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Financial services should be an essential force for good

Ed Waitzer is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and Schulich School of Business and senior partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP

The philosopher John Locke observed the human tendency to err in "taking words for things." He noticed that when concepts are dignified by words, they start to seem "so suited to the nature of things that they perfectly correspond with their real existence." People maintain in their minds certain stereotypes of how one should behave. They remain attached to traditional forms, even when presented with logical arguments that they are not ideal. These biases can be reduced if we introduce new words, and new units of measurement, to help shift patterns of thinking. Such seemingly inconsequential matters as changes in wording are a key part of how innovation proceeds.

Nick Silver understood this when he founded the Climate Bonds Initiative, working to mobilize the $100-trillion bond market for climate-change solutions. In his new book, Finance, Society and Sustainability – How to Make the Financial System Work for the Economy, People and Planet, he has taken the next step: joining a growing choir of authors in describing the pressing need to reassert and promote public awareness of the social utility of the financial sector.

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His starting point is a depiction of finance as social technology that allocates economic surplus by allowing people to manage risk, smooth lifetime consumption and efficiently allocate savings. He illustrates how finance has been a powerful catalyst for expanding opportunity. He also describes how self-serving, rent-seeking behaviour has led to failures of the financial system to innovate in ways that contribute to economic growth or development.

Few resent the wealth accumulation of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs because so many directly enjoy the benefits of their innovations. The same is not true for financiers. Public perceptions of the sector have become dominated by a lack of understanding or trust. The cultures of financial institutions have become harder to manage or regulate and isolated from the values and beliefs of those it should serve. Rather than focusing on the creation of wealth, financial markets are now primarily seen to be engaged in rearranging it.

The financial crisis was a stark reminder of how instabilities and misalignment in our globalized financial system can bring the entire infrastructure to the brink of collapse and cause dramatic losses across all asset classes. The looming investment uncertainties of climate change (and other sustainability concerns) and of growing inequalities are a constant reminder that fundamental disruptions in our social, political and environmental systems raise the spectre of "unhedgeable" financial risks.

Mr. Silver is part of a growing body of advocacy that points to the extraordinary opportunities to deliver financial services that mitigate systemic risks and help achieve social objectives. Consider for example, work under way on new environmental, longevity and social-enterprise asset classes. The financial sector should be "connecting the dots" – increasing public awareness of the vital role of financial services in creating sustainable wealth. Likewise, leadership by financial-sector policy makers can demonstrate that financial regulation is about more than trying to protect consumers from deceptive products and practices. Rather, it should be to ensure that society is well served through the articulation (and enforcement) of public stewardship responsibilities throughout the financial services supply chain.

While the demonization of finance may be deserved, it serves little public purpose. Financial services should be an essential force for good. Our financial institutions could encourage systemic change in ways that transcend the capacity of domestic governments and regulatory bodies. Realizing this possibility, however, will require deliberate action to correct the cultural and structural problems that have persisted within the sector. Mr. Silver, and others, have begun to sketch out illustrative elements of what such an approach might look like.

Even the harshest critics of the financial sector acknowledge that, over the long sweep of history, financial innovation has been important in promoting growth. In recent decades though, it appears that many financial activities have generated private returns much higher than the perceived social returns. In his first economic message, Pope Francis noted that "whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenceless" against markets that are devoid of social purpose and that hence show a "lack of real concern for human beings." He went on to argue that a financial system imbued with ethical values "would make it possible to bring about balance and a more human social order." This may well be the inflection point that our financial sector will either embrace or have imposed upon it. Mr. Silver is an optimist. He may not be convincing, but he is certainly thought provoking.

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