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Can Finance’s Image Be Fixed?

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It seems that every time the finance industry makes an effort to stabilize and repair its tattered image, it promptly shoots itself in the foot. The latest case of foreclosure “robo-signings”—where foreclosure documents were signed en masse without certification of basic information—certainly won’t help boost finance’s reputation in the eyes of customers and investors. Can the finance industry fix its brand in the eyes of stakeholders, or is it too late?

Advertising agency founder David Ogilvy once defined a brand as the intangible sum of attributes, such as name, packaging, price, history, and reputation. However, with a $2 trillion dollar mess still looming from the 2008 financial crisis, “Main Street” rage bubbling over financial bailouts of large institutions and minimal credit supplied by financial firms (despite interest rates at all time lows), there is much for financial companies to do in terms of brand repair.

In the United States, the finance industry still supplies a significant portion of gross domestic product. With so many people employed by the finance industry, and the importance of credit to an economic system, it is certainly in the industry’s best interest to restore consumer trust. Enclosed are two steps (there may be more) towards this effort.

Realize Perceived Shortcuts Are Rarely Shortcuts

A wise teacher once counseled that “anything worth doing is worth doing right.” This is a lesson that the finance industry has continually failed to learn. James Surowiecki from The New Yorker points out in “Back Office Blues” that banks have created another PR mess that could have been easily avoided. He says, “(Banks) have foreclosed on homes without having the proper documentation and (instead) relied on unqualified people to sign affidavits attesting to things they didn’t know. In a few cases, they seem to have actually tossed people who didn’t have mortgages out of their homes.” And now, Surowiecki notes, “As a result, federal regulators and attorney generals in all 50 states are now investigating.”

The costs saved by employing minimally qualified personnel to daily sign thousands of foreclosure documents will likely be dwarfed by litigation costs and an eventual settlement that could range in the billions. Surowiecki continues, “Banks have preferred to do things on the cheap, which is an open invitation to trouble, including fraud.” Indeed, cutting corners to save a buck, in most instances ends up costing two.

Consider Health Before Wealth

In a letter to the editor of the Financial Times, dated Nov. 9, 2010, twenty professors from prominent universities, such as Stanford, MIT, and Berkeley, openly criticized regulatory reform passed by most advanced economies. “Banks high leverage and the resulting fragility and systemic risk contributed to the near collapse of the financial system,” they wrote. The authors suggest that higher capital requirements—or a buffer against volatile markets—are in order to ensure a healthier banking system, rather than focusing on “high returns for banks’ shareholders and managers, with taxpayers picking up the losses and economies suffering the fall-out.”

A healthy banking system is still one that takes risks, but also has an appropriate capital buffer for turbulent times. Holding a sufficient capital buffer makes it less likely the financial system will need another taxpayer bailout. Ultimately, better risk management strategies will help renew trust in the banking system.

When asked about qualifications needed to obtain credit, JP Morgan famously replied, “The first thing (needed) is character … Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.” What suggestions do you have for the finance industry to restore its reputation?

Related: Reputation Management---Not Needed Until It's Needed

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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Elaine Fogel Wed Nov 17, 2010 via blog

    What a question, Paul. Frankly, I think there will be a perennial distrust of the finance sector. Some of the most prominent economists have warned that the situation we just experienced could easily happen again. Maybe not in the short term, but certainly in the long term. Deregulation has enabled very clever people to find loopholes and avenues to make a ton of money - at the expense of the average "guy."

    Perhaps Wall Street has tainted the banking sector overall, even though there are some very honorable banks and financial institutions. That's what happens when bad apples spoil the whole bunch. Now, bankers can join lawyers in the top joke category for late-night talk-show comedians.

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Nov 17, 2010 via blog

    Elaine, thanks for commenting. Finance, banking and credit are economic lubricants for the global economy. We'd be in big trouble without them. That said, I think you're saying that there seems to be an opportunity for the industry to behave a bit more responsibly and if the industry is unwilling to self-regulate, then we get remedies like Dodd-Frank which really ends up pleasing no one!

    Marketers in the Financial services industry, what say you?

  • by S Nicole Hamilton Tue Nov 23, 2010 via blog

    I honestly think this is just a sign of the times. It seems that when you are under the eagle eye (everything that can go wrong will go wrong in a really big way) - or at least that's been my experience.

  • by Paul Barsch Tue Nov 23, 2010 via blog

    Hi S Nicole, thank you for commenting. When instability is built into the system - fractional reserve banking, high leverage, and complexity, there's bound to eventually be a disaster. That is part of the reason these "once in hundred year" events keep happening every 5-6 years. So, I agree with you that things and events may compound in the eyes of the beholder because of the close scrutiny attached to the industry, however I would also argue that a healthier and more robust system is warranted.

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