Page last updated at 17:57 GMT, Sunday, 25 January 2009

The moral dilemmas of the financial crisis

By James Melik
Business Reporter, BBC World Service

Man standing in putrid water
The World Bank says that 1.4 billion people live in severe poverty

In the climate of uncertainty surrounding the collapse of banks and businesses around the world, with people losing their jobs and their homes, is there a moral or spiritual lesson to be learnt?

Dr Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, says financial upheavals and crises have always existed.

In 1720 Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's travels, said of the bursting of the South Sea Bubble: "Men thought it would come, but no one was prepared for it - it came like a thief in the night."

"That could easily be a contemporary expression," Dr Chatres says.

"A financial crisis is not something which can be fixed in a technical way because there is the spiritual dimension of trust and confidence.

"All financial markets are based on confidence - the root of that word is to have faith together."

Many of the people working in the financial sector are too young to have experience of anything like the current drama.

I'm not cynical or dismissive of the creative role of borrowing
Dr Richard Chatres, Bishop of London

Dr Chatres likens the situation to light pollution found in big cities.

"You cannot see the vastness of the universe or our relatively small place in the scheme of things," he says.

"But with the dimming of the light with this shock, things come into focus.

"Although borrowing may have become excessive, along with [Former US Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan's 'irrational exuberance of the markets' [comment], borrowing itself has been a great way of lifting millions of people worldwide out of misery," he says, adding that he is "not cynical or dismissive of the creative role of borrowing".

Regulation worries

How should banks and financial institutions respond to the crisis?

Financiers have spoken to Dr Chatres about tearing up economic textbooks.

The biggest challenge they now face is steering between appropriate regulation and regulation that might be suffocating.

Stifling regulation would destroy the capacity to take advantage of the economic opportunities in the world.

women making a clay pot
Investment by the wealthy can have an impact on the lives of the poor

Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading, which acts as a broker trading shares on behalf of big US institutions, says excessive regulation will be with us for a long time.

He is afraid that new regulation will neuter risk and people will lose their entrepreneurial spirits.

"Risk is good," he says. "It helped build the nation.

"Wall Street is always motivated by profit, but unfortunately everybody thinks that capitalism is the problem," he says, pointing to how the essential root of capitalism is to reward those who do something that will help others.

"Drug companies are always perceived as 'the bad guy', but if they create a new drug they are actually saving many lives," he argues.

"They are profit motivated, but without them there would be many more sick people."

Ethical balance

Shaunaka Rishi Das of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, says there have always been problems of morality throughout history.

"The greed of Wall Street, the greed of Main Street, the greed of any human being has always been out there," he says.

He maintains however, that the current crisis is different because many sectors have become involved

"Everybody is guilty here of trying to make an extra dime and squeeze an extra bit of profit," he says.

There is enough on the planet for everyone's need but not enough for one man's greed

Mahatma Gandhi

"There is nothing wrong with capitalism; there has to be motivation," he acknowledges, though he questions "to what extent" capitalism is a requirement.

When meeting bank representatives in the Vatican in December, Pope Benedict XVI said that "one of the primary duties for the banking and lending institutions is showing solidarity with the more vulnerable members of society as well as support for the creation of wealth".

Joe Saluzzi says the cause of the current crisis was giving loans to people who didn't qualify, who had no documentation, and no income that could support a mortgage.

"And the reason banks did lend was because they were packing up the risks and selling them off to Wall Street," he says.

"If people become too dependent on loans or are unqualified, the system is wrong and is not going to work," adds Dr Rishi Das.

Governments are now cutting taxes and hoping people will shop more, though as people are already indebted and incomes are going to be squeezed, is that a morally correct stance?

Mr Rishi Das says it is a kneejerk reaction and believes people are in debt and will get further into debt, while Joe Saluzzi maintains the problem will get worse.

"We are in a bubble and bubbles break," he says. "Throwing money at the problem is probably not going to help."

Spiritual awareness

"However bad the media tells us the world economy is, for most of us in the developed world we still have a house, a job, and money coming in," says Mona Siddiqui, proffesor of Islamic Studies at Glasgow University in Scotland.

"Two decades of easy money has led most of us into thinking that we can have all our fantasies - the big house, the fancy car, exotic holidays and gadgets which get better as they get smaller," she says.

Capital is money, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself

Karl Marx

"Our wants have turned into needs, but we forget the needs of others who never spend, who have nothing."

Globalisation has given us insight into the lives of different people, but it has failed to make us appreciate that we are all connected, she believes.

"How I invest and spend may touch the lives of people in distant places, whose names I'll never know, whose hopes I never think about," Mr Rishi Das adds.

"The culture of greed has created an individualism, selfishness - a society looking for compensation - a society we don't want to live in."

This issue was discussed on BBC's Business Daily

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