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The Global Financial Crisis and the Values of Professionals in Finance: An Empirical Analysis


The idea that the ethical values of professionals in finance (PIFs) (e.g., stockbrokers and fund managers) have played a role in the global financial crisis (GFC) is widespread. The crisis-of-ethics debate is important, concerning one of the main policy challenges of our times, but is based on popular lore and anecdotes rather than systematic evidence. We analyze the self-enhancement and self-transcendence values of PIFs vis-à-vis the general population and test for patterns of variation that are consistent with the idea of a crisis of values, meaning patterns of variation that would implicate PIFs’ values in the GFC. Employing pre-crisis data allows for an unbiased assessment. Results reveal only minor differences in values between PIFs and the general population, too small to support the idea of a crisis of ethical values by objective standards. Extensive robustness checks confirm these findings, sometimes actually revealing values differences counter to the crisis of ethical values idea. We conclude that the financial system would not have fared better had we had a different breed of PIFs. Rather, situational forces can induce severe disregard for the welfare of others, also in people with ordinary, decent values. Hence, if anything, the GFC shows that the financial services industry has been providing an environment highly conducive to unethical behavior. The practical implication is that fixes to the financial system can only come from improved regulatory design.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Still, while we think that these values and the Schwartz framework are most appropriate for the purpose of assessing the ethical values of PIFs, we are also the first to recognize that the assessment of the appropriateness of any specific value or values framework remains necessarily subjective. To deal with this contingency, when checking the robustness of our main results, we also consider differences between PIFs and the general population in other dispositional domains. In addition, where possible, we link Schwartz's self-enhancement and self-transcendence values to other measures plausibly capturing individuals' ethical dispositions.

  2. 2.

    The situational forces that affect behavior are broad and carry substantial power in the opposite direction as well, leading people to care for others. An example is the study by Isen and Levin (1972), which examines the effect of positive mood on behavior. In their experiment, finding a dime in the coin return of a public telephone while making a call increased the percentage of people who spontaneously helped to pick up papers that were dropped in front of them from 4 % (1 out of 25) to 87.5 % (14 out of 16).

  3. 3.

    See Schwartz (n.d.) and, which provides SPSS syntax to make the necessary calculations.

  4. 4.

    The recoding protocol provided on the ESS website ( actually does not say anything about the ipsatization of the four higher order subdimensions and the two overarching values dimensions. Moreover, the only SPSS syntax provided for these dimensions calculates non-ipsatized values measures. Hence, to be complete and to ensure comparability of our work to other work that may have followed this protocol to the letter, we also present results on differences between PIFs and the general population on measures of self-enhancement, self-transcendence, and SEST values that have been calculated without ipsatization. In this case, Self-Enhancement and Self-Transcendence scores are constructed as means of raw value item scores, while SEST scores are obtained by subtracting an individual's Self-Enhancement score from his/her self-transcendence score.

  5. 5.

    Schwartz's values framework is also regularly used in business studies. An example most similar in spirit to our analysis is Lan et al.'s (2009) comparison of the personal values of accounting practitioners with those of students.

  6. 6.

    ISCO codes have been developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). See for more information.

  7. 7.

    The higher order rubrics for these two latter occupational categories are Clerks (ISCO 4) and Office clerks (ISCO 41) and Customer services clerks (ISCO 42).

  8. 8.

    We focus on SEST, self-enhancement, and achievement values only and do not consider the other four values, as only values in these first three domains exhibit statistically significant differences between PIFs and the general population (see Table 1).

  9. 9.

    Compared to Table 1, there are more instances in which the values difference between PIFs and the public are statistically significant at usual levels, however. This is as expected given that the number of individuals classified as PIF is now higher (1,033 vs. 414).

  10. 10.

    We thank an anonymous referee for pointing out this idea and the possible relevance of the combination of stimulation and hedonism values with power and achievement values.

  11. 11.

    Again, we thank an anonymous referee for suggesting this analysis.

  12. 12.

    Meanwhile, the data on economic morals further give us the opportunity for an indirect robustness check, assessing the validity of self-enhancement and self-transcendence values in relation to the kind of unethical behavior associated with the GFC. We find that such values as SEST and self-transcendence consistently correlate most strongly positively with the condemning of such behavior as concealing faults in second-hand products or making false insurance claims, while such values as self-enhancement and power consistently correlate most negatively with the condemning of such behaviors (cf. Schwartz 1996). Similar results obtain to respondents' views of rules and laws. Details of the correlations between basic values and economic morality are available on request.

  13. 13.

    Obviously, we should be a bit careful to generalize this result all the way up to the ranks of CEOs of financial firms, as there are very few people like that in the world. Therefore, it would indeed be interesting to study the personal values of top-level executives in the financial services industry, although we envision the same difficulties that kept us from studying the actions of PIFs vis-à-vis the general population more directly, namely biased responses, low willingness to participate, et cetera.


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Correspondence to André van Hoorn.



See Tables 11, 12, 13.

Table 11 Country samples included in the analysis
Table 12 Differences in non-ipsatized self-enhancement, self-transcendence and SEST values
Table 13 Financial occupation and other (potential) predictors of differences in hedonism and stimulation and combinations of hedonism and stimulation with power and achievement

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van Hoorn, A. The Global Financial Crisis and the Values of Professionals in Finance: An Empirical Analysis. J Bus Ethics 130, 253–269 (2015).

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  • Crisis of ethical values
  • Effect size
  • Financial system
  • Global financial crisis
  • Personal values
  • Situationist ethics
  • Schwartz