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2 December 2014

The Pope of the poor and the Seven Deadly Sins of banking practice

Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm, it is clear that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

By Molly Scott Cato

Pope Francis’ description of Europe as “somewhat elderly and haggard” was a gift to both UKIP and headline writers. But the Pontiff had much more to say. For example, he called for a Europe built, “not around the economy, but around the sacred nature of the human person.”

Unusually for a Pope, I didn’t once hear him mention the word sin. Equally surprisingly perhaps, this particular term of transgression was left to the Greens. That’s because on the day Pope Francis made his historic speech to the European Parliament the Greens launched an important website on the “Seven Deadly Sins of Banking“. 

The Pope could no doubt write a full sermon on each of these deadly sins: addiction, megalomania, distortion, exploitation, greed, trickery and recklessness. Indeed, some of his wise pronouncements could even have been written with the banks in mind. Pope Francis has called for, “financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone”, and has urged for a, “return to person-centered ethics in the world of finance and economics”.

So what might this financial reform look like? Last week, on the same day as the Pontiff spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg I also had a chance to address the whole Parliament. I used the opportunity to highlight the need for decisive structural reform of the banking industry.

I pointed out that the two most important causes of the financial crisis have still not been addressed. Firstly, the need for a clear-cut separation of retail from casino banking activities; secondly, the need to reduce the size of individual banks so that no single financial corporation can threaten the global financial system. Banks are still nowhere near the responsible corporations serving the real economy that we need them to be; they are still too big and too interconnected to fail.

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Which brings us back to sin. Using the extensive information in the Green Group’s “Seven Deadly Sins of Banking” website, we discover that UK banks are some of the greatest sinners. Or to put it another way, they rank particularly low in what we have termed a “Banking Social Harm Index”.

UK banks present high levels of speculative activities; they receive high amounts of implicit subsidies and operate in a high number of offshore entities (tax havens). All of which demonstrates precisely the need for such structural reforms in the banking sector.

For each “Deadly Sin”, our website offers atonement, or to put it another way, a solution. These include capping bankers’ salaries, penalising banks with operations in tax havens and limiting the percentage of bank assets financed by borrowing (imposing a leverage ratio). 

The Pope often reminds his audiences that he is a Pope for the poor; that he has a duty, “to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them and to promote them”. Whether you choose the religious terminology of sin or the secular language of social harm it is clear to almost everyone that banks have not been helping the poor but have focused on the wealthy few.

The Pope believes that the ideologies of markets and financial speculation are denying States the ability to provide for the common good. The banking reforms that Greens are pressing for in Europe seek to ensure that finance, and therefore states, are able to work for exactly that: the common good.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton