Sean Viscount (B’16)
Sean Viscount (B’16) is a vice president and the senior research analyst covering Latin America technology, media, and telecoms; transportation; and paper and pulp at J.P. Morgan and is a part of the Finance and Humanity working group for the "Economy of Francesco" international conference.
In November 2020 Pope Francis convened “Economy of Francesco," a global online gathering of young people determined to make the economy fair, sustainable, and inclusive. Georgetown University asked participating students and alumni to reflect on their experiences in two essays: the first considers their pre-conference working groups and the second offers personal takeaways after the gathering.
Focus on Human Dignity and Development
As a member of the Finance and Humanity village (the conference’s name for working groups) of the “Economy of Francesco,” my participation focused on the potential for finance to be at the service of humanity, with capital markets used to promote the well-bring of humanity and profit being an important necessity but not an end in itself. We discussed in small groups a myriad of topics. In light of current times, we also specifically discussed the COVID-19 outbreak and how financial systems and markets can be used to create opportunity for those affected, especially since it is often the most vulnerable populations that have seen the most devastating impacts.
This conference has a rebellious nature, calling for a rethinking and reworking of economic systems. As someone who has worked at large U.S. banks since graduating from Georgetown University in 2016, I was at first concerned that I would be unable to connect with the discussion—that propositions made through this conference would be drastic or unrealistic. I was happy to be proven wrong.
Over the past weeks, it has been inspiring to join webcasts and conversations and to engage with other young economists from around the world to discuss these topics. We have specifically heard from numerous economic academics, microfinance lenders, and environmental, social, and governance investors who discussed their personal experience in investing or analyzing markets while striving to have a positive impact on society. From these discussions with intelligent and passionate change-makers, the change requested has not been a criticism or tearing down of current mechanisms but instead a call to action for all of us involved to shift our focus to start seeing finance as a tool to serve humanity by using the framework of our current system.
From my personal experience working with high-yield and distressed companies in the United States and emerging markets, I was able to share my perspective on the necessity of investor returns as well as the value of controversial products such as credit default swaps (CDS) and short-selling equity. From my peers outside of financial markets, I have heard their passion for humanity and suggestions of new financial products or business structures that can benefit society. Together, we discussed how we can work within the current economic system to promote products, structures, etc., that can improve the situation for humanity while still considering the importance of total returns and profits. The proposals and discussions in this community have not been at the expense of financial returns, but instead have requested a change in focus through more meaningful and intentional investment of wealth.
Through this experience, I was reminded of my conversations from classes at Georgetown. I remember the McDonough School of Business ethics classes where we discussed the nature of capitalism vs. socialism. Focusing on ethics in a class led by Professor Jason Brennan, we determined that capitalism was an ideal economic system. This was not for the simple argument that profits would guide well-being, but because it was an amoral system that allowed participants to determine and use their own moral system. I was also reminded of my Church in the Twenty-first Century class with Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. With numerous students in the class going into Wall Street or large consulting firms, we were asked: are these institutions where we will begin our careers sinful? Is a major bank immoral for a focus on profits or a consulting firm for its focus on efficiency, often at a human cost? The answer, of course, was no–institutions themselves cannot be sinful, only people. While a person can be sinful in these contexts, it is up to us to become part of the good that institutions can create through their reach and power.
My experience at Georgetown has shaped how I view my role in markets. I remember my final reflection from a spiritual retreat I completed in my senior year: “I ask for interior knowledge of all the great good I have received, in order that, stirred to profound gratitude, I may become able to love and serve the Divine Majesty in all things.” From my preparation for this conference, I have learned how realistic it can be to make the goal of this conference come to fruition, to use my role in the markets to serve the “Divine Majesty” in all things. How together, by participating in a dialogue led by the Catholic Church, we can determine how we should interact with the financial markets around us and focus on making our actions and investments result in human development as well as financial growth.
Feeling the Inspiration of Assisi from My Living Room
Early in 2020 I was eagerly planning my trip to Assisi to meet with other change-makers and discuss the framework of our current economic system at the “Economy of Francesco.” Months later, this conference unfolded quite differently than I had initially anticipated as I “traveled” to my living room and logged on to participate from my couch. While this seems to be a dramatic difference, what I found most notable was the level of energy that could be felt and the willingness to debate complex solutions from thousands of well-informed, intelligent, and passionate participants. Despite being separated in individual rooms from cities around the world, the strength of connection was impressive.
Over the course of three days, we participated in a series of reflections, discussions, and presentations with each village presenting a summary of their discussions and findings. I have been a member of the Finance and Humanity village, focused on discussing the role of finance in our system and how it can best serve the needs of humanity. A group of our members presented on our discussions and hosted a Q&A with Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus.
We discussed the “unsustainable” nature of the current financial system, with profits as an end goal with seemingly minimal regard for externalities. We focused on the importance of establishing a goal finance can serve; we need more than to simply change the conversation and focus. We need a specific target, which can then allow finance to serve that end. For example, we discussed goals of reducing carbon emissions, providing educational opportunities, or financing to the global poor, etc. If specific goals are set we can utilize the financial system to service these goals instead of simply using the system to increase wealth regardless of environmental or social cost. Further, we contemplated the need for regulatory oversight to track and enforce these standards. While the level of regulation will differ based on the specific goal, the group nonetheless recognized the importance of some centralized standard and oversight to guide these intentions. This was an inspiring debate and a truly remarkable experience to have a Nobel Peace Prize recipient participate in the discussion.
Overall, I was impressed with the conversations and presentations throughout the conference. While the conference goal seems a radical one—to reimagine and rebuild our financial system—the recommendations and takeaways of the various villages were realistic and could take place within our existing system. It was motivating to listen to the discussions on global climate change, the facilitation of debt reductions for developing nations, and investment in the global poor, amongst other issues, and imagine the change that we together can make.
What I found most impactful was the interest in these topics from a large group of intelligent people from around the world and various economic and educational backgrounds. As an employee of a large U.S.-based investment bank, I found it so rewarding to participate in conversations with change-makers from emerging economies around the world, hear analysis and opinions from very different perspectives, and discuss how together we can better utilize the immense power of the financial system to better serve the development of humanity. While the conference ended in November, I believe it planted a seed in many of our minds that will continue to grow, created a network and continues to exist, and started a conversation around ideas that we will continue to debate and, hopefully, begin to implement.
Sean Viscount (B’16) is currently a vice president and the senior research analyst covering Latin America technology, media, and telecoms; transportation; and paper and pulp at J.P. Morgan. Prior to this, he was an associate at Bank of America Merrill Lynch covering high-yield telecom and technology in the U.S. credit research group. Sean received his B.S./B.A. from the McDonough School of Business with majors in finance and marketing and a minor in theology.