Contrition might be in short supply, but when discussing the causes of recession, questions of trust and morality are never far away. And this morning, HSBC's group chairman Stephen Green bared his soul to the audience at the CBI's annual conference.
Green tackled the big questions of the end of capitalism and the free market economy, by referring to Churchill's aphorism on democracy: ‘capitalism and free markets are the worst system, except for all the others that have been tried'. Free markets are in the dock, he argued, because confidence has been destroyed.
‘The market system, the capitalist system, is at its heart about trust, and nowhere is this more true than in banking,' said Green. ‘If we are to restore trust and confidence in the financial markets we must address what is at its root a moral question. Trust and confidence cannot be restored by fiat. Actually, the process of renewal has to begin with a recognition of the moral dimension to what has happened.
‘It is as if we have grown increasingly accepting of the idea that the value of what we do is fully delineated by the market, by regulatory compliance, and the law of contract. If the market will bear it, if the law allows it, if regulations permit, then it must be OK. Yet we all know this isn't good enough.'
Green makes clear that the old ways of the City should not be returned to and that a line needs to be drawn under the past and a new, more balanced approach taken. ‘Jam today' was proferred ‘too freely by lenders'. And ‘some hard lessons' needed to be learnt. MT sniffs a hint of contrition, perhaps?
Green's view is commonly-held by those enmeshed in finance, but what's not certain is what exactly the future path should be. Iceland's example of inviting women to run two of its biggest nationalised banks is one attempt at changing attitudes within financial institutions. It could work - we have to wait and see.
In the meantime, Green's speech captured the business mood perfectly: ‘There are no quick fixes,' he reflected. That much at least is certain.