Key Points:

How fortuitous. The Business Roundtable has found an expat Kiwi billionaire who's prepared to come home and tell us how the country should be run. We should all listen intently to Taranaki old boy Stephen Jennings because, well, the man is worth $5.2 billion dollars, which means he is very good at making a lot of money.

And what is the Jennings fix for the mess we're in? He says we should reduce the size of government, change the welfare system, cut taxes and debate "sacred cows" such as the health system. Why hasn't anyone thought of that before? Oh, wait, they have.

Jennings made his fortune in Russia after doing his bit to privatise Telecom while he was at the Treasury. He set up his finance company in the former communist state as it was tottering towards capitalism. Now he seems to think we're in need of a similar revival in free market fundamentalism.

But timing is everything and this is not a good time to preach the virtues of unfettered capitalism, to tell us regulation is bad but the free market is good, to insist business does it better, or wonder why many don't want to see public utilities in private hands.

Not when the corpses of the free market profiteers lie around us, and the once all-powerful Masters of the Universe, those financial geniuses to whom an awe-struck world genuflected, have had to be put on taxpayer-funded life support.

If we've lost faith in the ability of the free market to deliver a decent society that puts the public good before private profit, it's because we've had good cause.

It's not just that private enterprise's claim to efficiency looks a little suspect against the taxpayer rescues of the BNZ and Air New Zealand and the buyback of TranzRail. We know when private profits collide with the public good we are the losers.

But why is everyone so surprised by the global finance crisis? It's not as if we didn't know Wall Street was predicated on greed, as a former Bear Stearns director has said. Hell, we even admired it. It's because we were so in thrall to these financial magicians who could conjure up millions out of thin air, which is what bubbles are made of, that they were able to get away with it for so long.

What else should we have expected from an inherently amoral system that rewards greed, selfishness and profit-making at whatever cost?

Milton Friedman once said: "Few trends so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible."

Or for themselves. Billionaire Warren Buffett warned in 2002 that the mind-bogglingly complex financial derivatives that have brought Wall Street to its knees offered enormous incentives to cheat a little. Accounting magic guaranteed traders their multimillion-dollar bonuses and CEOs their share options. Frank Vogl, the co-founder of Transparency International, has said that when "so many people engaged in so many aspects of finance have lost their ethical compass and put their short-term personal gains above other considerations" it can have a "profound macroeconomic impact".

Turns out an ethical compass matters and might even be the best insurance against financial ruin. In 1993, a decade before anyone else noticed, US religious investors were reading the writing on the wall and making "eerily prophetic warnings" about an impending sub-prime mortgage debacle.

The Interfaith Centre of Corporate Responsibility, which has nearly 300 institutional investors managing more than US$100 billion, says its members have been urging controls against "predatory lending practices, inappropriate underwriting standards and the potential consequences of securitisation of debt instruments", or derivatives, for more than a decade.

No one listened.

You could call it a crystal ball - the kind that views investments "through the lens of justice and sustainability", says executive director Laura Berry. They believe ethical investments put the public before profit and are less likely to lead to catastrophic losses.

It isn't a cultural disconnect as much as an ethical one behind Fonterra's woes in China. A report in theChristian Science Monitor notes the baby milk scandal has its roots in "a deeper malaise in Chinese society where private profit often trumps the public good as the country races to create a market economy that has outstripped government regulators".

The fundamental challenge for China, says one expert, is a "systematic lack of business ethics". Maybe that's the price of operating in a country whose economic success is built on cheap labour and human rights abuses. Should Fonterra have gone public sooner? Did it put its relationship with San Lu before the lives of thousands of sick babies? Now Fonterra's own ethics are under the microscope.

* tapu.misa@gmail.com