Occupy Wall Street

Okay, bankers screwed up - but enough with the bashing

January 31, 2014: 10:07 AM ET

Critics could be encouraging banks to be more secretive.

By Sanjay Sanghoee


FORTUNE -- In the years following the financial crisis, regulators and protestors chastised banks for nearly destroying the global financial system, but UBS (UBS) CEO Sergio Ermotti recently questioned the wisdom of all the bashing:

"Life is hard enough, and I think this constant lecturing on ethics and on integrity by many stakeholders is probably the most frustrating part of the equation. Because I don't think there are many people who are perfect," Ermotti said last week in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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His opinion, as tone-deaf as it might sound to regulators and Occupy Wall Streeters, isn't totally off point: It's true that most major banks have been implicated in gaming the system for personal gain over the last five years, and as a result, lost the public's trust. Also, banks by virtue play a central role in the capital markets, and are unlike other businesses. When financial institutions behave badly, the consequences can be fatal for the entire economy (as it was in 2008, following years of greed and easy lending that almost destroyed the global financial system). Hence, the higher standard to which they are held, and why the criticism is so scathing now.

However, because banks are so crucial to our economic survival and prosperity, it is also a good reason to temper attacks against the industry, and to give banks some breathing room to do business. Ceaseless demonizing and regulatory overkill will not move us faster toward real reform. And if anything, it will only encourage banks to become even more secretive and defiant.

True, the profit interests of a bank are often at odds with its duty of care toward the public good, and what shareholders want is not necessarily the same as what our economy needs. When it comes to Wall Street, after all, greed and even recklessness are only punished when they fail. Conversely, as long as banks generate outsize returns for investors, they remain successful.

The knee-jerk reaction to this (other than name-calling) is large bank fines, but even these are mostly ineffective. Take JPMorgan Chase (JPM), whose stock is trading close to its 5-year high and whose CEO just received $20 million in compensation for 2013 despite the soaring costs of all its legal troubles.

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Instead of this and in the wake of the banking crisis of 2008-2010, what regulators and the public really need to do is hold a candid but constructive dialogue with CEOs like Ermotti to reach compromise and find practical solutions to problems in the banking industry. The end goal should be a win for everyone, not a loss for the banks. Such a spirit of collaboration would benefit everyone, but it requires civility and (tough as it might be) the willingness to look forward instead of backwards.

In this light, Sergio Ermotti's complaints about bank bashing might seem disingenuous but they do contain an important message that is worth paying attention to.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He is the COO of Delos Capital, a private equity fund based in New York City, and has worked at Lazard Freres, Dresdner, and Ramius Cowen. He has appeared on CNBC's Closing Bell, MSNBC's The Cycle, TheStreet.com, and HuffPost Live on business topics. He is also the author of two thriller novels.

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