x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A little relief, but industry is not out of the woods

The human drama is yet to conclude as bankers wonder who is next.

For two years, I worked with top financial advisers, managing portfolios; now I was reporting on their takeover. Merrill Lynch, which yesterday agreed a US$50 billion (Dh185bn) all-share offer from Bank of America, may yet emerge unscathed. Certainly, in the company's plush offices at the Dubai International Financial Centre yesterday, I found no clouds of gloom as I chatted with former colleagues.

To the left of the office was the familiar conference room where lectures are still given by product specialists; to the right were the rows of computers, displaying order screens and market movements. At first glance it seemed little had changed and yet the new faces around me were wondering what would be on their business cards next week: Bank of America, Merrill Lynch International - or something else?

The decline of Lehman Brothers and the sale of Merrill Lynch throw into question the future of the banks' operations in the Middle East, while stock markets across the region remain volatile in the wake of chaos on Wall Street. With Lehman's assets being liquidated, it is possible that all employees in the Middle East will lose their jobs, according to a spokesman in London. Bankers, meanwhile, say they are reviewing their positions with Lehman, although they describe the investment bank as a minor player in the region.

Later, as I listened to the bankers chatting over coffee, it became clear that as well as being a financial catastrophe, what was unfolding was also a very real human drama. On Sunday night, few of my former colleagues got much rest. "I only slept for three hours last night and finally relaxed when news of the merger - and Merrill's fate - was confirmed," said one financial adviser in his mid-20s, who had stayed up most of the night glued to the television and the internet.

Though still jittery, most were now relieved. They all knew that if nobody had stepped forward to buy Merrill, their jobs would have been on the line, like those of the 25,000 employees at Lehman Brothers worldwide who now face uncertain futures. My friends at Merrill will sleep a little more easily tonight, but few believe their industry is out of the woods: "Merrill was saved but I can't help but wonder who is next," said one.