Big bankers saying absolutely nothing at all with utter conviction often take centre stage in the theatre of financial politics that is the IMF annual meeting. Most financiers, therefore, tend to snub the official proceedings in favour of meeting clients.
But even this reporter – a seasoned veteran of the multilateral chinwag – was taken aback by the disconnect between the radical views voiced by the IMF and the inevitably mundane utterances of the captains of the banking industry.
At an Institute of International Finance luncheon, for example, the CEOs of Mitsubishi, Westpac, Santander, and the chairman of Commerzbank, were fielded softball questions from the chief interviewer, HSBC’s Douglas Flint. Asked to ruminate on the existential threats that are savaging the economics of banking – digital disruption, disintermediation, regulation, misconduct – a 90-minute avalanche of benign clichés washed over the audience.
Substance was substituted for marketing slogans that included the following declarations: “We adopt a customer-first service… we leverage technology… we see regulation as an opportunity… privacy is important for customers… we support SMEs… we build loyalty... and we are optimistic about the future.”
As generic banker-speak peaked, the pool of journalists vanished. This reporter sat through it long enough to be entertained by the sight of one risk-supervisor for a eurozone bank engaging auto-pilot to account for his industry veering off course.
By contrast, the IMF shocked global markets during the meeting by advocating fiscal stimulus in the west through large-scale, debt-financed, infrastructure investment, as well as restrictions on bankers’ bonuses. This hitherto unknown Marxist institution went on to warn of the fault-lines in the global economy perhaps accounting for the massive mid-October market sell-off. It even warned that the structural inequality of income and wealth in the west could trigger wide-scale social disorder.
How strange to sit in a room filled by the empty rhetoric of bankers, complacent in their view that another global crisis is a world away and lacking the imagination or energy to ponder new systemic risks, while the IMF adopts a new leftist posture.