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Anthropologist: Investors need to understand the tribal nature of banking culture

2008-01-28

Anthropologist: Investors need to understand the tribal nature of banking culture

Can anthropology help us to understand the current Wall Street crisis? Of course. Anthropologist Gillian Tett is an assistant editor of the Financial Times. “It is undoubtedly an unusual background for a financial journalist", she writes:

Indeed, whenever I reveal my strange past today, bankers usually either react with horror (what does she know about finance?) or incredulity (why would anyone spend years studying Tajik goat-herders?). But a decade later, my years in Tajikistan are suddenly starting to look a whole lot more useful.

For one thing that anthropology imparts is a healthy respect for the importance of micro-level incentives and political structures. And right now these issues are becoming critically important for Wall Street and the City, as the credit crunch deepens by the day.

One of the important issues is the culture of power:

(G)roups such as Citi or Merrill appear to have developed a more hierarchical pattern, in which the different business lines have existed like warring tribes, answerable only to the chief. Moreover, the most profitable tribe has invariably wielded the most power - and thus was untouchable and inscrutable to everyone else. Hence the fact that, in this tribal culture, nobody reined in the excesses of the structured finance teams at Citi and Merrill.
(…)
(W)hat is crystal clear is that if you want to understand which banks will emerge as winners from the current mess, it is no longer enough to look at their computer systems and balance sheets. Now, more than ever, investors need to understand a bank’s culture too - and the degree to which it is tribal. As I said, a training in Tajik anthropology is suddenly looking very useful.
Written by Lorenz
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