x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

What do bankers read? The Idiot

You might wonder what most interests writers when they are not slaving away at their desks covered in ink.

There is a spate of literary festivals taking place in the country. You might wonder what most interests writers when they are not slaving away at their desks covered in ink or searching in bars for inspiration. The other evening a friend of mine found herself sitting next to Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. She had no idea who he was - just like me when I found myself sitting next to a skinny fellow who told me he was a jumps jockey. "Ever ridden in the Grand National?" I asked. "Won it twice," replied Richard Dunwoody.

Conversation thereafter between us was a bit strained: I felt like I had just been pitched into Beecher's Brook. Anyway, my friend, having ascertained the credentials of the Turkish laureate, asked him to what extent nabbing the top prize in writing had changed his life. "That is such a journalistic question," he sneered. In true hackette fashion, she persisted. "Let's just say it improved my bank balance and my e-mail account," he said loftily.

This same friend clearly hangs out in literary circles, because a year or so earlier she had drinks with Tim Parks in Italy. Mr Parks may not be a household name in anybody's household except his own, but he has written a score of well-received novels and frequently reviews his peers in The New York Review of Books - otherwise known as The New York Review of Each Other's Books. When my friend asked him what he thought of one of the books he had written 10 years earlier, he replied: "I think it didn't make me enough money."

Most writers feel neglected - for good reason in most cases - but this interest in money cannot be healthy. Bankers, on the other hand, seem to have no interest in money at all. Of course, they like earning a well-deserved bonus as much as the next man, but what they are really interested in is golf, bridge, opera and good writing. This makes me think that what is needed is a job swap. Bankers should become writers and writers should become bankers.

Some bankers already show some form on the typewriter. The most interesting article on the financial meltdown was penned by Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs. Writing in the Financial Times on Feb 8 he said: "This over-dependence on credit ratings coincided with the dilution of the coveted triple-A rating. In Jan 2008, there were 12 triple A-rated companies in the world. At the same time, there were 64,000 structured finance instruments, such as collateralised debt obligations, rated triple-A."

That little nugget is something that financial journalists might have thought interesting to tell their readers. But, of course, they were far too busy thinking about how to fudge their expenses or why the person sitting next to them earned three times as much as them for seemingly doing nothing. Bankers, meanwhile, rarely think about money. What's a billion between friends? Even the crisis does not seem to have focused their minds as you might think it should. Over a month ago I applied for a loan at one of the major banks in the region, an international bank with a triple-A rating. I filled in all the forms and waited for the money to flow into my account, unable to write a sentence until the money appeared. My banker phoned me.

"There appears to be a problem with your application," he said. "Please come and fill in some more forms." I made the long, boring journey to the branch, waited for a bit, then signed lots of bits of paper. "All is well," he said. "You will get the money shortly. By the end of the week at the latest." By the end of the week the money still had not arrived, and the person I had been planning to buy a car from had decided that he no longer wanted to sell it. Not unnaturally, this made me rather irritated, so I phoned the banker. He sounded as if I had disturbed him reading Dostoevsky.

"The money is on its way," he said. "Now I must read more of The Idiot." A week later, still no sign of the cash. When I phoned him, he was as charming as only bankers can be. "I am sorry Mr Rupert," he said. "But we need some more forms from you, lots of wage slips and all sorts of other things." Anyone would have thought there was a credit crunch on. That is typical of bankers: you got out of your way to borrow money and they can't even come up with it when you need it. Hasn't the Central Bank just pumped Dh16 billion (US$4.35bn) into Abu Dhabi's banks? So where is my share?

I told him that I would come and see him, but I was beginning to lose interest in the whole process. There I was willing to save the world economy by spending like an idiot, and they were denying me the means to do so. The next day I checked my account. Instead of the miserly few thousand dirhams that are normally lurking around in it, there was a princely sum many times that amount. A few hours later, my phone rang.

"You appear to have the loan," said my banker. "I don't know how that happened." That is perhaps the most revealing remark from any banker since the financial meltdown began. He might have been speaking for the whole banking community. Truth sometimes really is stranger than fiction. rwright@thenational.ae