The Lamb of Wall Street

“What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions–if they can get rich making dumb decisions? The incentives on Wall Street were all wrong; they’re still all wrong.”

– Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker

To some of you, this quote may come across as unsurprising, given all that’s been said and done since the financial crisis over five years ago. You’re likely no stranger to how traders purposely sell complex and risky products to unsuspecting investors so they can get a higher bonus. You might know about the grueling hours investment bankers are forced to put in so they can rise up the corporate ladder, only to do the same to the new wave of incoming analysts. You’ve probably heard about the countless insider trading scandals by secretive hedge funds who control billions of dollars of this country’s wealth.

Or maybe you had no idea about all of this and you just knew that finance was a “prestigious” career where one could make a lot of money. This was me for most of my life.

Call me naïve, but having grown up in China, the Midwest, and Appalachia, I really wasn’t aware of any of this until a semester into my first year at Princeton University in 2008, when people jokingly (or not so jokingly) criticized my decision to study Operations Research and Financial Engineering by saying I had “sold my soul” to finance. My initial reaction was defensive: “There’s no way these people can do all these unethical things to make money off other people and actually get away with it. We don’t live in a world that broken. I’m sure they’re financially successful because of their talent and hard work.”

A few years later, I entered the world of sales and trading at an investment bank in New York and soon found out that the world was indeed that broken. During that summer internship, I often wondered if someone who claimed to follow Christ and live a life with the intent of glorifying Him could do so in such an environment. How could I glorify God when I worked in an industry where ethics and morals were often put aside in favor of a fatter paycheck? Fortunately, while switching jobs, moving halfway across the country, and dealing with the various life and work challenges throughout all of this, God has slowly but surely revealed to me how to have a gospel worldview within the finance industry.

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

– Romans 10:14-15 (ESV)

The first way is probably the most obvious: money. A Christian in finance is often (but not always) called to be a “sender” in the church both because he is financially blessed and also because his work-life balance usually makes it difficult to be a “goer.” The important fact to remember here is that this is not an inferior or superior position to be in. We are all given unique talents by God and in order for the body of Christ to function, every part must play its role (Matthew 25, 1 Corinthians 12).

At this point, cynical readers (I would usually be a part of this group, but I’m of course biased the other way in this case) may think: “Well, that’s easy for you to say. It must be nice to work in finance as a Christian. You get to give more to the church and live a wealthy lifestyle.” I believe that no Christian calling is easy if you put your whole heart into it, and I will talk more about that below. But with respect to money, I remember one of my college mentors challenging me before I graduated. He told me to “tithe until it hurts,” and that it would probably require me to give more than the 10% mentioned in the Old Testament. I was further convicted when I heard a sermon by Tim Keller in New York stating the same. It’s much easier for someone with $100,000 to give $10,000 than someone with only $100 to give $10.

However, it doesn’t stop here. I’ve met many Christians in the industry who think that financial giving is their sole calling from God. Except it goes much farther than just that.

“In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

When success of any kind is the ultimate goal, Jesus is pushed to the side and ethical/moral standards can quickly spiral down. In finance, where success is defined by profits, there is not only a gray area between what is permissible and not, but also one between what is permissible and what is right.  To help us discern where the lines are, Jesus told us that every law can be summed up in the Golden Rule: do to others what you would have them do to you. Would you want your client to hide those accounting records from you? That complex derivative that you’re selling to your counterparty, how would you feel if someone you respected/trusted made you the same false promises to cost you millions of dollars? How much commission would you want a bank to charge you for this transaction? I could go on.

However, holding strong to a set of Christian ethics can be very challenging in many circumstances. When performance is evaluated based on how much profit one generates, one may risk pay or even job stability in order to be ethical. In addition, there are many “prisoner’s dilemma” situations in parts of the finance industry. If even one person chooses to be unethical (charge an unnecessarily high premium, sell a risky product, etc.), others must often do the same or be at a severe disadvantage. How do we deal with these difficult situations and what can we do to make them easier?

(For more thoughts, some comments by others in the industry, and an example in trading, I wrote briefly about this topic here. Note: Some comments on WSO are not for the faint of heart.)

“So when we say that Christians work from a gospel worldview, it does not mean that they are constantly speaking about Christian teaching in their work…. It is a mistake to think that the Christian worldview is operating only when we are doing such overtly Christian activities. Instead, think of the gospel as a set of glasses through which you ‘look’ at everything else in the world.”

– Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor

Giving money is not enough. Following a set of ethical rules is also not enough. In the end, the most important part of working for God is that we must live a Christian life in our work, regardless of what industry we are in. For business and finance in particular, Tim Keller tells us that this means seeing profit as only one of many bottom lines, which are all encompassed by a passion to work toward serving the common good. Some practical examples include: increasing the efficiency of financial markets, overhauling a company’s financial structure so it can be more productive, managing and reducing risk for clients’ portfolios, investing capital in companies that have world-changing ideas, providing financial advisory to clients, etc.

Aside from the tangible contributions by their workplaces, Christians in finance (and any other industry) can individually impact the workplace just with attitudes that are inspired by our beliefs. In Colossians 3, we are told “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” In Matthew 6, Jesus says that we should “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” These two verses remind of us of God’s righteous providence in all we do as well as His grace in sending Jesus to the cross to seal our inheritance in heaven.

While we will never stop learning what it means to live with this kind of heart, striving toward it can contribute much more to God’s kingdom than money or a set of ethical laws ever could. And it is only by His grace that we can live in this way.

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3 thoughts on “The Lamb of Wall Street”

  1. If I could make a post request for one of your future post…I’d like to see a discussion of whether, for some positions at certain firms, Christians should not enter at all, instead of trying to live out the Gospel from within…I don’t mean this to barrage Christians who are i-bankers (I really just want to understand): how can a Christian who cares about his relationship with the Lord willingly step into a position in which there is no time for cultivating his faith? In other words, are there times when withdrawal, or abstinence, can be a better, or stronger witness?

  2. Similar thoughts to Daniel’s here.

    What does “faithful presence” (to borrow James Davison Hunter’s term) at a firm look like when that firm’s values and culture seem toxic rather than praiseworthy? I know that perhaps such broad question are often not that helpful, as faithfulness to the Gospel inevitably looks different in different situations, but this general wisdom question, I think, is one that we’re often thinking about, no matter what industry we are in. Certainly, God’s common grace exists everywhere, not least at I-banking firms that may often be (perhaps unfairly) demonized, but brokenness, sin, and injustice also exist everywhere. When is it appropriate for us to to not only to withdraw, but to speak out against the culture and values of a company?

    Another question to throw into the mix: How can we tell whether our hearts are being shaped more by the broader “world” than by the Spirit of God when it comes to our relationship to good, but alluring, things like money, power, sex, knowledge? To make this concrete, for example, take the question about stewardship of money. On Wall Street, a junior level banker’s salary may be considered puny, but in other places, it could be considered exorbitant. How can someone who does feel called by God to work a job that makes them a lot of money make sure that their spending of that money does indeed constitute faithful stewardship? It would seem that what might appear to be donating a lot of money in one context – giving a high percentage of one’s income for tithe, for example, at a firm where most people spend their income on seeking personal pleasure – may be viewed, in another (perhaps more needy) context, as not nearly enough.

    Especially since what counts as “giving until it hurts” seems to be so highly subjective – dependent on different peoples’ varying tolerance for the “pain” of giving – it seems that we have no concrete way for us to gauge what counts as faithful stewardship. Are there ways that we can tell when we might genuinely feel that we are sacrificing a lot but in actuality aren’t really giving enough?

    Really, this question applies more broadly to wisdom about stewardship for people in positions of privilege – something that we all have as graduates from Princeton.

  3. Jerm, you bring up a good question about “giving till it hurts.” I’d like to see Jack’s response to this. I was convicted by this when someone in my small group who is on staff at EPIC at a local college said he’s going to try to tithe 20% this year. boom.

    Just to maybe further this conversation a bit more (and avoid overwhelming Jack with questions!):

    Towards answering Jerm and Daniel’s questions about working in a fundamentally toxic environment, here are some useful snippets from the “Business Principles and Standards” page of an i-bank:

    “OUR CLIENTS’ INTERESTS ALWAYS COME FIRST.
    Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.”
    “WE TAKE GREAT PRIDE IN THE PROFESSIONAL QUALITY OF OUR WORK.
    We have an uncompromising determination to achieve excellence in everything we undertake. Though we may be involved in a wide variety and heavy volume of activity, we would, if it came to a choice, rather be best than biggest.”
    “INTEGRITY AND HONESTY ARE AT THE HEART OF OUR BUSINESS.
    We expect our people to maintain high ethical standards in everything they do, both in their work for the firm and in their personal lives.”

    Of course there’s always a gap between values stated on paper and reality, but if one criteria of identifying and avoiding businesses with a “toxic” culture is to compare the company’s stated values with your own, there’s a lot of good in the above snippets, and nothing in there that really gives me pause. At my company, our annual assessment explicitly asks us to identify how we’ve excelled in upholding our company’s core values.

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