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Speech by Federal President Horst Köhler, held at the opening of the European Banking Congress (EBC) 2008

Bundespräsident Horst Köhler am Rednerpult Frankfurt/Main, 21 November 2008 Photo: Steffen Kugler, BPA © Photo: Steffen Kugler, BPA

"Financial Markets in the Service of Humanity"

I know a roofer; he's in a wheelchair following a car accident. For two or three years, after he found out that he would never walk again, he really hit rock bottom.
Then he got right back up - sitting down, as it were.

Today he runs a company that makes "handbikes" - wheelchairs that are operated by hand crank and chain drive.

"What does integration mean to you?" I asked him.

He replied, "For me, integration is when I pay taxes."

That answer was food for thought. Someone who had been down and out hit the nail right on the head: belonging, being part of something bigger, creating real value and building something that provides work for others, and then gladly paying the price for that in the form of taxes - Is it necessary to experience personal tragedy to feel this calling and act on it?

I think not. But what's the answer if you turn the question on its head? Is there a measure of individual success in life, of material invulnerability, which makes you arrogant and immune to the idea that none of us could possibly achieve anything without the others, without the society we are accountable to, each of us in our own place?

If the answer to that were simply "yes", we would have it easy. Then we would only need to determine the maximum annual salary beyond which a person becomes detached and aloof, and if we were to ensure that this salary is not exceeded, the world would be a better place.

And if the answer to the question were simply "no", we would have it just as easy. Then we'd need not worry about our society's cohesion, nor about the standing of the social market economy.

But we don't have it easy.

We are dealing with a deep-seated global crisis. We have been shown how quickly the international financial system can turn unstable. And now the crisis is eating away at the real economy - all over the world.

Decisive action on the part of politicians was necessary. In Germany, the Federal Government, the Bundestag and Bundesrat, together with the Bundesbank, quickly worked out a law to stabilize the financial markets and are in the process of implementing it. Our democracy showed resolve. This is about safeguarding our national economy, ergo safeguarding jobs and income for millions of people. I expect the banking industry to match and to utilize this courageous political proposition with its own courage and an understanding of the larger picture.

The fact that the 20 biggest economies agreed to a comprehensive plan of action on further efforts to deal with the crisis is an encouraging sign.

In the short term it is necessary to get the cash flow moving again and to counteract a world recession. In doing so, each country must take their own specific situation into account. Domestic concerns, however, must not obstruct the larger perspective as to what is required to overcome a global crisis.

Another priority is the international and political conception of a new international economic and financial order that draws legitimacy from its role in solving the global challenges that face humanity.

The work ahead of us should be based on four primary pillars:

First: The principle of state control on the international financial markets must be redefined and reasserted. I advocate creating an international regulatory authority, and I support giving the International Monetary Fund the role of guardian over the stability of the global financial system. To carry out this task effectively, the IMF should be given more autonomy.

Secondly: A major cause of the crisis was the build-up of enormous trade imbalances between national economies over the years. We need binding policies to ensure that these global imbalances are reduced and that they cannot come about again in these proportions in the future. This also requires a discussion about the role of currency exchange rates, and it certainly requires a rejection of self-absorption and protectionism.

Thirdly: We must recognize that poverty and climate change threaten political stability both in the North and in the South. That is why the fight against them must be anchored as a strategic objective in all forms of international cooperation.

Fourthly: As a global community, we must agree on a common ethos, on values we all share, and on a suitable punishment by the community for any violation of those values. The underlying principle must be: we should treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. We must stick to this; it should be the standard by which we want to be measured.

In 1944, the Bretton Woods Conference laid the foundation for a post-World War II free-market world economy based on a division of labour. This decision was a decisive factor in securing confidence and in bringing about prosperity and social progress for industrialized countries. It brought Germany much needed foreign capital, and it enabled the development of an export economy that still today remains extraordinarily successful. Bretton Woods was therefore a crucial moment in setting the stage for a successful social market economy in Germany.

