Faith-Based Investors Push For Financial Transparency

As Congress debates legislation to restrict the activities of financial traders, a group of faith-based institutional investors is pressing four of the nation’s largest banks for greater transparency on investment deals. The investors, member congregations of the New York-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, have introduced shareholder resolutions that call upon the banks to act more openly and with clarity in the trading of financial products known as derivatives.

If votes at two recent shareholder meetings mean anything, the campaign seems to be catching on. Resolutions offered during shareholder meetings at Citigroup and Bank of America met with unprecedented success. A Citigroup resolution on April 20 captured 30 percent of the vote; a similar measure at Bank of America on April 27 garnered 39 percent of shareholder votes. Traditionally, such shareholder resolutions receive single-digit support the first time they are offered.

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I.C.C.R representatives say transparency in derivative trading is necessary to prevent another economic meltdown and a deepening of the current steep recession. Two more banks were being targeted by I.C.C.R.-backed resolutions: Goldman Sachs (May 7) and JPMorgan Chase (May 18). These firms are four of the five financial institutions that account for 96 percent of all derivatives trading in the United States. Derivatives are financial contracts whose value has been linked to the expected future price movements of an asset, for example, a corporate equity or currency.

Questions have arisen over how derivatives were packaged and marketed and whether investors before the economic collapse in 2008 were fully informed about what they were buying. Seamus Finn, an Oblate priest who is the director of social justice for the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and a leader within the I.C.C.R., said the resolutions evolved from a 30-year effort to call attention to banking practices that enrich a few while placing people worldwide at deeper risk of financial losses and deeper poverty. “We believe derivatives, improperly handled, are a risk for the entire financial institution,” Father Finn said.

Catherine Rowan, corporate responsibility coordinator for the Maryknoll Sisters, was to present the I.C.C.R.-backed resolution at Goldman Sachs. She expected the meeting to be interesting in light of the recent negative publicity the company has received.

“We see this as an opportunity to educate our fellow shareholders,” Rowan said. “It’s the shareholders’ responsibility to hold management accountable. We’re trying to illustrate the need for greater transparency and disclosure.”

Goldman Sachs is the poster child for banking practices run amok. The firm remains under fire from politicians and regulators because of the way it packaged and sold mortgage-related securities before the 2008 collapse of the housing market. The firm’s practices led the Securities and Exchange Commission to file civil fraud charges on April 16, alleging Goldman Sachs misled clients in the marketing of mortgage securities. The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the firm’s activities. Goldman Sachs executives have denied any wrongdoing.

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