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You need balance … it’s in our DNA

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I love it when there’s a case study about animal behaviours. Bearing in mind that apes are our closest relations, when scientists try experiments to see how they behave towards money, it is fascinating. This is something I’ve blogged about many times before, with a favourite example being the Capuchin monkeys who discovered that they could get sex for money:

The first step was to teach the monkeys that the coins had value. If you give a capuchin monkey a coin, he will sniff it and, after determining he can’t eat it or have sex with it, he’ll toss it aside but then give the monkey a coin and show it a treat. Whenever the monkey gave the coin back to the researcher, it got the treat. It took many months, but the monkeys eventually learned that the coins could buy the treats.

Then the researchers saw something remarkable. One monkey, rather than handing his coin over to the humans for a grape or a slice of apple, gave it to a female monkey. Then — bam! — the two capuchins were having sex. As soon as the sex was over, the female brought the coin over to purchase some grapes.

Was this the first instance of monkey prostitution in the recorded history of science?

The reason this is mentioned today is that – shock, horror! – scientists have discovered that older monkeys are more risk averse than younger monkeys:

40 chimps housed at a Republic of Congo sanctuary chose between two containers of food. One always contained peanuts, which they like. The other had either cucumber, which they hate, or banana, their favourite food. Young primates took the risky option more often than adults and threw more tantrums when it backfired.

As someone who would these days be described as a senior, I can understand this. By way of example, we recently went to a theme park. My boys, who are six years old, were delighted to go on the vertical ride. Thing is that, as I had the button to determine how high we went, I stopped before it maxed out discovering that I’m a little bit jittery about heights. Never used to be, never was but, now, felt that being too high is too risky. This, from a guy who has parasended, bungee jumped and spent most of his time in the skies.

This then creates a challenge for young investment bankers and traders. They can happily trade but where are their limits? How do the older bankers ensure the young bucks conform and comply?

It reminds me of Nick Leeson, Jérôme Kerviel and Kweki Adoboli.

Young traders have little idea of their limits, particularly if they’re making good money, until they realise they’ve broken their limits. The thing is, when you break your limits, what do you do? Do you fez up and be honest, or do you hide and go home?

The fact is that most banks would never admit such issues occurred, until it is clear that the losses are humongous. The three traders I just mentioned – Nick, Jérôme and Kweki – cumulatively lost over $10 billion. But did they do anything wrong? That may sound like a stupid question, but they were encouraged to take massive risks to make massive returns by the seniors in their organisation.

Just like monkeys and apes, if you have the elders asking the youngers to take risks, the youngers will not just take risks but will take massive risks. Massive risks to make massive returns. This is not a new thing. It’s in our DNA.

After all, if you’re reading this and over 40 years of age, would you do this?

The message here is the balance between risk-taking and risk-avoidance. It is the reason why, when I look at FinTech investments, I always look for someone with grey hair on the executive team, in order to balance the youthful excitement of the founding team.

You need balance. It’s in our DNA.

Chris Skinner Author Avatar

Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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