Ignore Politics and Banking at Your Peril

As business leaders and managers, how much should we really be concerned with the world of politics and banking? I used to think the answer was "as little as possible," but now I'm thinking that view was shortsighted, to say the least.

It's beginning to feel like waking up from a nightmare only to find that it's real. Or worse - that it's been there all along but we weren't paying attention. I know I've written my share of posts on banking and politics - AIG, the bailouts, the stimulus bill, executive pay - as has just about every other business and management blogger. But that's sort of my point. It's reactive. Why weren't we paying closer attention before everything fell apart. The signs were all there.

For example, I worked hand-in-hand with investment bankers on a number of IPOs and other public and private deals, regularly talked with Wall Street analysts, and saw the conflict of interest between the two firsthand. So what? I had bigger things to worry about, like managing.

As a high-tech executive, I had a vested interest in how the federal government handled intellectual property rights. But my expectations were low and my attitude, cynical. In 1998, when the Federal Trade Commission investigated my competitor - Intel - on antitrust concerns, I was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying, "If I have to rely on the federal government to enable my business to succeed, then I've got a real problem."

I suppose it was poetic justice when the same commission later targeted Rambus, where I worked at the time. The point is I've seen how politics works, and for my money, the fewer entanglements, the better.

Now, I'm beginning to see things differently. Now, the chickens have come home to roost. Behind every major scandal, crisis, or bubble - Savings and Loan, Enron, WorldCom, Dot-Com, Sub-Prime, Bernard Madoff, you name it - you'll find banks fueling the fire.

And whether politicians did the banker's bidding or the other way around is almost immaterial. They're intertwined. The foxes are watching the hen house. At least that's my view, albeit in 20-20 hindsight. So what do you think? Have we been hiding our heads in the sand for too long? And if so, what now that we're aware? What do we do differently?