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Column: Dutch bankers have signed up to a code of ethics - if only it were that easy

Former trader Nick Leeson once thought he was a ‘Master of the Universe’ – and says recent scandals show that arrogance is still rife in financial power circles.

Image: Bronson ABbott via Flickr.com

WE CERTAINLY LIVE in a changing world. This weekend the biggest story to hit the newswires was of an alleged sexual assault in a high class New York hotel.

It wasn’t as you would expect by one of the legion of Premiership footballers engaged in their latest game of sexual depravity. Neither was it a chemically-induced rock star taking advantage of an adoring fan. It was the head of the International Monetary Fund.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is the ageing head of the IMF, a man who was shortly to head a Socialist party campaign to be elected the next president of France. He now stands accused of a crime and yesterday faced a DNA examination before appearing in a New York Court to answer these accusations.

The European stock markets opened in disarray yesterday morning and trended lower as a consequence as well as the euro traded near a seven-week low. Strauss-Kahn hadn’t even opened his mouth at that point; he didn’t need to.

Meetings this week to discuss the bail out packages for Portugal and Greece will be adversely affected and any chance Ireland had of getting a rate reduction on the agenda will have probably passed for the time being.

I happened to be working with a Dutch television company last week, when this story started to break and as Raj Rajaratnam was found guilty earlier in the week on fourteen different counts of conspiracy and insider trading, we questioned the world of banking and the humility that it shows.

Humility and Banking walk different paths in the opposite direction. The industry is one of competition, confidence and ultimately arrogance. I know: I was one of those perceived ‘Masters of the Universe’.

That needs to change and stories like this will do little to help. Insider trading is more prevalent than anyone is currently admitting to. Abuse of power is quite often the norm and this is often taken to excess. The American authorities are certainly making an effort to clean things up, but they seem to be fighting a lone battle at the moment.

I have already written about how little has been done post-bailout in Ireland to bring individuals and companies to task. This continues to be the case but I was amazed by the piece of wisdom that has surfaced in the Netherlands to solve all our financial woes. A group of Dutch bankers has come up with the ‘Code Banken’ that will ensure that financial calamity such as the one that we are still suffering from will not occur in the future.

Central to the code is a declaration on moral and ethical conduct that the Executive Board Members must sign up to. I was asked to read this out loud in English to the camera. I struggled to remain serious.

It reads:

I declare that I will perform my duties as a banker with integrity and care. I will carefully consider all the interests involved in the bank i.e. those of the clients, the shareholders, the employees and the society in which the bank operates.

I will give paramount importance to the client’s interests and inform the client to the best of my ability. I will comply with the laws, regulations and codes of conduct applicable to me as a banker. I will observe secrecy in respect of matters entrusted to me. I will not abuse my banking knowledge.

I will act in an open and assessable manner and know my responsibility towards society. I will endeavour to maintain and promote confidence in the banking sector. In this way, I will uphold the reputation of the banking profession.

That’s it: we’re all safe. It couldn’t possibly happen again with controls like that.

I can’t help but imagine that the declaration is made in secret in an oak panelled room, various stuffed shooting trophies adorning the walls, a Masonic lodge with secret handshakes as they enter and leave.

After they’ve finished, apparently making the declaration in all earnestness, they walk next door into a room of unrivalled opulence, toast each other with a glass of the finest champagne, frolic with scantily clad women and laugh themselves senseless.

Rather worryingly the code has been accepted by the Dutch Minister of Finance. The bankers have managed to get another one over on the Dutch taxpayers who are footing the bill for their own bank bailout.

Would the code have changed anything that I did many years ago? More recently, would it have altered the actions of Raj Rajaratnam, the alleged actions of Dominique Strauss-Kahn or those who gambled excessively with our future?

Moral and ethical codes should be engrained in all of us and steer us through our everyday life.

Suggesting that a moral and ethical code will provide protection from the excesses of the world of banking into the future is already flawed.

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