VIDEO: RBC executive: Reform Wall Street one soul at a time

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comApril 12, 2012 

When I said I was off to interview a man who wrote a book about ethics on Wall Street, sports editor Mike McCombs said, "That ought to be a short book."

Actually, that's precisely the point of "Stewardship: Lessons Learned from the Lost Culture of Wall Street."

John G. Taft, chief executive officer of RBC Wealth Management -- U.S., wrote the book to fill in the blanks about how America got into its mess and how it can recover.

He builds a strong case in his 218-page book that no world crisis -- financial or otherwise -- will be solved until individuals put the greater good of society above themselves. He calls it stewardship.

"Unless we fix that, we're not going to stay out of trouble," he said.

As head of America's sixth-largest brokerage house, Taft is in position to know.

"During the financial crisis, I had a personal epiphany," he said as the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing got off to a windy start Thursday morning on Hilton Head Island.

"With explosions all around me in 2008, I had to find solid ground. In the middle of this mayhem, I realized I am here to help other people through this. It's not about me."

He sums it up this way: "We have a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it."

Stewardship is needed in a number of areas, he says, including fiscal policy, resource scarcity, climate change, population growth and income inequality.

"We are not behaving like responsible stewards," he said.

This is from someone whose company avoided the worst of the financial meltdown, thanks to its policies and the best practices of the Canadian banking system, which others should emulate.

American financial regulation reform is helping, said Taft, who was chairman last year of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.

Taft testified before Congress on one of the 235 rules in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. He said a third of those rules have been implemented, including the big items. Banks hold much more capital, leverage levels are lower, derivative markets are more transparent, and regulations now can cover financial institutions that are not banks.

"Investors should take comfort in the fact that the system is a lot less risky," he said. "The system is healthier."

Now the industry faces the challenge of restoring investor trust and confidence, "or we're going to lose the patient money the economy needs to grow," Taft said.

His book includes the "RBC Blueprint for Doing Better." It specifies how "integrity in everything we do" is to be carried out in the marketplace, operations, the workplace, the communities it serves, the environment and how it serves the economy.

Taft reports a growing trend of corporate stewardship that considers a bottom line broader than a quarterly earnings report. He said it will pay off with better employees, better communities, and customers and investors who care.

Service to others is a hallmark of Taft's family, beginning with his great-grandfather, William Howard Taft, who was the only person to serve his nation as president and chief justice of the Supreme Court and was, by the way, an avid golfer despite his heavy stature. His grandfather, Robert A. Taft, was a conservative U.S. senator who is honored with a 10-story memorial carillon on the Capitol grounds.

But the focus of his book is the future.

"It's not an exaggeration to say," Taft writes, "that our future literally depends on our willingness to think and act like responsible stewards."

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