Monday, January 4, 2010

Morals and Ethics

"He who dies with the most toys wins!" - unknown

I remember hearing that expression as a young man and thinking that it was silly but still made a lot of sense. Thinking back to that now, I can justify my agreement by saying how men are "goal oriented" and other such drivel, but in the end it was basically a vocalization of my own selfishness and greed.

One has to wonder if that is / was the motto for the financial services companies. In recent days news articles have been published in the New York Times and elsewhere about reprehensible behavior at both Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Essentially, they were promoting Credit Default Swaps as good investments when they were secretly betting against those same investments since they knew the truth of the matter: they weren't worth the paper they were printed on.

When I read these articles, I was aghast. How could any company maliciously trick another when they are the ones to which many others look at the reference source of information? Specifically, instruments such as CDS, CDO, MBS, and others are very complicated so we expect the financial services companies to provide us with sound advice regarding any potential investment involving these instruments. I'm not suggesting that "sound advice" should be equated with "advice that is never wrong," for everyone makes mistakes. But it's one thing to make a mistake and another thing entirely to intentionally mislead so that you can make a profit.

In fact, I believe there's a term for that: fiduciary malfeasance.

A good friend of mine who was rather religious was also the CFO of a small company in Manhattan several years ago. I found these two aspects of his life to be somewhat contradictory, so I asked him about it. He said to me (paraphrased) that being honorable does not mean you have to be a floor mat for everyone. That expression left an indelible impression upon me, because it illustrated that it is still possible to succeed at what you do without losing your morals in the process.

Adopting the position that honor is greater than money has its benefits, albeit intangible ones. Specifically, knowing that you've never needed to use any underhanded tactics to further your own career does provide a degree of job satisfaction that no promotion or pay raise will ever duplicate. I have found this to be true and, while it does not pay the bills, it certainly helps me sleep well at night.

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