THE OUTSIDER: We're all veterans now

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Most City trading floors have at least a few grey-haired old men hanging around - people like me - who, given half a chance, are only too willing to share war stories with a generation of youngsters who have never known hard times.

Until recently, nothing really bad had happened in the City since the 1998 debt crisis, which old Russia hands would wax lyrical about. In my case - I arrived just too late for the 1987 Crash - the great moment was Gulf War One. Business ground to a halt, and we all filled the champagne bars at lunchtime for about three weeks until the penny dropped. It could go on for months. It did.

The good news was that we felt confident; we understood what was going on. Wars were disruptive, potentially lethal for those directly involved, but from the safety of the dealing room our economists explained that conflict could actually boost economies, there were corporate winners as well as losers, there would be reconstruction afterwards, and as a result there was business to be done. We might end up a tad light at bonus time, but there was never any doubt about the integrity of the system.

This time it's different. Bizarrely, dodgy mortgage lending in America, combined with absurd financial engineering - I know, I'm being polite - that was inadequately supervised and reported at firms which should have known better, has done more damage to the world financial system than Saddam Hussein ever did. In one day alone, Monday 29 September, six banks came to grief: Bradford & Bingley, Fortis, Dexia, Wachovia, Hypo and Glitnir all threw in the towel in one way or another. The banking system very nearly failed altogether, and despite trillions of taxpayer dollars it's still not out of the woods as we finally admit we're in recession.

We're all poorer than we were, and we're going to be poorer still before we turn the corner. The corporate landscape has changed dramatically, politicians are playing to the gallery on the subject of bankers' pay, and the regulators have sharpened their knives.

It cuts no ice that some of the biggest losers are bankers. Friends at Lehman are mourning the loss of up to five years' unvested stock in an event that might have - could have and probably should have - been prevented. All of them I consider talented, successful and hard working, but it makes no difference. Now is the time for a useless sacrifice, and pal, you're it.

RBS is a bank I know reasonably well and hugely respect. It pains me to see a great institution - and believe me, it is still a great firm - brought to its knees. More than 99% of its employees had nothing whatsoever to do with the decisions that brought them down. They are blameless victims - just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The future will be different

So we've witnessed the unthinkable, and the future will be different, but how different?

Here are three areas where I expect to see change.

1. Leadership - Management need to regain the trust of their employees (and their clients, and their regulators, and the government, and the public...yes, it's a long list). For employees who look to main board directors to understand and control the firm's business (what else are they for?), it's been a bad few weeks. Whatever moral authority existed once to lecture, inspire, preach or patronise at those awful town hall meetings has gone and must now be rebuilt. So one area of belt tightening should be top management pay: if times are tight, don't take out a bunch of juniors and shoot them, but take a pay freeze yourself. Joe Ackermann and his top management team at Deutsche Bank have already announced that they are leading by example, and others, however reluctantly, will follow.

2. Pay - Nobody expects to be well paid this year or probably next. For many, the bonus will be still having a job. Where there is a meaningful bonus, the pressure to take paper will be huge. Be prepared for buzz-words like alignment of interests and beware anything with long-term in the title.

3. Risk management - Risk management is going to change, and risk managers could be winners. Better pay, better status, greater authority and, most of all, better connections and communication with the board. For hungry, aggressive deal doers in areas a million miles from sub-prime, life will initially get a whole lot more frustrating. The good news is that ultimately the best firms will get the risk management they deserve: smart, engaged, hands-on and a business resource rather than a dumb cop.

And for all of us there is a silver lining. After the last few weeks, nothing will surprise us any more. When the best firms in the business lean on the government for help - help so painful it brings tears to your eyes - we all learn a little humility. Nobody walks on water. We'll remember and we'll be better for it. We're all veterans now.

Trust Me, I'm a Banker by David Charters is published by Elliott and Thompson, price 9.99.

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