to obtain credit, JP Morgan famously replied, “The first thing (needed) is character … Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.” What suggestions do you have for the finance industry to restore its reputation?

Related: Reputation Management—Not Needed Until It’s Needed

 

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4 comments

  1. Now that’s a challenge. 🙂 My questions before giving any advice would be:

    – Has financial industry ever had a “good” reputation? In what way? So what can/should actually be “restored”?

    – What do people in financial industry actually believe in?

    The second question seems actually most important to me. I see most of the management in this industry as:

    – selfcentered
    – money lovers
    – percentage lovers
    – not interested in the content
    – opportunitists

    Values vary among employees in that business. But in management (account managers, top management) it is about money and money only.

    Now, how can I ever trust them? How can they ever build a “good” reputation in my head?

    Only when they will drive an just about average car, have just above average pay-check and leaving that suit at home. Come in to work in some regular outfit. Welcoming people at door, not driving into garage and just to the top with the elevator.

    Of course, this is where the industry foundation is broken down. Because customers would not feel trust then and wouldn’t invest money in. That is what I’ve heard once from people that know the industry.

    • Whew, Dusan! Tell me what you really think! 🙂 I really appreciate your comments on this post.

      Despite my frustrations with some industry practices, what would our economies be like without the availability of credit to grease the wheels of commerce? And where would we be without concepts such as risk management and insurance? So I believe we need finance, but we may not need some of it’s most risky practices.

      As an aside… do you think that only negative items about the finance industry come to light because these types of stories sell papers and advertising? Are there stories of finance that just aren’t making the front pages of WSJ, FT and other places because few like to read positive stories? Is there a bias towards negative finance stories in mainstream press?

      • I really think I’m having a light cold. 🙂

        Sure, it seems like we need them. In a way, they make our lives easier. But in a way that they were historically present – a lot of people put money in, some take money out. And you take a few percent here and there.

        Nowadays it is about which bank makes more fortune. Which bank can afford bigger buildings. Competition. And that’s where it gets nasty. To prove themselves, managers are ready to go the wrong way I assume.

        As for the media (press) practices. Yes, it’s just about the dark-ages. Cause people really really love hearing that. Someone had a worst day then me. Isn’t that really nice? Not. But it’s the reality. Yellow press makes better money.

        How can we change that? I see money as a problem here. 🙂 It just raises the wrong motivation in many people.

  2. Dusan, as to your comment, “I see money as a problem here. It just raises the wrong motivation in many people.” As long as incentives are tied to simply shareholder value and not stakeholder value (customers, employees, suppliers AND shareholders), I think we’ll have a problem with incentives tied to behavior that doesn’t benefit society overall.

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