x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

When the going gets tough, the tough get gorging

In the season, it is every banker's duty to don a boater and blazer and head to Henley for the rowing.

Salmon from the Shetland Isles followed by sweet chilli prawn and crayfish, caramelised red onions and asparagus, and slices of Parma ham accompanied by a duo of melons. For pudding, Kentish strawberries and blueberries, baked lemon curd cheesecake and double chocolate truffle torte. All this will, of course, be washed down with lashings of vintage champagne. Every marquee will be furnished with 40 dining chairs, a desk, 12 garden chairs and three garden tables with parasols. Cushions, if desired, can be ordered in advance.

When the guests have done scoffing, they will be able to turn their eyes to the tennis or let their eyelids droop as they listen to the hum of a bumblebee and sleep off the hearty repast. This is the menu made available by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) for its bankers and corporate customers during Wimbledon fortnight. The news has provoked considerable outrage in Britain, because the RBS has been kept afloat thanks to a £20 billion (Dh120.73bn) cash injection from the taxpayer.

"It is disgusting," spluttered John Mann, a Labour MP and member of the House of Commons treasury select committee. "These people are quaffing champagne while making their employees redundant. "This is greed feeding greed. There is no place whatsoever for this kind of largesse at the current time." British politicians are probably not best placed at the moment to give any comment on greed or expropriation of taxpayers' money. That notwithstanding, Mr Mann shows Labour's traditional lack of understanding of how the City works.

In the season, it is every banker's duty to don a boater and blazer and head to Henley for the rowing. Then he or she must endure endless hours consuming strawberries by the bucket as they watch eastern Europeans bat balls at each other while grunting like weightlifters. Doubtless this year they will also be forced to travel to Lord's, the home of cricket, to witness the traditional humiliation of the England cricket team by a bunch of Australians in baggy caps.

To some, this might not appear like work. But imagine the damage done to livers and morale. Some days they will be forced to sit out in the sunshine with only a covering of sunscreen and a panama hat. Only a certain kind of person can put up with this kind of strain on a daily basis. Only the very cream can keep such jobs. You will recall that the previous head honcho at RBS, Sir Fred Goodwin - or "Fred the Shred" as he was nicknamed because of his ability to clear bowl after bowl of strawberries and clotted cream without breaking into a sweat or losing count of how many he had consumed - was forced to step down after the bank's near collapse. This was quite inappropriate and most unnecessary. Never will his skills be more missed than in the next couple of weeks.

To make matters worse, last week he bowed to public pressure from his secret address in the south of France and voluntarily gave up £4.7 million of his £17m pension pot. Under his leadership, RBS made record losses of £24.1bn. RBS has a new champion, one Stephen Hester. He will not be appearing at the Wimbledon marquees for free, but has negotiated a £9.6m appearance fee. Assuming all goes well and he doesn't fumble his strawberries, he could pocket close to £6.4m in long-term incentives and a further £1.6m in non-cash bonuses on top of his £1.2m annual salary, all for just doubling the bank's share price.

It now stands at 36 pence, and Mr Hester is in the money when it hits 70 pence. It may appear a large ask, but let's not forget that just over two years ago, in March 2007, the share price was £6. This is entirely appropriate, for the man not only owns one of the finest gardens in England but has a house in London and a chalet in Switzerland to service. Mowing costs money. The poor fellow probably has a moat that needs cleaning out, too.

Yet again critics fail to appreciate some of the long hours this man will have to put in, not to mention the number of cucumber sandwiches he will have to put away. This has not stopped the shareholders from bleating. "It is absolutely outrageous that the government does not use its power to bring the remuneration of bankers in these companies down to a reasonable level," Roger Lawson, of the RBS Shareholders Action Group, told the Daily Mail.

"Mr Hester's package is far higher than those awarded to the chief executives of the other nationalised banks." If a war is good for manufacturers, then it stands to reason that an economic crisis is good for bankers. It should surprise nobody that the City of London's restaurants are overflowing, and that opportunistic banks have snapped up the chance to entertain themselves and their clients in some style at Henley, Wimbledon and Royal Ascot.

Some months ago, I mentioned to my son, who is vaguely considering a career as he gets close to finishing his A levels, that he should abandon hopes of becoming an investment banker and concentrate instead on turning himself into a bureaucrat. "We're all Marxists now," I suggested. Such thinking, I appreciate now, was entirely misguided. The masters of the universe have managed to outwit us all.

Their business models were temporarily disrupted when they ran out of money, but now, flush with taxpayers' cash, they are rewarding themselves with strawberries and cream, salmon and sweet chilli prawns, and crayfish. Rarely has such a spread been so thoroughly deserved. rwright@thenational.ae