Can bankers really make the world a better place?

“Are you going to go full time at the bank?”

My stepmom’s question caught me by surprise. Why would I go full time at the bank?

The year was 2007. The financial crisis was still months away, and there I was, with a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in political science, ready to look for my first real adult job. And it’s not as though the question came out of nowhere: I’d spent the past year or more juggling a full course load with a part-time job as a bank teller at a branch down the street from my parents’ house.

I’d been working since I was 15, mostly in retail and public-facing jobs, and compared to those gigs, being a bank teller was great. I got to choose my own outfits for work (no more ugly polo shirts and khakis!) and I didn’t come home with the smell of fried food lingering on my skin and hair. And it was generally (though not always) nicer to interact with bank customers than picky shoppers or hungry fast-food customers.

Still, it never entered my mind as a career option, or a stepping-stone to anything more than that.

I wanted — and still want — to make some kind of mark on the world, as many fresh-faced and idealistic college grads do. And eventually I wanted to move away from my three-stoplight hometown. Banking just didn’t seem to check those boxes for me.

My journalism career, oddly enough, brought me back to banking anyway, and covering the industry from the outside has opened my eyes to the critical role that banks play in our broader society. It turns out I wasn’t alone in my initial ambivalence about a career in finance.

In his new book “Seeking Virtue in Finance,” Princeton lecturer and financier J.C. de Swaan says he hears about it all the time from his students, many of whom worry they’ll be irreversibly corrupted by the fundamentally amoral financial industry.

“Why is it that we only talk about unethical behavior? Why do we never talk about constructive behavior and inspiring individuals?” one student asked, de Swaan recalled during a recent virtual talk with the Museum of American Finance.

De Swann does ultimately approach the subject from the vantage point that finance and banking are forces for good in the world, provided its practitioners adopt a basic moral framework. One should faithfully serve their clients, refrain from extracting value from society (and ideally, add value), treat their colleagues with dignity and promote a healthy workplace. And when possible, contribute their finance skills to advancing good elsewhere in society.

This slim volume is dispassionate and analytical — written more for the finance professional or would-be finance professional than the casual observer. While that might make it less accessible to those outside of the financial world, that sense of detachment also lends it a greater seriousness than I’ve ever been able to convey at family gatherings (back when those still happened).

A cynical reader might be tempted to dismiss de Swaan’s theses as encouraging empty virtue signaling — a superficial display of social justice awakening rather than a holistic approach to substantive, or potentially uncomfortable, change. That’s not what de Swaan is arguing for, nor is he advocating for finance professionals to pay eternal penance for the work they do.

But his argument does call for finance professionals to be aware of the ways their actions can contribute to society beyond serving their customers and shareholders. Though that message was aimed at newcomers to the finance profession, bankers at any stage in their career would benefit from a jolt of de Swaan’s optimistic idealism. And it’s particularly valuable given the relatively low regard with which the public holds financial institutions in general.

When Gallup began its annual public trust surveys in 1979, gauging public faith in institutions like the military, the presidency and big business, 60% of respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the banking system. That number has ebbed and flowed over the years, tracking overall economic conditions and banking debacles like the mortgage bubble and the S&L scandal, falling to 38% in 2020.

You don’t have to think too hard to come up with examples of products and problems that are badly in need of some virtuous innovation right now.

Take overdraft fees as one example. There is a robust argument — backed by research — that suggests overdraft fees extract value from lower earners, and as such harms society as a whole. Consumers don’t necessarily mind paying reasonable, predictable fees when they feel they’re getting something of value for it. But overdraft fees tend to hit people when they can least afford to part with $35, and some in the industry have lately second-guessed the value of those fees.

“We’re going to have to get back to charging basic fees for basic products and be less reliant on some of the ‘gotcha’ fees that historically have supported the industry,” PNC Financial Services Group CEO William Demchak said in November.

Readers might also consider calls by some regional Federal Reserve banks for financial innovation that can help to stabilize communities against serious climate disasters.

When I reflect on what I thought about the banking industry at the age of 21 and what I think about it now as a reporter for American Banker, it’s hard not to feel at least slightly amused. De Swaan’s argument that finance can be a force for good is also especially compelling today. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new urgency to social inequities that were brewing long before the virus infected the first human.

Banks came into this crisis from a position of strength. Bankers quickly processed emergency loans, talked anxious customers through mobile banking for the first time and cut stressed-out homeowners a break on mortgage payments.

It shouldn’t take a crisis to make those things happen — and of course, it often doesn’t. But if the next generation of finance professionals — and perhaps, a healthy contingent of today’s finance professionals — are eager to use their knowledge and power to affect positive, meaningful change, maybe it’s time for an ethical framework like de Swaan’s to take hold.

And who knows? Maybe someday it will inspire future tellers to go full time at the bank.

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