Getting Out of The Doghouse

Hey, finance professionals: We’ve got a problem. Really we do. In case you haven’t noticed, the Great Recession of 2008/9 has a Villain (with a capital V) and it’s you and me.

I know, I know, we did nothing wrong; we’re generally decent, hard working, well-intentioned souls who humbly ply our trade in a peculiar, esoteric and well-paying corner of the economy. But we don’t actually produce anything tangible, which makes us an easy target when a lot of people who do actually manufacture real “stuff” are out of work.

And, indeed, the demagogues swirl like turkey vultures seeking carrion. Who is blameworthy for the sad state of affairs in this country? The cry rises from the frenzied mob: Banks! Private Equity Firms! Mortgage brokers! Investment banks! Venture Capitalists! Money Managers! MBAs! (Barney Frank busies himself handing out torches and pitchforks while Timmy G and the Treasury crew ready the shackles.)

But even our friends are enemies in this battle: Over the summer I helped a cousin work through a mortgage refinancing. Some Excel whiz-bangery did little to clear up a confusion born of too many options marinated in too many layers of uncertainty.

“Forget the spreadsheet; what’s the best choice for me?” asked my cousin. “It depends,” I replied, dusting off an all-purpose answer. “What do you think the future holds? How long will you live there? Are rates going up or down? What will your tax situation be?” etc., etc. “It’s all so confusing,” was the reply. Then, my cousin’s tone changed to bewildered frustration: “You finance people have made this stuff so complicated, and each choice seems like another opportunity for people to get ripped off.”

And then it hit me: The average person doesn’t want life to be an HBS case. The Socratic method may work well in air-conditioned, wi-fi enabled classrooms with sage professors guiding a meandering discussion, but people live in the real world where decisions have consequences and costs — sometimes big ones, sometimes immediate ones. And all of the optionality increases anxiety, not to mention adding complexity to once-simple account statements. I know some pretty smart people who just don’t understand their cell phone bills. The dis-utility of complexity has exceeded the utility of choice optimization.

But we can help, finance people! And burnish our tarnished communal reputation at the same time! Here’s my modest proposal: what if everyone in finance, insurance, and real estate committed to doing a few hours a month of pro bono work? Maybe we could participate in “office hours” for half a weekend day once a month? We could use bank branches; after all, the government owns a lot of ’em now.

Sure, you’d have to pass some good Samaritan protections so that lawsuits wouldn’t ensnare the well-meaning, but imagine the good (and goodwill) that would arise from an army of savvy people helping oldsters understand their cable bills, helping young couples think about their mortgage options, helping college graduates set up their 401k plans. Anything that has to do with money and is even remotely intimidating would be fair game. (Of course, it would have to be a marketing-free zone.)

You could even make it a continuing education requirement for the first five years after attaining professional licensing or designation like a CPA, CFA charter, Series 7, CLU, or CFP, with subsequent participation encouraged. I suspect the idea of ongoing participation could elicit some chortles on the 5:26 out to New Canaan, but remember, guys: That cat next to you from Ropes & Gray’s New York office could be coming back from a day at the NYC Family Court Legal Service Project.

My old buddy, the Prof, suggested making some threshold of pro bono activity a requirement for FDIC insurance. He even had the idea of creating the equivalent of “patient advocates” for thornier cases. Maybe we could establish industry-funded fellowships to support laid-off or on-sabbatical professionals.

You could even imagine some kind of clearinghouse for people that incorporated the best of Web 2.0: feedback ratings, maybe even a “bid system” for appointments or specialists. Think of it as a mashup of Craigslist, eBay, Google Maps, and us. You could even throw in Twitter for good measure. We can fix this, we have the technology.

Now the last thing I want is to create more bureaucracy and regulation. But we have to realize that the regulation train has left the station and is bearing down on us at full steam. And indeed, there are a lot of folks in the chattering classes who would portray finance professionals as the looters that smashed the storefronts of the economy, cynically plundering from the earnest masses. Maybe the best thing we can do for ourselves and the economy is to pick up a broom and start sweeping up the mess. 

Chris Douvos co-heads the private equity division at The Investment Fund for Foundations (TIFF). His blog is www.superLP.com. You can read his past peHUB posts here.