Ethics and the Financial Sector
Northern Mutual supporter Tony Weekes shares his thoughts about the ethics of today’s financial sector and whether it’s working for the common good.
piggy banks
By Tony Weekes
August 24, 2023

The financial sector of the economy claims that it provides financial services. But there is a question which is never asked: “To what extent do these services work for the common good?”

Most people’s experience of financial services is through the services of a bank. Banks provide the means to receive payments – one’s salary or pension – and to make payments, by standing orders or direct debit. We are also provided with debit and credit cards; the means to make retail payments and to smooth personal cash flow.

But it is also apparent that the terms of the service are rather one sided. The terms are dictated by the bank, and are frequently updated.  As customers, we find ourselves doing much of the work: through the internet or by telephone.  And services such as making payments in a different currency incur a charge – sometimes quite out of proportion to the value of the transaction itself.

The shifting of tasks from bank staff to customers is all in the interest of reducing costs – thereby increasing profits. But we then become aware of a source of unease: the salaries and bonuses of the directors. A serious contribution to the growing wealth inequality.

On reflection, the unease grows: what was the source of the financial crisis of 2008/200? The conduct of banks played a large part: reckless lending and overstepping financial regulations, for example.  And what followed? Austerity, as governments claimed that ‘bailing out banks’ had stripped away the financial means required for public services.

This sounds enough to answer the question posed above.  Broadly speaking, banks and banking do little for the common good. 

But there is still more.  Banks are important source of large scale finance. Many of the large banks provide finance for the arms trade; for the fossil fuel industries, and other activities which run contrary to our wish for a peaceful world.   They have no ethical principles; what counts is profit (or cost cutting).

Are there any banks have principles and which provide finance for real human needs and have regard for nature’s services?  Yes, there are!

The Ethical Consumer Research Association has published much on the financial sector.  A recent issue of the Ethical Consumermagazine (Jan/Feb 2023) exposes the Ugly, the Bad and the Good of the financial sector.

There is room for hope.  We can shift the power of our own financial reserves and those of the institutions of civil society in which we are engaged to meet the real needs of these times.

Tony Weekes

Tony is a retired economy academic, and a community education advocate.