Economy

Fed Official To Big Banks: Change Company Culture Or Risk Being Broken Up

CREDIT: AP

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Manhattan.

Bankers must fix a business culture that encourages bad behavior, Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) head William Dudley told Wall Street executives in a speech on Monday. Without sweeping changes such as making managers pay regulatory fines out of their own pockets, he said, banks will force regulators to break the biggest firms up into smaller companies.

Citing “ongoing occurrences of serious professional misbehavior, ethical lapses, and compliance failures at financial institutions,” Dudley accused the bankers of repaying taxpayer bailouts and political deference to the financial sector with self-enriching malfeasance. “The pattern of bad behavior did not end with the financial crisis, but continued despite the considerable public sector intervention that was necessary to stabilize the financial system,” the regulator said.

Cultural failings are difficult to reverse in large institutions. When those institutions control the financial health of the world economy, a culture of rule-breaking and risk-taking can end up destroying trillions of dollars of wealth for billions of people far outside that system.

The way big banks structure worker compensation helped drive the risky and dishonest deals that made the financial crisis so catastrophic, as William Black and other finance experts have convincingly argued. By linking pay to short-term outcomes, banks created a culture that encouraged staff and executives alike to make decisions that would boost returns in the short-term without regard for their long-term consequences.

Years after the crisis, there is still a cultural willingness to break the rules for personal gain. A 2013 survey of bankers found that one in four would break the law for a big enough payday. That ethical problem is more severe among younger members of the field, 38 percent of whom would cheat to win if given the chance.

In his speech, Dudley rejected the idea that bank abuses are caused by “a few bad apples,” instead blaming “the culture of the firms” which “is largely shaped by the firms’ leadership.” In addition to changing how they lead their companies in the day-to-day conduct of business, Dudley said, executives should rewire how they are paid in ways that would tie banker pay to regulatory compliance and to better outcomes for the broader economy. Failure to effect cultural changes of this sort would ultimately mean “that your firms need to be dramatically downsized and simplified so they can be managed effectively,” Dudley said.

The comments come a little less than a year after Dudley’s last major public warning to bankers. Last November, the FRBNY president made headlines for suggesting that bankers believe themselves to be above the law. Then as now, Dudley said a “cultural shift” was necessary to prevent a repeat of the meltdown that caused the Great Recession.

Dudley’s own organization has come under fire recently from analysts and a former staffer who say the FRBNY coddles the banks it oversees and represses internal critics of the industry. In September, audio recordings from inside the FRBNY surfaced in a joint report by ProPublica and This American Life. The tapes portray a culture of deference toward the biggest banks on the part of Dudley’s staff, dominated by consensus and group-think to such a degree that a team member who took a sharper line in her analysis was discouraged from pushing for her viewpoint.

The tapes, which were made by the outspoken team member prior to her firing from her position, also capture a team that supervised Goldman Sachs talking tough with each other in the prep sessions for a big meeting with the bank but then failing to deliver the kind of stiff questioning of Goldman executives that they had planned together. The FRBNY strongly contested the ProPublica/This American Life story in a written statement but declined to participate in interviews for it.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have called for a congressional investigation into the regulatory culture at the bank since the tapes surfaced. Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Al Green (D-TX), and Keith Ellison (D-MN) have echoed that request.

Dudley’s new endgame for those cultural problems in the banking business is likely to resonate with the same set of politicians who want his own organization investigated. More than four years after passing the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that set up several new structures designed to prevent a future crisis without imposing too far on how banks operate, a number of progressive lawmakers have expressed interest in going further and potentially forcing the largest banks to break up and shrink.

In the years since the crisis, however, the biggest handful of banking companies have only gotten bigger, and Wall Street executive pay has soared.