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Instead of a short-term and profit-driven focus, an outcome from the pandemic could be a financial industry that pays much more attention to long-term sustainability.

One headline I saw recently read: “Could you soon be paying your bank to hold your savings?”

It seems counterintuitive for banks to charge you for keeping your money and, on the other hand, offer you credit for free. What? You can borrow and pay back less than you borrow, but if you save, you have to pay the bank to keep your money?

This is another defining moment of change in how we think about value, money and finance – and perhaps a long-lasting one. After all, it all fits with the idea of 'the long now', as promoted by the US non-profit foundation of the same name, community currencies and sustainable finance.

If you’re not familiar with those things, the background is that you should spend money, not keep it. You get rewarded for spending money locally, within your community, but you get punished if you keep it in a bank. This is to encourage investment in the community, building long-term projects and avoiding short-term investing and thinking.

We may just be going through a moment of time where our attitude to money, value and finance changes

Taking the long view

I learned about these themes from the late Bernard Lietaer. He was a central banker turned author and campaigner, who wrote a book called The Future of Money at the beginning of this century. I loved it. The whole idea behind it was that money was broken, the investment system didn’t work and banking needed reform. Radical! Especially as he had been a leading currency trader and was instrumental in the creation of the eurozone.

One of the central tenets of Mr Lietaer’s thinking is that we need to invest for the long term and avoid short-term interest. It builds a world future view that believes the earth and society are more important than money and wealth; a view of the world future where we invest in projects that will last 1,000 years, rather than one year.

“The money system is what creates the structural conflict experienced by so many CEOs between stockholders’ interests, their own personal ethics and their concerns for their grandchildren’s future,” he wrote. “My contribution to addressing this dilemma is to propose a money system that will harness corporate power and direct it towards the goal of long-term sustainability.”

Money is the root of short-termism but also the root of change. If you think about it, it makes sense. For example, who would build a Taj Mahal or the pyramids or a Duomo today? These buildings, which have lasted hundreds and thousands of years, were built by emperors and kings who believed in leaving millennia-long legacies. What is the legacy we will leave behind? Will any of the projects we work on today be remembered in a century – or even in a few years?

Maybe if we are punished for storing money rather than investing it, then this is something that will change. A mindset change brought about by the coronavirus.

A new paradigm

This gets interesting. The reason why we are all focused upon short-termism is because we need to generate profit now. What about generating profit 100 years from now?

Perhaps the best illustration of long-term thinking is Oxford University. When it was built in the 14th century, the planners planted a forest of oak trees, the same as the wood used for the roof of the Great Hall. This was because they were planning for the eventual replacement of the Great Hall’s roof; 500 years later, this proved to be visionary, as the roof did need replacing and they had the exact same wood ready for the job.

This illustrates a core theme of sustainable finance. Now, when banks are forced to charge customers to store their savings and pay borrowers to take the money – money that loses value with time – we may just be going through a moment of time where our attitude to money, value and finance changes.

Could we move to a long-term sustainable financial platform view? I never thought it possible before, but maybe our coronavirus moment could make this approach ripe for exploring now.

Chris Skinner is an independent financial commentator and chairman of the London-based Financial Services Club.


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