President Clinton recently gave a keynote speech at a financial industry conference in Chicago. It was incredibly inspiring particularly given this time of constant change and despair in financial services. Every day there is a new headline that bashes banks for something. Most recently it is for charging fees for what customers used to get for “free”. I qualify the free because there was always a price, but many people won’t consider that overdraft and interchange fees funded the accounts. Regulatory changes dominate even more of the financial news and bank bailouts seem to keep coming up (even though the majority of villainized banks have repaid their TARP funds with interest). The economy is still a mess and recovery is coming slowly. President Clinton emphasized that the U.S. has undergone numerous times of economic crisis and that recovery takes time – whether that is two years or 10 years can’t be predicted, but things have always turned the corner.
As a transformational leader not only during his Presidency but in his work today around the world, his message was meant to promote the need for change in the banking industry. Addressing the mortgage crisis and infusing small business lending were both noted as key to the recovery. He stressed a willingness to turn conflict into cooperation in search of a common set of goals and values. One of the strongest messages that I walked away with was perspective. That is something we should all be reminded of from time to time.
Think about what we take for granted on a daily basis. What issues are facing other countries across the globe? Haiti, India and Brazil were noted as a few examples where President Clinton is working for change. People are living on less than a dollar a day but we think nothing of paying triple that for a bottle of water. He made a point of saying our expectation walking into his presentation today was that the lights, projector, microphone and air conditioning would all be operative, and if they weren’t we would all be surprised and potentially irritated that our day had been disrupted. Imagine if you didn’t have that expectation or if you couldn’t even be assured of having a safe glass of water to drink. Haitians deal with that challenge every day. Yes, this country is in a financial crisis but things could be worse. India is overpopulated, lacks proper sanitation and the majority of the population lives in extreme poverty. Haiti has always been one of the poorest nations in the world with constant political upheaval and a barrage of hurricanes. The earthquake in 2010 left the country paralyzed even further.
Every country has its challenges. We can easily blame the banks, regulators or any number of villains for the state our country is in. The true measure of our nation comes from how we meet the challenges our country faces and what we learn along the way. The past can’t be changed and we have an obligation to ensure future generations are better positioned to avoid this type of disaster. Through transparency and rebuilding trust, eventually this crisis in the U.S. will turn around. It won’t be easy but nothing worthwhile ever is.
It is clear that now is the time for transformation in the banking industry. In a time of great technology and innovation we should be well poised to get the industry back on track and possess the foresight to better manage risk in lending in the future. The President closed with, “Betting against the United States has been a losing bet for 200 years. Let’s keep it that way.” That’s something we can all agree on.