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Risk Responsibly

The risky behavior of bankers was not the proximate cause of our financial crisis.

By From the September 2011 issue

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Banker to the World: Leadership Lessons from the Front Lines of Global Finance
By William R. Rhodes
(McGraw-Hill, 252 pages, $25)

AS ANY tort lawyer will tell you, society has a habit of demanding an unrestricted supply of baked goods without any consequences -- cake-wise, that is. And so it is with bankers of whom we demand, "Take risks; just don't lose any of our money." The penalty for disappointing society can be severe. Perhaps only Transportation Security Agency junk-touchers at airports are held in lower regard in America today than bankers.

This is why this memoir by William R. Rhodes, the former head of international banking operations for Citibank, is more than a salutatory antidote to the prevailing lynch-mob attitude toward our financial industry. It should be required reading not only for other bankers, but also for Washington's would-be reformers of Wall Street. and most of all for the ordinary lay citizen dismayed by the persisting panic that has gripped us since 2007 and which is going to be among us for at least another five years. I mean, they're all Bernie Madoffs, right?

Well, no. Bill Rhodes has been for more than 50 years one of the true white-hats among American bankers. Next to Paul Volcker (who has written the book's foreword), Rhodes has been the face of American capital probity to the rest of the world. Hence the accurate title, "Banker to the World." A minor quibble might be that bookstall browsers will be misled by the subtitle, "Leadership Lessons from the Front Lines of Global Finance." This is not your run-of-the-mill "my-ten-top-tips-to-get-rich" ghost job that ego-driven tycoons foist off on business school wannabes.

Nor is it an attempt to alibi the banking excesses of the past 30 years. Indeed, the most recent senior management of Citibank comes off as being pretty tone-deaf about the dangers that were clearly looming in the past decade, as witness the blithe quip tossed off in 2007 by Citibank's CEO Charles Prince, "As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance." One comes away from such accounts wondering less why Rhodes never made it to the top chair, but rather how he was able to last as long as he did.

Through a series of case studies Rhodes reminds us of an overlooked truth: that bankers must take risks. We not only want them to, but we need them to if surplus capital is to do its work to best effect. Nevertheless, there are rules that apply in most risk assessments and, and this is underscored, there are consequences for ignoring or trying to evade those rules. And those rules apply whether one runs a bank, or tries to run bankers à la Barney Frank or Fidel Castro. It may be, as the old commercial says, "not nice to fool Mother Nature." But it can be disastrous to try to fool Mr. Marketplace.

The backstory to the present global financial crisis and to most of Rhodes's 53 years in banking is that the risky behavior of bankers was not the proximate cause of this most recent bubble and subsequent collapse. Rather, during that time more and more nations became more and more dependent on ever-more-expensive energy sources--oil for one--to fuel growth. Instead of running faster just to stay in place, entire economies and especially the U.S. economy began to steadily lose ground. American workers have lost purchasing power steadily since 1975, the same with household wealth even before the collapse of home prices. Instinctively, individuals have made decisions that provided the illusion of wealth and to demand that their financial trustees--bankers among them--support that illusion. Bernie Madoff and Goldman Sachs did not generate the bubble all by themselves. We helped.

The other hard truth Rhodes tells us is that banking is always in crisis. That's what banks do when they take risks--crisis inevitably follows. Congressional ignoramuses are doomed to disappointment when they believe they can protect us with thousands of pages of one-size-fits-all regulations that will prevent any crisis from ever occurring again.

Looking to today's slow-motion catastrophes that roil the once-smug eurozone, Rhodes offers a timely overview based on a lifetime (he started at what was then the National City Bank in 1957) in a career that made him the point man for U.S. banking for five decades of crises involving the finances of nations that once were considered the basket cases of the global marketplace--Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Turkey--not to mention the emerging nations of Asia (especially China and South Korea) and of the newly liberated financial markets of the Eastern Bloc--Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary and, not least, of the former Soviet Union.

But with a nod to the crisis gripping the so-called PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) that threaten the financial structure of Europe and thus our own, Rhodes concedes that "financial crises will continue to occur. Still, the lessons of the last 50 years show that all crises are manageable."

"Each country is unique, and a cookie-cutter approach does not work when dealing with a nation in crisis. Every country has distinct reasons for why it got into trouble, for how the problems could have been prevented, and for how the crisis could have been resolved," Rhodes accurately observes. But there is, he adds, a common threat--that the instability of one nation will spread like contagion to its neighbors.

With a pointed message that should resonate in both Athens and Washington, he concludes with a list of remedies that includes privatization, trade liberalization, tax reforms, and regulatory adjustments. But repeatedly he argues that a prompt response is essential if the crisis is to be contained.

HAVING SPENT 40 years reporting from the sidelines of the banking scene, I found a lot explained in Rhodes's inside stories of how and why institutions like the big banks, the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, and others responded to the sometimes painful evolution of the global marketplace. Sadly, some national leaders--one thinks of Nicaragua's Sandinistas, Venezuela's Chavez, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe--try to evade the rules of sound finance and their people pay the price. Others--a series of Argentinean finance ministers, or recently the Castro brothers--belatedly wake up to reality and have to begin a painful period of reform.

More encouraging, however, is his recounting of how some new leaders quickly overcome the prejudices of their upbringing and get it right from the start. Success stories such as the East European governments that broke away from the Soviet Union or the reformers in Turkey and Brazil show what miracles can occur when responsible governments work with the financial markets to take the risks of investing prudently but also profitably.

Is it too much to hope that Mr. Rhodes has dropped off some copies of his memoir on Capitol Hill and at the White House? Is it too much to hope that anyone in either place will read it? They probably won't. But you should.

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About the Author

James Srodes, an author and broadcaster, is a former Washington bureau chief for Forbes and Financial Worldmagazines. His latest book, On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our World, is being published next week. His email address is srodesnews@msn.com.