x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

When bankers are driven by greed rather than duty

How difficult can it be to be a banker? Let's face it, just about anybody, apart from those not sufficiently gifted to lose so much money in a short time, could probably manage it.

Perhaps bankers should be removed from their sports cars and forced to travel in a Routemaster.
Perhaps bankers should be removed from their sports cars and forced to travel in a Routemaster.

There is a terrible whining coming from some of the cars heading to the City of London every day. The most high-pitched sound comes from the Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins crawling along the Old Brompton Road about 7.30am. It is not the gearboxes nor the engines that are making the racket, but the passengers and drivers. Let's listen to hear what they're saying. "It's outrageous," says the driver of one Ferrari. "We've been working like dogs all year and all we get is a lousy £1 million [Dh5.9m] bonus."

Parked behind his bumper, one Porsche is whining even more, drowning out the roar of the engine and the sound of George Michael on the radio. "How am I to get by on this paltry £500,000? I won't be able to move to Chelsea now." Yes, it's bonus time, bonanza for the banksters, but their hard-earned bounties are being clipped. Our friends at Goldman Sachs in London have decided to show "restraint" and award themselves only a million quid each.

These partners all probably have a net worth of £50m, with plush country pads and lavish houses in town. In the circumstances, I am not sure how this is showing any restraint at all. Showing restraint might be not awarding yourself a bonus; it might be selling the Ferrari and giving the money to a more rightful cause. A more measured and correct approach might be to return this money to its rightful owner.

Not the shareholders, although they deserve their reward for sticking with their investment. The person who should be paid is the taxpayer, who was forced to bankroll these clowns when the only alternative was financial ruin. Of course, I have nothing against people being rewarded with bonuses. Work exceptionally hard and do something extraordinary and you probably deserve it. But who judges what the reward should be?

How difficult can it be to be a banker? Let's face it, just about anybody, apart from those not sufficiently gifted to lose so much money in a short time, could probably manage it. Young, ambitious workers go to the City and Wall Street for one purpose: to make money. With ambitions bigger than their brains and an appetite for reward, whatever the risk, they are the wrong people for the job. I hate to remind people, for I seem to have been saying it incessantly for the past year and a half, but banking is a boring job. Bankers should be boring or they are in the wrong business.

I knew the head of an insurance group some years ago who complained that the finance director always wanted to get involved in marketing meetings or any meeting other than talks about where the money was, or where it was going. But alas, that was the finance director's job. The boring man with pretensions of being exciting was fired. Let's hope he found a career as a marketing man. Let's repeat: bankers are boring. Banking is a utility, rather like running the water and sewage systems. Do you see water engineers demanding a hefty additional handout every year just because there's still water in the taps?

Of course, I have nothing against a group of groovy, risk-crazed adventurers clubbing together to set up a hedge fund and ramping up the price of commodities, just as long as I don't have to start a whip-round to ensure their losses don't result in a meltdown. For more than 20 years this casino capitalism has been a one-way bet: bankers make money and pay themselves bonuses. If the bank doesn't make money, in fact if it loses it in large quantities, either the investors club together to make good their mistakes or, as we saw over the past 18 months, the governments of the world launch huge stimulus plans, reduce interest rates to almost nothing, and the bankers can rebuild their capital without any effort.

In the fast-moving world of finance, it is extraordinary how slowly things move. We heard at the beginning of 2008 that the subprime lending boom in the US was going badly bust, but we were assured by those same lenders there would be no fallout outside of America. At Davos, the annual beano for masters of the universe, US bankers lined up to reassure us that the crisis would not reach Europe's shores.

George Soros, the man who famously broke the Bank of England, thought otherwise. "We need a global sheriff," he said. The US President Barack Obama may be the closest thing we have to that, and he has finally announced plans to act. It is unclear exactly how his proposals will pan out, but as far as one can tell, he and his pal Paul Volcker have come as close as they can to reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, the legislation introduced after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that separated commercial and investment banks.

We shall see how it turns out, but what I'd like to see is a global sheriff who takes away the bankers' bullets. Make them as boring as the men that run the sewers, and pay them less. Best of all, I'd like to see bankers prised out of their sports cars and forced to take the bus. Then they would really whine. @Email:rwright@thenational.ae