Research in Financial Ethics
The Financial Ethics group addresses a range of ethical and political issues raised by the financial system. Many of these issues are interesting and important in their own right. But they are also fruitfully researched together in a collaborative environment.
The social role of finance
There is currently a growing consensus that the financial system falls short of fulfilling its social purpose. This not only poses a practical challenge for the world’s leaders, but also a theoretical challenge for researchers: to rethink the role of finance in society. According to the dominant theory, rooted in neoclassical economics, financial agents should always adopt the practices which maximize the value of the firm. The Financial Ethics group is developing an alternative theory of the social role of finance, which can bolster more responsible and sustainable financial behaviour.
Systemic financial risk
The global financial crisis wreaked havoc on many societies, causing a lot of people to lose their savings and/or their jobs. As the financial markets now are regaining strength, we need to make sure that we minimize the risk that such a thing happens again. This is partly a technical issue which involves understanding how systemic risks are created, transmitted and mitigated. But it is also an ethical issue about who should bear the responsibility for both mitigation and compensation in the event of future crises.
The financial crisis is sometimes blamed on the greed and “bonus culture” of financial executives. While corporate directors and CEOs received tremendous pay packages, the average blue-collar workers got their pays cut or lost their jobs. But what would a more equitable principle of pay look like? We draw from philosophical theories of justice and desert to explore new ways of thinking about pay packages and wage allocation. These are then applied to evaluate contemporary suggestions about, for example, pay ceilings in executive compensation. This project is a collaboration with Mistra Financial Systems.
Usury and just price
Medieval philosophers were very critical of the moral standing of commercial activity, especially of moneylending and usury. The lending of money was thought to be unproductive in society and to essentially prey on the weak. There is currently a revival of some of these ideas, for example in the “social banking” movement and Islamic finance. We explore modern interpretations of the medieval arguments to evaluate some of these movements and put them in a greater perspective.
Microfinance and global justice
Microfinance is the extension of loans to poor or low-income clients, often in developing countries such as India or Bangladesh. This is often held up as ethically progressive and a good way to help people escape from poverty. However, in recent years the microfinance industry has also been the target of much moral criticism. Is it really morally acceptable to charge high interest rates on loans to the poor? And what do we really know about the impact of microfinance? The Financial Ethics group is joining forces with CERMi in Brussels to address these moral criticisms.
Central banking and money creation
Central banks have been under heavy pressure and scrutiny since the financial crisis. Some of their recent policies raise concerns about the democratic mandate and political direction of central banks. Have they been too focused on saving financial markets to the detriment of less wealthy citizens? Have they facilitated a “mountain of debt” that puts us all at risk for a future crash? We investigate these issues as well as the possible alternatives. Can the solution lie in a better controlled virtual currency or so-called positive money?
They say that “money rules the world”. But can, and should, everything have a price in money? It is often thought that there are certain goods – human organs, slave labor – that cannot morally be traded on a market. We explore the moral reasoning of such arguments against commodification. It is no easy matter to break up old ideological debates, but we suggest that it is important that sound and curious judgement is brought to bear on these issues. In the end it is a delicate matter to determine the suitability of markets and market thinking for various goods. This project is a collaboration with The Reality of Money.
Responsibilities of shareholders
In a capitalist economy, much power rests with the owners of capital – the investors and large shareholders. But in contemporary society we are all shareholders through our stake in the large financial institutions: pension funds, insurance companies and other financial trusts. Do we then have a responsibility to become active owners and engage with the companies we own? For example, should there be an obligation for all shareholders to attend and vote at the annual general meeting of large public corporations? This project is a collaboration with Mistra Financial Systems.
Responsibilities of consumers
If we are not shareholders, then we are at least consumers of corporate goods. The modern market and financial flows create a direct connection between the individual consumer and the great sustainability challenges of our times, such as global poverty and the threat of climate change. Is it morally wrong of us to buy goods produced in sweatshops or through environmentally hazardous production processes? If so, what must we do to compensate for our global guilt?