I remain convinced that the magnitude of the crisis we face today demands a Bretton Woods II, a meeting of the best minds who will put their expertise, morality and political willpower to use in systematically tackling this crisis.

We should not forget that those who brought about the crisis sit in the capitals and financial centres of the industrialized nations. They represent finance institutions, auditing and consulting agencies, governments, regulatory authorities and central banks. There are many who played a role in the chain of failure. The private sector and governments: both are involved. The credibility of our system of freedom is on the line.

The consequence is accountability. All those responsible for the crisis must take responsibility. That is why I also believe we would all benefit if the strategy to tackle the crisis were based on a thorough cause analysis - undertaken by people who have the necessary expertise and who are independent in their judgement.

Reverting to the usual lobbyism in the interest of playing down one's own share of responsibility is not an appropriate response. It is time for us all to look beyond the end of our own noses.

Out of self-interest, if for no other reason, the financial sector should start asking itself some difficult questions. It should ask questions about the responsibility of those directly involved, of their supervising bodies and of those supposed in turn to supervise those supervisors; questions about competence and systems of earnings that promoted short-term thinking and a herd mentality; and questions about high-yield returns that intoxicated an entire industry, making them blind to the risks - or causing them to consciously ignore those risks. Sound commercial principles were discarded; parts of the financial sector disengaged themselves from the real economy.

I believe we need a fundamental overhaul of the banking industry. The banks must realize that above all, they are stewards for those who have entrusted their savings with them.

Face up to your customers who have been unnerved by the crisis, and pay special attention to those who have suffered losses. If poor advice was given, be honest about it. Do not evade justified questions posed by the public. Your most important task now is to regain confidence. That is your job.

Consider rescue measures for hardship cases. It cannot be in the interest of the banking industry to see private retirement saving schemes falling into disrepute. Those in your business who earned large sums of money through the developments of the past years could, as a particular gesture of solidarity, make their own contribution to a fund.

Return to your core function as a service provider for your business clients. In particular our medium-sized entrepreneurs should not be left in the lurch. These are hard-working people, and their products are in demand around the world. They deserve your confidence, especially in times of crisis. A panic-driven contraction of bank balance sheets at this stage does not help anyone. The banking supervisory bodies should also keep this in mind.

Do not base your risk management on computer models alone, but assess which investment banking and business models truly create value. Establish a culture in your bank which thrives on actually getting to know your customers, a culture which is also defined by an awareness of the limits of controllability and of responsible risk-taking. That requires an ability to empathize, sound judgement and humility.

And please put an end to the phase of finger pointing. Yes, America lived on credit. Yes, the Fed artificially kept money cheap. Yes, the ratings agencies awarded "triple A" with carefree abandon, as did consultants and auditors in their reports.

And what is also true is that investors and shareholders - large and small - took part in the pursuit of high returns. But many from your banks, ladies and gentlemen, shrugged off the numerous warnings, preferring to partake in the risk-taking rather than tackle the developments gone awry. Unfortunately, this has also had an impact on many of you who kept your feet on the ground and continue to be trustworthy.

Months ago I spoke to a medium-sized entrepreneur and market leader in Germany. He said something very simple: "If layoffs are imminent, then salary hikes for executives are out of the question."

This was not someone one would suspect of plotting to overthrow the market economy, or someone who doesn't know how hard it is to run a company. The person speaking is someone who understands that he too must tighten his belt if he has to ask something of his employees. Someone who doesn't understand why such conduct is not a matter of course for all executives. Ladies and gentlemen, society at large does not understand this. And rightly so.

How does a society become corrupt? I've just returned from Nigeria, where this question is in many people's minds, because in Nigeria, corruption is all-pervasive.

Where does it come from? I received some interesting answers to this question: in traditional culture it was taboo to steal from or bribe your neighbours. Those found guilty of such an offence were ostracized. For the ability to share was a matter of survival in communities which knew no abundance, only scarcity.

