Why you shouldn’t be a banker

No matter what wishful thinking might tell you, there is no way that banking can be an ethical choice, says JACK TATTERSALL.

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The Tab recently published an article claiming that becoming a banker might be “the most ethical choice you ever make”. It said that philanthropic Cambridge students should take a job in finance and donate 20% of their salaries rather than work in a traditionally ‘ethical’ sector. Without being too much of a dick about it, this is bollocks. There are, of course, many different kinds of job within the financial sector, but I’m going to focus on the types that people generally associate with “banking” – corporate investment banking, financial management, and financial trading – to show why you’re likely to make more of a positive difference working in the not-for-profit or public sector.

Claim 1 – If I don’t work for a charity, someone else will and be just as good, but if I don’t work for a bank, someone else will but be more of a dick than me

At first glance, this seems like a reasonable claim. Unfortunately, it has one major flaw: it’s absolute bullshit.

Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you – like a lot of bankers, to be fair – keep donating 10-20% across your career, despite the temptation not to when you’re seriously rolling in the benjamins. The problem is that it is unfair to say that job-seeking graduates have the choice between being exceptionally philanthropic financial sector employees or “standard” not-for-profit/public sector employees.


The author is right to a certain extent that if you (as an exceptionally philanthropic individual) don’t take a job in the financial sector, then the person who gets it will probably donate less of his or her salary than you would. But the claim that someone “just as good” as you would get the job in the not-for-profit sector if you don’t take it suddenly assumes that you are not an exceptional candidate. If you are highly motivated to make a difference and are abnormally philanthropic, then you are likely to make more of a difference in the not-for-profit or public sector – by pushing to make charities more efficient, devising improved ways to spend donations, working on policies to increase gender equality – than the average employee. Yes, the difference is probably not quite as great, because the average charity worker is likely to be more ethical than the average financial sector employee, but that does not mean that your taking a job in the not-for-profit or public sector will have no impact.

Claim 2 – The maths works

The author also basically claims that the benefits of charitable donation will outweigh all the bad shit you do whilst working for a bank. However, the guy who came up with this is evidently using a different definition of “maths” to the rest of us.

There are about 160,000 investment bankers worldwide employed by the top banks, about 100,000 of whom are in the US and the UK. Their purpose is to invest people’s money in stuff to try and make them more money – which is fair enough; most of their investors are pension schemes, and people need money to live off when they retire. But the ways in which this money is invested have severely detrimental effects for the global poor, even during economic booms.

For example, after the collapse of the housing bubble in late 2007, banks began selling investments in commodity futures, which are essentially a bet that the price of a commodity will go up or down in the future. This led to massive increases in the price of these goods (remember when petrol got really expensive?). Unfortunately, they were mostly staples like rice, grains and oil. Suddenly, poor people the world over could no longer afford the things they needed to survive, and an estimated 100 million people were driven into extreme hunger.

On average, this equates to each investment banker in the US and the UK forcing 1,000 people into extreme hunger. Just in 2008.

Given that a bubble of this kind will come around once every 5-10 years or so (if current patterns continue), that’s a total of up to 6,000 people being driven to starvation across the course of your career, which is pretty bad even if you do manage to “save 488 lives” as the original article claims. This is without taking into account the negative effects of foreign exchange trading, debt trading, IPO speculation, etc., etc.

Finally, when these bubbles collapse, shit gets fucked up. No one seriously denies that financial crises are caused by the financial sector. Do you know how much the most recent bailout cost UK taxpayers? Roughly £1.5 trillion. Read it. One and a half trillion pounds. That’s a transfer of about £25,000 from every person in the UK to the financial sector, or enough to buy a PS4 for every single person in the continent of Asia.


I won’t go into the reasons behind it (but part of it is because Henry Paulson, the guy who engineered the US bailout, literally used to work for Goldman Sachs, and now works for Citigroup). What’s important is that these crises are inevitable.

If you go to work for the big players in the financial sector, at some point you are going to be engaging in risky economic behaviour to try and get your shareholders more money. You will do this because everyone else is doing it, and because you’ll get fired otherwise. And you will effectively end up legally stealing taxpayers’ money. Maybe you won’t directly kill hundreds of people, but killing isn’t the only immoral thing you can do.

Yes, if you don’t do it, then somebody else probably will. But this really doesn’t mean it’s OK – that’s a bit like saying “Yeah I’ve got all these slaves on my plantation, but it’s cool because I’m nicer to them than another owner would be, so I’m actually a pretty good guy”.

Do the right thing. Don’t become a banker.