Truth, Reconciliation and Financial Markets

In April Bradley Fried, former CEO of the UK arm of South African Investment Bank Investec, wrote an OpEd for the Financial Times entitled Mandela's Lessons in Truth for City High Fliers.

The article came to mind this past Sunday morning, when I received an event invitation via email, tagged by the subject line Will the Finance Industry Destroy America and the Human Soul? A day earlier a small group of feisty protesters had begun to gather at the southern tip of Manhattan. Their goal? To occupy Wall Street. Their demands? Ambiguous, but images of Tahrir Square and general frustration with government, the banking industry and the state of the US economy propelled assembly.

Fried grew up in South Africa. His first-hand experience with that country's efforts to heal and rebuild, post-apartheid, led him to suggest that the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be leveraged in the UK to promote effective resolution of lingering wounds inflicted by the financial crisis of 2008. And, he posited, failure to objectively address public anger at banks and politicians might lead to a second, more profound financial crisis in the future.

That a crisis as deep as the one we have just been through requires public healing, resolution, struck me as a very wise notion, relevant not only to the UK, but also to the US--perhaps even more so. The invitation that I received on Sunday, the Wall Street protest, no matter how rinky dink, highlighted anew the wisdom and potential value of the idea, in particular its spirit of dialogue, forgiveness, rather than, as Fried noted, "retributive justice and political grandstanding."

Much as South Africa's Commission moved the conversation out of the courts, opening it directly between agressor, aggrieved, a similar process focused on the US financial crisis would take the conversation out of the hands of the media, incendiary pundits, Congress, opening it directly between CEO's, derivatives traders, mortgage brokers, hedge fund managers, financial regulators, sub-prime borrowers, home owners.

The opportunity? To humanize what has been, until now, a complex dialogue carried out at arm's length, mostly in sound bites, steered primarily by numbers-driven news organizations with vested interests in promoting rifts rather than rapprochement.

It would be naive, however, to expect that a process like this would be embraced without encountering significant mistrust, suspicion, resistance, hostility, even, just as South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission did. Nelson Mandela's solution? To appoint one of the country's revered religious leaders--Archbishop Desmond Tutu--as compassionate and passionate steward of that Commission's sensitive work.

In the US, where religion is a fraught, often divisive topic, to search for a religious figurehead who might mirror the choice of Tutu as shepherd of a financial crisis commission would likely be to put the entire idea at risk. Yet to gloss over the spirituality inherent in the ideas of truth, forgiveness, reconciliation--and the implied benefit from bringing spirit and character into the conversation about the financial system--would be to risk creating a set of exchanges more superficial than effective.

One possible approach: partner an organization such as The John Templeton Foundation--founded by a pioneering investor, devoted to exploring spirituality and its role and place in culture, broadly, and markets, specifically--with an éminence grise from Wall Street--John Bogle, Pete Peterson, or, a radical thought, Michael Milken--as a means of defining a moral framework, establishing financial credibility, creating public visibility and fostering trust from all parties involved.

Publicly and privately our conversations about the financial crisis have been and continue to be infused with sharp anger. To expect that ongoing anger to take no toll on our nation's spirit--and financial markets--is also naive. Fried's idea of fostering instead conversations with intent to heal struck me as sound when I first encountered it, no less so today.