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July 2020 | Issue 225
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Opinion credit derivatives
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2020 is a massive opportunity for change — and clinging to past achievements won’t wash
July 2020 | Issue 225
I’m not a fan of statues: they are big lumps devoid of expression and gesture. As an art form, they tell me most about what we shouldn’t be doing — something that has implications for the direction of business in the credit market.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about Michelangelos or Berninis. They have their place. I’m not a complete philistine, although once you’ve visited the Vatican and traipsed its nine miles of floor, you may not care if you ever see another saint. Nor am I really talking about war memorials that honour bravery and self-sacrifice — although they also stand testament to the culmination of many bad decisions.
I’m talking about those drab, second-rate likenesses of moneyed benefactors, politicians and ‘great’ generals — the very chaps who made the bad decisions that necessitated war memorials.
It’s not much of an argument to say they tell us about the past, when they are nearly always devoid of context. If we want to be reminded of our history, statues are terrible teachers. Instead they blend into the tapestry of cities and parks. People give them less regard than pigeons. Their dull countenances impart no wisdom.
Ironically, it is because people are now more able to do the research that they are realising how problematic many of the subjects of these statues are. They have stayed part of our environs only because they were overlooked.
When it comes to public art, I’m more enamoured of graffiti. This is a living shared document where, yes, the crude is frequent, but where constant iteration can result in the sublime. It is a conversation in which skilled efforts tend to supersede the mindless. The reverse can and does happen, but that is less common and forms impetus for another direction.
The Romans might have had the right approach to statues. Historian Mary Beard pointed out in a recent Times Literary Supplement piece that they often swapped the head on a statue — or threw the whole thing in a river — as times changed.
In Wales — you thought I’d forgotten about it — the statue problem is generally less about difficult history and more about the fantastical nature of what we have revered. Dragons, mythical dogs and whatnot. But we do have some skeletons in our public closet — Sir Thomas Picton comes to mind. The bigger issue is what our statues don’t celebrate. Statues of women and ethnic minorities are pretty hard to find in my homeland.
This month brought pledges to review all statues across Wales for their links to slavery. My fervent hope is the review includes taking suggestions for new statues, rather than just deleting the old. If we must have them, then it is long overdue for one of singer, actor and sportsman Paul Robeson — a man of so many talents who championed civil rights in his own country the US, but also offered solidarity to others, particularly Wales. A friend of Aneurin Bevan and a huge advocate for coal miners, he is surely someone the nation should honour.
Such processes of reiteration — sometimes abrupt — are where I see resonance with the credit market in 2020. I confess that for a long time I was no big fan of the furore around environmental, social and governance standards. Not because I disagreed with the purported goals of ethical finance, but because ESG was a box- ticking exercise. If every investor can claim to be ethically minded, but the invested universe stays the same, then it doesn’t mean a great deal.
Meanwhile, excluding companies from ESG investment outright because they fail some criteria is not a great premise for a conversation about getting those companies to improve. A positive scoring system would give borrowers something to work towards and talk openly about.
More than anything, it just didn’t seem ESG would get anywhere near where it needed to be as a set of standards. But 2020 is a massive opportunity for change — and clinging to past achievements won’t wash. The will of people worldwide to seek genuine, measurable impact is greater than ever — not just for environmental causes, but to turbo-charge drives for equality and diversity in social life and the workforce.
Right now it is incumbent upon investors and borrowers to quickly and meaningfully respond. If they themselves aren’t dinosaurs, they are the last generation that will have walked with them. History will not be gentle on those who fail to adapt.
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Statues don’t serve much of a purpose. It’s time to move on — and credit investors can and should be part of the movement
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