Full transcript of financier and philanthropist Jeremy Balkin’s TEDx Talk: How Many Bankers Does It Take To Change A Lightbulb at TEDxLSE 2014 Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: How many bankers does it take to change a lightbulb by Jeremy Balkin at TEDxLSE 2014
My name is Jeremy Balkin, and I’m here to turn on the lights on finance.
The lights are going to be turned on because the darkness caused by the financial global crisis has left the world riddled with record youth unemployment, stagnant global growth, and an enormous debt.
The light that once illuminated the path for 3 billion young people has been extinguished. And the darkness is literally blinding the hopes and dreams of an entire generation.
If we are the world’s architects, we can no longer afford to outsource the strategic direction of the future to those who caused a terminal mistake in the past. It’s time this generation rise up and mobilize to repair this broken world because it is our time to shine.
Before the crisis, I was a stereotypical finance guy. I was young and ambitious, driven by money, and I thought I was a bulletproof alpha male. My job involved making rich people richer. I was good at it. I enjoyed it. And my health and wellbeing were measured by money.
But in December of 2009, this all changed. I woke up in a hospital bed after five hours of surgery because just two days earlier, I survived an extreme sports injury that would change my life forever.
I was climbing up a rope, military style, using only my body weight, to a naturally occurring rock formation above a naked cliff. And as I got to the top, under the force of my body weight, my left arm snapped. Just there.
So this bulletproof alpha male who was indestructible had no legs or no harness for support. He was now hanging on one arm. At the top of this rope. There was a 50-foot drop to jagged rocks below.
In that moment, I learned that health is wealth. In that moment, I learned that my life is not about to end. It would just begin. In that moment, a much higher power had decided that I was going to be given a rare second chance.
In my rehabilitation, I made a vow. I made a vow that I would devote every ounce of my being from this day forward to being the best person I could be and hopefully having a positive impact on the people and planet around me. In the last five years, I made a full mental and physical recovery. But the same cannot be said for the world or the economy.
In fact, it breaks my heart to see the way young people have been decimated by this global financial crisis. Because they weren’t old enough to fully and directly benefit from the boom times. They were often at high schools or studying in universities. The vast majority weren’t able to buy a home, build a stock portfolio, or to save a multi-million-dollar bonus. But they are sure paying for the price now: higher unemployment, higher taxes, and lower real wages. And that price would be paid for many decades to come.
I’m not prepared to accept this broken world, and be told by those who got us into this mess and had to get us out of it. Just close your eyes for a minute and imagine a world where the global financial crisis never happened. Just picture that in your mind.
Now open your eyes. This is how close we came to that dream becoming a reality. A single light bulb. Let me explain.
Conventional wisdom would have us all believe the global financial crisis started on the 15th of September 2008, the day Lehman Brothers collapsed and filed for bankruptcy. I’m not sure I agree. In fact, I think the global financial crisis actually started exactly 1 year and 1 day earlier, on the 14th of September, 2007. That was the day when thousands of people lined up for miles in this country to take their money out of Northern Rock in an old-fashioned run on the bank. Did anyone else even notice? Did anyone else even bother to read the signs that there was a systemic crisis in banking?
I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I am at home and the light bulb starts to flicker, I don’t wait for it to die or the filament to burn out before I do something about it. Because I don’t want to sit there in abject darkness.
In 2007, all that was required was just one brave banker to change that broken light bulb. The events of September 2008 would have been vastly different, mitigated, or never occurred. Millions of people would still have their homes, their savings, and their dignity. So I simply ask: how many bankers does it take to change this light bulb? And that’s a question that consumed me for the last five years.
So I thought I’d do something about it. And I recently conducted a survey, a study, I offered it to my Facebook friends and my 14,000 Twitter followers to gauge their opinions on banking trust and changing light bulbs. What is clear, what is remarkable is that I’m not going to win a Nobel Prize nor am I going to get a PhD from this world’s famous London School of Economics, but the results were telling: respondents from Australia, South Africa, the United States, India, the Middle East, and the UK, all want to trust bankers like they trust their doctors; on a scale of 1 to 10, 8.14.
But these same respondents only trust bankers about as much as they trust politicians and news car salesmen: 5.75 out of 10; barely a pass.
Have we learned nothing from this financial crisis? Five years later, there is still an enormous deficit of trust in banking, and don’t take my words for it, look at the facts. If people had faith and trust in the banking system, why hasn’t there been an exponential growth in peer to peer lending and shadow banking around the world? If people have faith and trust in the financial system, why has the price of gold spiked? Why are people opting out of the fiat currency system all together and putting their money in cryptocurrency like Bitcoin?
Friends, this is a disturbing situation and does not bode well for the future because banking is a metaphor for trust. We need a robust, profitable, and healthy banking sector in our society. Banking performs an essential function as a trusted custodian of assets, allowing you to have a safe place to store your money at night, for which you receive a fee, and allowing others to access that capital the next morning and pay a slightly higher fee for the privilege to fund housing investments and small businesses for finance.
But the trouble is that the basic banking business model has not changed a hell of a lot over the last few thousand years. Boring banks wanted to become sexy, and get into stockbroking, propriety trading, commodities, asset management, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, product manufacturing and distribution. Bigger banks meant bigger bonuses. Bigger bonuses meant bigger profits. Bigger profits meant bigger risks, risks that became so big that banks were too big to fail, requiring drastic action and intervention on the free market by government when they eventually did fail, providing emergency bail-out funds in an attempt to restore faith and confidence in the system.