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What history can teach banks about making change

In their recent commitments to racial justice, financial institutions have mostly mimicked others instead of pulling on the unique levers of power that they control.

May 03, 2021 / 03:23 PM IST

Last year, amid protests over the murder of George Floyd, financial firms pledged billions of dollars to programs aimed at racial equity, including efforts to diversify their hiring and invest in Black businesses. And last month, Bank of America, BlackRock and Goldman Sachs were among hundreds of businesses and executives who signed a public letter opposing laws that would restrict voting across the country, especially for minority voters.

But in their recent commitments to racial justice, financial institutions have mostly mimicked others instead of pulling on the unique levers of power that they control.

Banks determine, manage and mitigate the risk of lending. Along with asset managers, they can stoke a market for risky debts or shun borrowers and projects they deem undesirable.

This power has been harnessed by social movements in the past, but not often.