x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Understanding the first step in financial security

Following a number of financial scandals, has the West gone too far in separating what is legal from what is moral?

It's a sight we have seen rather a lot in recent years. In this case, a glum-looking Frenchman, his head bowed in shame as he faces the judge; the gasp from the gallery as he gets sent down for the crime of abusing other people's money.

Jerome Kerviel is now known as the trader who blew almost €5 billion (Dh25.6bn) of Société Générale's money on illicit trades. The bank has since moved on. SocGen's shares are once again in demand, its executives can enjoy their morning croissant and café, with the accusations of incompetence dwindling into history.

Kerviel faces three years inside and is expected to pay back €4.9bn - yeah, right. He can console himself with the knowledge that he is something of a cult hero in France, and his Facebook page has some 4,000 friends and counting. Before his indiscretion, he had less than 10. So everyone comes out okay. SocGen's incompetent oversight of the billions being traded in its name is forgotten. Kerviel is briefly elevated to the ranks of the 1968 generation.

Outrageous, as a Daily Mail reader would say. The French bank is only one of many public institutions that have let us down so badly in the past decade. And so very few have paid the price for the wilful greed that has brought despair to ordinary wage earners around the world. The UAE is often criticised for its sanction of debtors. In the West, we no longer send people to prison for failing to pay what they owe. Removing the threat of criminal action was a necessary part of creating a vibrant, dynamic capitalism. Protecting risk takers from the consequences of their actions was, therefore, a trade off that was seen as necessary for capitalism to thrive.

So this makes English philosopher Roger Scruton's recent suggestion all the more intriguing: "Everybody has an opinion about what we ought to do to fix our dreadful [economic] financial situation," he said recently on Big Questions Online. He then suggested a look at Islamic finance. Mr Scruton suggests that the West has gone too far in separating what is legal from what is moral. Islam's abhorrence for usury and debt stems not from economics, he says, but from a distinction between what is wrong, and what is right.

Many of our financial leaders, the men and women who we trust with the fruits of our labour, seem to view morality as a quaint throwback. Instead, decisions are made based on what is legal and what is not. In other words, what can be gotten away with. Sure, a few like Kerviel and Bernie Madoff have been locked away. But what are we to make of Goldman Sachs, which was short selling financial products even as it was advising clients to buy? Perfectly legal.

Or the many banks, too many to mention, who needed bailouts because they had got themselves into trouble for creating and flogging financial instruments so complex that even their staff could not understand them. Countries are writing new laws that will supposedly protect us from the craziness of the past decade; and you can be sure a lot of smart people out there are studying them to see where the loopholes are. What they can get away with.

The business world has few Believers, and a great many Gordon Gekkos. For the personal investor, this is a dilemma. If the people we trust think like criminals, who do we give our money to? There's no point whining about the rules. As humble wage-slaves, we don't have much influence in the corridors where these things are decided. It's the system we have and we might as well accept it. So our only defence is knowledge. And a powerful defence it is, too. We were suckered into cheap loans and seemingly bottomless credit because we failed to see the consequences of debt.

Personal investing is tricky enough without doubting the advisers we turn to. So it helps to at least have an understanding of the markets. Interested in exchange traded funds? Gold? Or maybe dipping back into property? Then Google is your friend. So is the financial media. Research and learn as much as you can before giving other people your money. Trust, in an age of legality and lawyers, is an ephemeral thing.

Warren Buffet, the world's wealthiest investor, famously avoids investments that he does not understand. You should do the same. If you can't understand exactly what it is you are being sold, don't buy it.