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Dethroning Mammon – Can man serve two masters?

  • 11Apr 17
  • Richard Dunbar Senior Investment Strategist, Aberdeen Solutions

Over the past few years, some of the most important commentators on matters of commerce have been drawn not from the be-knighted business elite but rather from the upper echelons of the established Christian churches.

Spiritual leaders such as Pope Francis and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and their exhortations on fairness and financial justice, have struck a chord – not only with their respective flocks but also with consumers, legislators, regulators and, in some cases, the world of business itself.

As the Christian church pauses for Lenten reflection, in anticipation of the suffering of Good Friday and the hope of Easter Sunday, it is perhaps timely to consider the messages delivered by Archbishop Welby in his first full-length book.  Dethroning Mammon: Making Money Serve Grace was published at the end of last year and reflects on money and materialism, taking the Passion of Christ as its backdrop.

Of course, Archbishop Welby is not the first cleric to opine on these matters; indeed, the Bible itself has much to say on them. However, his previous career as Group Treasurer of a global oil company may attract a broader, more secular audience than would normally be the case for a book emanating from Lambeth Palace. It is also likely that the Archbishop’s reflections will be the basis of many Lenten study groups around the world this year.

Welby begins with a discussion of the view that “what we see, we value.” He reflects on the build-up of debt in the run-up to the financial crisis, making some interesting and (unsurprisingly) critical observations on investor behavior and on the “sovereignty” of markets.

“Markets are very persuasive influences: they claim sovereignty over perception. Thus the ‘right’ price of something traded in the market is what the market says, even if that price bears no reasonable relation to the value of the work put in, the imagination involved, or the underlying costs and lives of the producers.” This sentiment will generate nods of recognition, even (I suspect) among the most hard-nosed proponents of the free market. 

The Archbishop makes a further observation that “What we measure controls us.” He views this as “very much an assumed (if unspoken) dogma of our secular age.” Again, this may be a view that chimes with many investors and business leaders. This is, after all, the “dogma” that forms the basis upon which many if not most businesses are run.

Welby again reflects on the lead-up to the financial crisis – this time, on the assets that the (mainly Western) world chose to value. He regrets that investors – and the markets in which they participate – sought to place a value on financial assets but ignored the value of non-financial “assets” such as time spent volunteering or indeed the value of lives spent in a monastic commune. Again, I suspect that his assessment of the damage done to the non-financial world by the foolish overvaluation of financial assets in the run-up to the crisis will attract widespread agreement. 

He then reflects on the assertion that “what we have we hold.” He is critical of our desire to accumulate wealth, and where wealth has been accumulated, to dispose of it as we choose. This is perhaps a more difficult chapter for an asset management firm to agree with. After all, our profession is dedicated to protecting and growing savings. But the Archbishop’s general thrust is to ask us to always remember the important things in life are not always defined by money.

The Archbishop also describes our tendency to “treat what we receive as ours.” To most, this would not seem an unreasonable view to take. But Welby asserts that our abilities, whether entrepreneurial or intellectual, are God-given. Thus what we receive is owed to God as well as ourselves. Clearly, this view will not be shared by all, but it is nevertheless worthy of reflection.

The Archbishop closes by looking at the prevailing assumptions on how economies work and how the worship of money can be corrosive – both through having too much of it and having too little. He observes that “for almost everybody, it (money) becomes a worry or a problem and a diversion from deeper matters.” These closing chapters chime with the writings of Professor John Kay in his Review of UK equity markets and long-term decision-making.  Both writers worry about the scale of financial services in general and the scale of banking in particular, seeing much of the activity in some areas of the industry as unproductive. This was a sentiment shared by many in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and it will be interesting to see if it survives the “animal spirits” we see in some of today’s more frothy banking markets.

Dethroning Mammon is a thought-provoking book, made all the more interesting given the early business background of its author. It is, of course, a Christian text, with the Passion at its core. But it is also grounded in an understanding of economics and markets – with a realistic view, based on experience, of what they can and cannot achieve. It poses many questions – some of which we may have considered, and some which may have passed us by. But many are questions that are being increasingly asked by our clients, by our regulators and by our shareholders. This book deserves to be well-read.

Image credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

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