Visiting Scholar Édouard Tétreau Shares His Vision for Ethical Finance with Boston College

Tétreau addresses faculty and administrators during a talk at Boston College.

Tétreau addresses faculty and administrators during a talk at Boston College.

This semester, BCSSW proudly hosted renowned French public intellectual Édouard Tétreau as a visiting scholar at the school. Tétreau is a well-respected political and economic thinker who predicted the market crash of 2008, and who, unfortunately, foresees a similar global demise in the coming years.

The good news is, Tétreau is committed to changing existing systems, both economic and political, and he aims to do so by putting those who are living at the margins at the center of his transformative work. He has recently been hired to play a leading role in building the presidential aspirations of current French finance minister Emmanuel Macron and his nascent political party En Marche. En Marche’s stated mission is to address the current economic inequity plaguing France.

In addition, Tétreau’s most recent book, Au-delà du mur de l’argent (Beyond the Wall of Money) suggests new models to the existing, dehumanizing economic systems that are currently in place, by drawing on fundamental texts on social doctrine from all of the world’s major religions.  

While at BC, Tétreau met with professors across disciplines, as well as with major stakeholders in finance and the non-profit sector throughout the city of Boston, as he seeks to further develop his vision for a more ethical global economy. In this Q&A with BC Social Work, he discusses this budding concept, and how he hopes to continue to collaborate with Boston College in the ongoing mission to build a more equitable world.  

Thank you for your time today Édouard. It is a pleasure to speak with you, and we are most honored to welcome you here to Boston College. Let’s begin by discussing your time here, and what you feel you’ve been able to accomplish since arriving on campus.

Édouard Tétreau: In Paris, I used to teach the management of financial crises at the HEC management school, and I am currently working on an ethical finance project with SciencesPo, but this is the first time I’ve been able to spend so much time at a university in exchange of ideas, experiences, and approaches to education and addressing our world’s challenges. It was my first in-depth plunge into university life.

Prior to my arrival, I didn’t anticipate having access to so many interesting people, in the School of Social Work, the School of Theology and Ministry, the Jesuit community, the Carroll School of Management, and the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences.

I expected that at BC I would encounter an ethical approach to higher education, and I wasn’t wrong, of course. But I was delighted to also see Jesuit ideals applied to all the fields, subjects, and conversations that were touched upon during my visit here. I was especially and pleasantly surprised to see the Jesuit code applied to how business is taught at Boston College, and in particular, within the university’s commitment to corporate responsibility.

When I return to France, I plan to make two calls – one to the Dean and Managing Director at SciencesPo, and the other to the head of HEC – to let them know about what I’ve learned, and to make the pitch for my idea for explicit courses on ethical finance.

Currently, we conduct courses in ethics, and we conduct courses in finance, but these disciplines are very much siloed. They need to be taught in concert with each other and this type of curriculum is something I am confident we can build together in the coming months and years.

While at BC, you had the opportunity to present your vision for an ethical finance curriculum to a group of diverse scholars on campus. Tell us more about what you said to this group that convened in Stokes Hall.

ET: In short, I encouraged all of us to go beyond the existing oxymoron that is ethical finance, and find ways to allocate capital with criteria not only based on the bottom line. I believe that we have a responsibility to support, and embolden, companies that inject Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria into their investments, and that, at the university level, we can begin to build a next generation of financiers who adopt this criteria as their own professional ethics.

Here’s how we begin to do that. As I mentioned before, we need to develop explicit courses in ethical finance, so that our students understand that ethics belong in the workplace, and not only on spare days and weekends. We also need to engage the perspective of current professionals, and not alienate them, and encourage right-minded institutions to become partners in the training of their future colleagues. Companies that invest with ESG Criteria in mind can lead by example.

Beyond the ivory tower, we must do nothing short of gatecrash the market, and engage religious leaders on investment boards to lead the conversation around ethical finance. We must relentlessly open the door, propose, and even expose wrongdoing towards convincing firms to adopt ESG.

To quote one of my daughters (“dad, have the villains won ?”) it’s easy to say that, yes, the “villains” have won, especially following the market crash of 2008, and the current realities that suggest that those who were branded “villains” then continue to reap the dividends of the current imbalances in our economies and markets. These imbalances need to be fixed, not by the market professionals, but by governments and regulators. In the meantime, I firmly believe that a concrete ethical finance approach, with social investment funds significantly invested in capital markets, can start to reshape our economies in the right direction.

Your new book, Beyond the Wall of Money, warns the world of what could happen if we don’t change our ways with regards to inequity. Give us a window into this project, your fears for what could happen, and your hopes for how we might avoid an increasingly imminent demise.

ET: The book has its genesis in conversations I had with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Justice and Peace Council, and in Pope Francis’ call to build more equitable economies towards avoiding the next imminent crash. The title is an homage to Pope John Paul II’s critical role in bringing down the Berlin Wall. Whether Pope Francis can tear down the Wall of Wall Street remains to be seen. What matters more is on what premises, on which doctrines, are we going to rebuild our economic and financial system after its likely failures. Here, the Catholic Church’s Social Teachings come into play, as well as economic doctrines from other religions.

In fact, while the world’s major religions are often fundamentally divergent, when it comes to money, it’s incredible how all the messages converge upon a preferential option for the poor. Of course, this is not the way of today. Since the crash of 2008, we have only reinforced the financial bubbles that prevail in a world of low interest rates and easy money amid growing socioeconomic inequity, and we are held prisoner by government’s ability to reign over these imbalances, unjustly.

And even more than this, we have forgotten the role of humanity in how we deal with finance. Today’s global economy of the haves and have-nots requires 100 times less human input to function than in the past; 70 percent of financial decisions across today’s markets are made by robots. This is unsustainable. (Read more on Tétreau‘s perspective on whether humans will even survive the 21st century economy in this article from the New Internationalist.)

We need to put people first instead of algorithms. I’d like to see a second Bretton Woods convened to rewrite the rules of practice in the field of finance, and I’d like to see social and religious leaders play a major role in this conference so that we put people first. And beyond that, so that we put all people first, and in particular, those who are living on the margins of society.

Read Tétreau’s recent Op Ed in The Nation on Bernie Sanders’ recent visit to the Vatican.

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