Some years ago, before Depression panic gripped the world, I had the opportunity to consult with several members of the banking industry. Each was involved in an obscure area of work, destined to become headline news within a few years. And whether discussing complex derivative trades or the structuring of collateralized debt obligation tranches, each reflected an industry-wide secret. It was known to individuals, but because it fell outside of the industry’s normative culture, it resided within the personal anxieties of industry players, so that the merry-go round could continue to turn.

Opposing knowledge were the final days of 21st Century Weimar: thousand dollar bottles of champagne at over-priced exclusive clubs for the finance teams that had worked feverishly to bring in the deals; private plane chartered to international soccer matches; hob nobbing with C-Suite bankers in the Colorado snow; wind surfing off the most perfect secret spot in an undisclosed South American country.

The secret was that bad debt was spreading virally throughout the world, as bankers and investors gobbled up its dubiously rated super secure ratings. The speed with which merger and acquisitions had to be consummated in that final year, meant little sleep. And the terrific profit margins for lenders that had typified the growing generation of risky debt, began to diminish rapidly. Yet the players could not withdraw because their organizational roles required that they continue to play. If one bank refused a deal, then another would take it; and reputation was at stake. Standards loosened. Yet, while personal reflection of participants within the context of psychological business consultation was focused right on target, nothing of this was permitted in the workplace because the goal-determined purpose of the work required a uniformity of belief in corporate alignment. And this was affirmed in industry alignment.

Slowly, the clients I knew, began to revise their career plans. They were paid well to leave, either to pass the baton or to close up shop. Remarkably, the knowledge underlying their individual anxieties became lost to their work organizations. So that when the larger societal world caught up with the dilemma, the organization could truly claim ignorance: not only had knowledge been off-limits, but also those who knew and couldn’t say, were no longer around. Incentives to stay demanded the ignorance of the group; and incentives to leave made sure the group’s ignorance could be validated

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What Banks Know


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