The first argument you are likely to hear when you start asking what made Canada different is cultural. Depending on your degree of fondness for Canucks, this thesis comes down to the notion that Canadians are either too nice or too dull to indulge in the no-holds-barred, plundering capitalism that created such a spectacular boom, and eventual bust, in more aggressive societies. A senior official in Ottawa likes to say that Canadian bankers are “boring, but in a good way. They are more interested in balance sheets than in high society. They don’t go to the opera.” Some of them – including the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Canada, the country’s largest bank – have never even been to Davos. According to Matt Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, “Canadians are like hobbits. They are just not as rapacious as Americans.” And Paul Volcker, the legendary inflation-slaying former head of the US Federal Reserve and an adviser to Obama, told me that Canada’s strength is “partly a cultural thing – they are more conservative”.I feel an urge to tell you -- whoops! 'ask you' -- to go read the whole thing, but I wouldn't want to bore you!
Ed Clark, CEO of TD, Canada’s second-largest bank, works from a fourth floor office just around the corner from Nixon’s. He told me that “I don’t take myself so seriously. US bankers maybe see themselves as more important than we do.” In Clark’s view, Canadian culture imposes a limit on CEO megalomania: “Canada is a more egalitarian society; Canadians are less hierarchical. In the US, you can tell people to do something. In Canada, you have to ask them to do something – and hope they will do it!”
The most convincing testimony I heard to Canada’s culturally distinct approach to banking came during an interview at RBC’s offices on the southern tip of Manhattan. There I met Kevin Lewis, a 44-year-old investment banker wearing a navy suit but no tie, with a shaven head. Lewis used to work at Lehman Brothers, one of Wall Street’s most aggressive firms, until it went bankrupt. “I don’t want to sound condescending to Canadians,” he said, “but there is a ‘being nice’ mentality that exists in the institution. There is a priority on decorum, on being friendly, on being collegial. It’s a subtle thing. It is like soft music playing, rather than hard rock.”
Sunday, January 31, 2010
High Praise for Canada
I got a chuckle out of reading this bit from an article by Chrystia Freeland in the Financial Times: