Friday, May 1, 2009

BB&T - How Atlas Shrugged Influenced Their Company

I came across this article and found it very interesting to say the least. I have had talks with a couple friends and we cannot seem to figure out why all these banks broke economics 101? How do you plan on making money by allowing people who cannot afford to borrow money, to borrow it and with no down payment? Well, John Allison the retired CEO of BB&T—a North Carolina-based bank with more than 1,500 branches managing $143 billion in assets has avoided the collapse of his bank.  How did he do it? He ran the company by not talking about numbers but on values and principles from Ayn Rand's system of ethics.

Here are some of the highlights from Mark Hemingway's article Objectivist Philosophy for Fun and Profit of NRO

The fact that BB&T didn’t dive head-first into the shallow pool of subprime mortgages certainly goes a long way toward explaining the relative health of BB&T as an institution. But how was BB&T able to resist chasing after all that new mortgage money?

The answer is simple: Subprime mortgages were bad for the people who took them out. That went against BB&T’s philosophy — not for reasons of altruism but because it would have been poor strategy. “We’re obviously a for-profit company, but we don’t think that it’s good business in the long term to do bad things to your clients, even if you make a profit doing it,” Allison said. “So we chose not to do negative-amortization mortgages because we knew it was going to get a lot of people in financial trouble.”
Apparently Allison became interested in Rand in the 1960's through his interest in economics and then onto finance, he saw the banking system as central to a capitalist economy. Part of BB&T's philosophy of the bank is that all employees are required to read "Atlas Shrugged". He goes on to say

Allison calls it “the best defense of capitalism ever written” and made it required reading at BB&T. Since 2005 the BB&T charitable foundation has given millions of dollars to dozens of universities to establish academic programs devoted to Rand’s philosophy.
Some of the the universities have objected the gift's through its faculty, but Allison says that Rand is misunderstood.

Allison points out that she is misunderstood more often than not. Rand is often viewed as “extreme” because her defenses of capitalism and “rational self-interest” are seen as promoting greed and selfishness. Yet Allison is quick to note that the strong values and ethics that Rand’s philosophy promotes allowed BB&T to steer clear of shortsighted and greed-driven decisions.

“A lot of people miss the fact that Rand has a very strong ethical system,” he observes. “Rand says you can derive ethics from reality. If anything, Rand is more rigorous in her ethical system than most codes are. If you’re dishonest, you are disconnected from reality, and that has consequences.”
A lot of people attack Rand's philosophy on its lack of altruism and that people misunderstand her to be selfish. Allison says that it was misled atrusim that got all the banks into this mess in the first place.

Allison has no problem identifying whose economic philosophy was flawed. “I think that government policy is the primary cause” of the financial crisis, he says. “Government policy set up the problems we have in the real-estate market, and it is the Big Kahuna in the room.”
He travels around the country giving presentation on the subject, and one of the things he singles out is the philosophy of the government policy-makers.

In particular, he relates the following anecdote about Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, who had portrayed a lack of housing as the source of all evil: “I had an interesting conversation with Barney Frank — he’s the bad guy in my opinion because he’s a very smart guy. I said to Mr. Frank, ‘Housing’s a good thing, but if it’s so good as you describe without any kind of constraints, the next time someone commits a crime instead of putting them in jail, why don’t we give them a house?’”
Needless to say I think capitalism needs to be defended and that reading Atlas Shrugged myself, it has opened my eyes more than once in the last few months. I would suggest anyone who hasn't read the book and have always wanted to, start reading it this weekend. It is never a bad time to read it, but with everything going on everyday with our economy and government it should be read, or re-read. If you think its irrelevant nowadays just check out all the conversation going on.

Have a great weekend!


  1. "Altruism" is what got us into this mess in the first place. Not only do companies need to focus on "rational self-interest," but state agencies need to even more. I work for a county education system and am possibly being laid off because an older, less accomplished educator could take my place. If we operated with rational self-interest and focused upon educator performance and success, I would not be at risk of losing my job and the district would continue to have a high quality, data driven educator. Instead, I am being pushed out because someone less qualified with longer years of experience is taking my place. Our government makes claims to how agencies, businesses, etc. should be run, but are not able to actually enforce the decisions to make these things happen (i.e. laying off someone who is not performing, allowing companies to fail, not providing constant bail-outs if mistakes are made).

  2. Awesome post. How do we know when our government is acting altruisticly? We don't and typically they don't. Their self interest is to become reelected. Those decisions that result from that motive don't always result in whats best for the city, state, US, etc. Thanks . ..