BUDDHA AND THE FINANCIAL INDUSTRY: WHAT WOULD HE THINK?
The world of investment banking and global finance is simply extraordinary. The complexity of the transactions, operations and regulations makes being an ‘insider’ a fascinating story. Let alone being a yogi and a part-time practising Buddhist (you know, one of those guys who finds the Buddhist philosophy deeply fascinating but doesn’t do the whole ‘worship Buddha’ thing and make offerings and chant in Sanskrit.. You know what I mean).
From my position then in the bank hot seat, and witnessing all that is going on around me, I often wonder what Buddha would think of the global ‘megaplex’ that we have created in the world of high finance. Is this an industry he would embrace, or rather one that he would reject? Would he offer us his compassion and wisdom and provide some valuable teachings for all of us who spend our working lives immersed in this highly intense and competitive industry?
Of course, being a prince himself, Buddha was perfectly placed to see the illusory effects of wealth upon people’s happiness. How simply accumulating vast amounts of wealth and the desire for money only creates never-ending cravings for more and more. Given that the very purpose of banking is to generate vast profits through borrowing money and lending it, at a big fat spread, isn’t this then the classic antithesis of everything that Buddha taught? Perhaps. However, in his teachings he also laid out a path forward.
Buddha, in his Sutras on the Noble Truths, states that:
‘you should abandon origins’.
This simple and practical advice is a valuable lesson in relation to rejecting and abandoning those means which ultimately cause unhappiness and misery. In Finance, the ‘bonus culture’, whilst potentially generating vast quantities of wealth, is a source of much suffering in itself.
As I walk around the bank and the trading floor, I regularly hear comments about the current level of the “share price”. It’s like an ongoing joke amongst a bunch of children. Really though, it’s just a subterfuge for a deeper pain felt by many senior folk in banks around the world right now. With large parts of their compensation paid in shares, the significant depreciation in the share price of global financial institutions around the world means that on paper, these bankers aren’t worth as much as before.
A senior executive of the bank recently shared with me his pain at the prospect of losing a significant amount of money when his 5 year shares ‘vest’ shortly. It was a case in point that even exceedingly wealthy individuals can become unhappy over the value of their wealth, often something which they have no control over. Buddha in all his wisdom would simply say, ‘I told you so’. However, he is also quoted as saying:
“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering”.
So true, even for those who are very well off – suffering knows no limits.
What else would Buddha have an interest in? In the dazzling world of investment banking, with all derivatives guns blazing, gigantic leveraged loans, and complex structured finance transactions swimming in an alphabet soup of acronyms and algorithms, even Buddha in his infinite wisdom would have trouble comprehending such complexity. As Brad Pitt remarked in the brilliant film the Big Short, as a commentary on the morality of banking, “everything [in banking] just gets reduced to numbers…” Astonishing. But true.
On the other hand, this exact same wisdom is something of which he would impart a valuable lesson: impermanence. I often remind myself of this valuable teaching when I work in esoteric financial transactions at the bank. The incredible complexity of these transactions is mind-blowing. Boxes and arrows on a diagram everywhere, ‘special purpose vehicles’ or ‘SPVs’ who are established in tax havens as ‘bankruptcy remote’ entities who enter into a mind-boggling array of financial transactions that often involves super human powers of deduction simply to work out “WTF” is going on.
The end result of all of this is needless time spent trying to ‘understand the facts’ and what is really going on. Of course, as Buddha taught us, nothing really exists in ultimate reality, the very basis of these financial transactions is… well, non-existent. The subjectivity of the structurer or presenter means that different participants have different opinions on the same matter. At worst, this can lead to time wasted and poor decision-making. At best, it is a realisation that time is spent discussing things that have no real existence other than the creation of the conventional mind.
The legal system has acknowledged this in relation to the uncertainty that oral arrangements create by way of our laws governing written agreements. At least under English law, ‘reasonableness’ is a fundamental principle in judicial decision-making but often there is dissent even with the judges who ultimate preside over such cases. Who is to say that one person’s opinion is more worthy or “correct” than the other(s)? The fact that we have to resort to majority ruling is a fundamental basis of democracy, but that doesn’t always mean it is the absolute correct decision. Rather, the real nature of all phenomena demonstrates to us that actually the amount of time we spend discussing (and arguing) about matters can be completely illusory and irrelevant. That’s not to say that the financial implications are not important, but if we all stepped back for one second and meditated upon this profound realisation, perhaps our attitudes towards and time spent on these matters would change.
In the 21st century, today’s highly complex and interconnected global financial industry is a world away from the society in which Buddha achieved enlightenment under the lotus tree and graced us with his luminosity. However, the parallels to his fundamental teachings are striking – from which we have much to learn and contemplate.
Meanwhile, for all of us who continue to work in the industry, I know that we would receive his “compassion”, even if bankers have become public enemy number 1.