Saturday, April 05, 2014

Ethical Half-Lives In Finance

The few conversations I've had with people younger than me who aspired to finance careers always covered personal integrity.  I could not ignore this subject because it is the ultimate litmus test of whether someone belongs in a large corporation.  I use the term "belong" in a somewhat pejorative sense, as you'll see below.

I worked for three very large financial sector firms at various points in my career.  They all publicly held themselves out as putting the client's interests ahead of their own.  I observed their employees honoring this commitment more as an exception to general practices behind the corporate veil.  It is possible to make a decent living by genuinely caring for a client, meeting their expectations, and charging them reasonable fees.  Managers in large corporations often discount that objective by pushing their revenue producers (brokers, advisors, traders, loan officers, etc.) to make their department's growth numbers look good.  That's how managers get promoted.

The competition for promotions in finance is fierce and unforgiving.  A fast and loose approach to ethics is an easy ticket to the big time.  It is very difficult to have a long career in a large organization without resorting to unethical behavior.  The outsized rewards in finance tempt normal people to stray over to the dark side.  The ones who cross over often enough will never look back, and never realize where they went wrong.  Those rare people who climb ladders ethically and build business honestly deserve respect.  The rest of these people are clawing, grasping, vicious vipers who masquerade as humans to deceive clients.  They "belong" in a large corporation in the same sense that criminals belong in prison.  Society must keep its sociopathic predators under positive control.

I care more about my personal integrity than my career.  I performed very poorly when I worked in large financial institutions because I told the truth, followed rules, and executed my duties correctly.  My supervisors marked me for elimination after observing my behavior.  I wasn't fit for employment in their eyes because I would not lie or manipulate people.  I stand out as an oddball and I couldn't care less.  I dislike unethical people as much as they dislike me.

The half-lives of financial careers may be longest in corporate finance because incidences of temptation occur least frequently there.  It's always possible to falsify payment invoices but internal auditors can catch those instantly, especially if they're tied to the enterprise's supply chain.  There may very well be plenty of honest CFOs and treasurers around, and maybe this is why so many of them are sitting on piles of corporate cash rather than investing in overpriced assets.

Career half-lives are probably shortest in the financial sector's customer-facing roles.  I specifically envision retail brokerage, institutional sales, and investment banking rainmakers as the career paths that winnow out honest people very quickly.  The pressures to meet performance goals and earn bonuses are largest in those fields.  Opportunities to deceive investors appear daily.  The biggest liars and laziest trust fund babies win the retail production games.

Anyone who considers a career in finance should think very hard about the choice they will face soon after they begin work.  Personal integrity and career success in a large enterprise become mutually exclusive at some point during upward career progression.  Employees will choose one path over another.  Choosing personal integrity usually leads to unemployment.  Choosing career success usually means making ethical compromises.  Those compromises come with severe legal risks that cannot stay buried forever in an era of pervasive surveillance.  Having both integrity and success is possible with self-employment.  I have extended my career's half-life by working for myself.