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My Speech to the Finance Graduates

NEW HAVEN – At this time of year, at graduation ceremonies in America and elsewhere, those about to leave university often hear some final words of advice before receiving their diplomas. To those interested in pursuing careers in finance – or related careers in insurance, accounting, auditing, law, or corporate management – I submit the following address:

Best of luck to you as you leave the academy for your chosen professions in finance. Over the course of your careers, Wall Street and its kindred institutions will need you. Your training in financial theory, economics, mathematics, and statistics will serve you well. But your lessons in history, philosophy, and literature will be just as important, because it is vital not only that you have the right tools, but also that you never lose sight of the purposes and overriding social goals of finance.

Unless you have been studying at the bottom of the ocean, you know that the financial sector has come under severe criticism – much of it justified – for thrusting the world economy into its worst crisis since the Great Depression. And you need only check in with some of your classmates who have populated the Occupy movements around the world to sense the widespread resentment of financiers and the top 1% of income earners to whom they largely cater (and often belong).

While some of this criticism may be over-stated or misplaced, it nonetheless underscores the need to reform financial institutions and practices. Finance has long been central to thriving market democracies, which is why its current problems need to be addressed. With your improved sense of our interconnectedness and diverse needs, you can do that. Indeed, it is the real professional challenge ahead of you, and you should embrace it as an opportunity.

Young finance professionals need to familiarize themselves with the history of banking, and recognize that it is at its best when it serves ever-broadening spheres of society. Here, the savings-bank movement in the United Kingdom and Europe in the nineteenth century, and the microfinance movement pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in the twentieth century, comes to mind. Today, the best way forward is to update financial and communications technology to offer a full array of enlightened banking services to the lower middle class and the poor.

Graduates going into mortgage banking are faced with a different, but equally vital, challenge: to design new, more flexible loans that will better help homeowners to weather the kind of economic turbulence that has buried millions of people today in debt.

Young investment bankers, for their part, have a great opportunity to devise more participatory forms of venture capital – embodied in the new crowd-funding Web sites – to spur the growth of innovative new small businesses. Meanwhile, opportunities will abound for rookie insurance professionals to devise new ways to hedge risks that real people worry about, and that really matter – those involving their jobs, livelihoods, and home values.

Beyond investment banks and brokerage houses, modern finance has a public and governmental dimension, which clearly needs reinventing in the wake of the recent financial crisis. Setting the rules of the game for a robust, socially useful financial sector has never been more important. Recent graduates are needed in legislative and administrative agencies to analyze the legal infrastructure of finance, and regulate it so that it produces the greatest results for society.

A new generation of political leaders needs to understand the importance of financial literacy and find ways to supply citizens with the legal and financial advice that they need. Meanwhile, economic policymakers face the great challenge of designing new financial institutions, such as pension systems and public entitlements based on the solid grounding of intergenerational risk-sharing.

Those of you deciding to pursue careers as economists and finance scholars need to develop a better understanding of asset bubbles – and better ways to communicate this understanding to the finance profession and to the public. As much as Wall Street had a hand in the current crisis, it began as a broadly held belief that housing prices could not fall – a belief that fueled a full-blown social contagion. Learning how to spot such bubbles and deal with them before they infect entire economies will be a major challenge for the next generation of finance scholars.

Equipped with sophisticated financial ideas ranging from the capital asset pricing model to intricate options-pricing formulas, you are certainly and justifiably interested in building materially rewarding careers. There is no shame in this, and your financial success will reflect to a large degree your effectiveness in producing strong results for the firms that employ you. But, however imperceptibly, the rewards for success on Wall Street, and in finance more generally, are changing, just as the definition of finance must change if is to reclaim its stature in society and the trust of citizens and leaders.

Finance, at its best, does not merely manage risk, but also acts as the steward of society’s assets and an advocate of its deepest goals. Beyond compensation, the next generation of finance professionals will be paid its truest rewards in the satisfaction that comes with the gains made in democratizing finance – extending its benefits into corners of society where they are most needed. This is a new challenge for a new generation, and will require all of the imagination and skill that you can bring to bear.

Good luck in reinventing finance. The world needs you to succeed.