From Money-Changers to Agents of Change
Faith and finance operate as two distinctly different worlds, using different language, moving at different speeds. On Sundays, we speak of mercy, forgiveness and salvation. On Mondays, it’s competitive advantage, profit margins and credit ratings. Modern finance is changing rapidly, driven by technology, innovation and globalization. Faith, in contrast, is steady, focused on truths that are unchanging.
Decades ago, a small-town banker would share much in common with the local pastor, apart from a small gap when it came to “talking shop.” That gap has widened considerably as the specialization required to understand modern finance has exploded. True, the same can be said for many other professions such as engineering, computer science and medicine, but those fields are largely viewed as admirable vocations that improve our lives with each technological advance. The pastor does not need to understand to admire.
Not so with finance. Innovations in leverage, securitization, algorithmic trading, risk management, credit and market access — which have vastly expanded the size and scope of financial markets — are often viewed as abstract schemes to create profits for an elite minority rather than necessary functions serving a global economy that benefits all. From the perspective of many finance professionals, the Church (and other institutions) largely see modern finance as a catalyst for inequality, greed and materialism — more modern-day money changer at the temple than noble vocation and source of good.
Yet the act of providing finance for commerce remains an essential aspect of human activity. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis declares that “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.” In Laudato Si, the Pope goes further, declaring that work “can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.”
The Second Vatican Council defined the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Finance professionals can and should take comfort that our work can serve the common good. The challenge for us is that our contributions are not as obvious as those of pre-school teachers, doctors or firemen.
Modern finance increasingly utilizes scale and technology to achieve ever larger impact. This impact is often abstract rather than tangible. While this ability to create and multiply wealth seemingly out of thin air is one of its most powerful innovations, it is also the source of mystery, concern and fear. The accumulation of wealth by a select minority who have mastered this is easy to see; the benefits to society as a whole, less so.
It is also a question of motive. To critics, religious and secular alike, finance appears to have elevated market performance and capital efficiency into idols in themselves, rather than gauges on the dashboard. We no longer care where the car is going as long as we are moving fast.
So to assure that the world acknowledges the noble ends that finance serves, we must also demand that finance serve a greater purpose. As finance professionals, we are already governed by some of the strictest regulations of any profession. But as people of faith, we are called to even higher standards. We must ask the questions that our faith demands and follow the answers where they go.
These questions will undoubtedly take us places we would rather avoid, places where financial “innovation” in pursuit of effectiveness and efficiency does create wealth but at the expense of the common good, rather than in service of it. We are called upon to be agents of change to fix this. Asking questions may also reveal places where the positive contributions of finance are simply misunderstood or understated. In these cases, we should take the time to explain things to others who do not see this. The most promising path may lie in between — down roads where innovations can better serve the common good. This path is not a substitute for working to change larger, more deeply entrenched problems. But it is a place to start. Innovations that have already benefited only the privileged few represent opportunities to make changes that serve the common good more directly and tangibly.
One example of this is providing innovative financial services to small enterprises in the developing world. Financial innovations that have been available to entrepreneurs in the U.S. for years — for example, expanded credit, better risk management, and streamlined payments — are frequently beyond the reach of small businesses in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Hedging currency risk is a challenge for business of all sizes and has historically been available only to very large companies. Innovations in modern finance can now offer these and many more services to a wider range of businesses of all sizes in all places. These are just a few examples of the enormous potential for finance to do good if it is directed at the right target, rather than simply put on autopilot.
Financial professionals of faith, take a measure of note that you are indeed engaged in a noble profession. But while monitoring your instruments for top speed and fuel efficiency, be sure to look out the front, side and rearview windows. Make sure you are heading in the right direction and leaving a positive trail as you go.