This changed when colonialism brought with it a system of rule that the population did not perceive as their own, but rather as something alien. To take from outsiders, especially if they acted like foreign rulers, that sidestepped the taboo. It does us no harm, or so the thinking went, it only harms the ruler.

Even those who don't follow this logic will recognize that, if all is to go well, there must be a band between those above and those below. I know, the thought that Nigeria is not quite as far away as we always thought is disconcerting. But it wakes us up. A society intent on reaching its full strength - because full strength is what's needed to come through - needs to forge an agreement about what constitutes the common good.

Such an agreement should stop no one from being as competitive as can be and striving to be market leader. Competition is necessary to unleash the dynamic forces that make economic and social progress possible in the first place. And one look at the global distribution of income is enough to make us realize that we Germans have profited considerably from these forces.

Social cohesion, if it is to be organized effectively, cannot be left to those who believe exclusively in the good of humankind. We also need tough, ambitious and assertive people, and we have to be able to motivate them. But no matter how fierce the competition, we need a culture of togetherness. A culture of togetherness to which everyone belongs. And we need, quite simply, decency.

Let us once again embrace the virtues of the respectable banker.

Enough said about the imminent challenges you face.

However, ladies and gentlemen, there are other challenges, if we are to utilize the momentum created by this crisis.

We are at a turning point. Allow me to paint two scenarios:

Scenario 1: After the outcry subsides, the willingness to change evaporates. Confidence does not return, the global economy continues to crumble. It's every man for himself, and the weak suffer most of all.

Scenario 2: At the next G20 summit, initial measures to stabilize the international financial architecture are agreed upon and implemented. The financial sector supported this process with helpful and transparent action. An international consensus exists regarding strategic measures for a far-reaching assessment of the crisis. There is a surge in confidence, which provides the basis for a new upturn in the global economy. The international community has the strength to quickly bring the Doha round of trade talks to a close. An extensive global programme of investments for the future is put on track, focusing on infrastructure and education, with an emphasis on poorer countries. A development policy for the entire planet is drawn up. Not just poorer countries, we in the industrialized countries are also in need of development. A new, cooperative world order comes about.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, which of these two scenarios do we wish for our children?

I wish that we would realize that humans caused this crisis. So humans can also learn from it and solve the challenges involved. We know that we depend on each other. That is the nature of globalization. Our actions must be sustainable.

In this current crisis there also lies a great opportunity. The crisis originated within the industrialized nations - among those who hitherto felt strongest. Our own mistakes have taught us that we, too, are vulnerable. It behoves us to take on more humility and a greater willingness to learn from our mistakes. Let us all contribute to creating a new regulatory framework for the global economy, one in which capital serves everyone and no one must feel governed by it.

We in Germany do not need to reinvent the wheel to achieve this. With the concept of the social market economy, we have already made the fundamental commitment to a balanced relationship between the private sector and the state, between freedom and responsibility, between competition and social justice. For all of us, to live in Germany means to be familiar with a life defined by security and prosperity. Still, for us too, the crisis raises new questions about the provision of vital services by the state. Let us talk openly about it, without ideological blinders.

But I also say: the past decades have offered convincing proof of the advantages of the market economy on a global scale. It has liberated hundreds of millions of people around the world from abject poverty; and no one can honestly deny that private investment, private ideas and secure property rights are preconditions for sound economic and social development.

Europe has demonstrated strength of action in a time of crisis. The European model of freedom which ties itself to social balance is a source of hope around the world. The social market economy can now achieve an international breakthrough. We have the chance to bring about a globalization that benefits everyone. And this must be our goal.

On our way there, creative minds and innovative thinking will be required. Strong-willed people, people with the self-confidence to ask questions and to listen. People who allow room for doubt in order to reach new insight, who have the will and feel the moral duty to focus on the common good. Let us work towards that goal.
It truly is up to us.