By Howard Davies Thursday, 01 November 2012

Howard Davies: I never imagined myself as a bedroom wall pin-up

The MT Diary: Howard Davies on the plight of China's young and why a young Contonese trader has a photo of him on her bedroom wall.

Beijing is not famed for its weather. In the summer it is too hot and often coated in sand blowing in from the desert. In the winter it is too cold and grey. The impression is of a city shot in black and white. But this year the early autumn was delightful - sunny days and balmy evenings. So after a hard day discussing the finer points of Chinese derivative markets (racy, in a word) I took a stroll round Financial Street - the Beijing equivalent of Canary Wharf - where all the regulators and financial institutions huddle together for warmth.

One of the good things about travelling in China is that you are very rarely accosted in the street. I guess the police don't like it, which is quite a disincentive to panhandlers, but there is also a natural reticence and pride. So I was surprised to be pulled up outside the Westin by a young backpacker who called me 'Uncle', and told me a complicated story about being a student from a town 200 miles from the capital who had failed to find work and wanted the bus fare to go home. She certainly wasn't offering any other services, if that's what you are thinking.

I do not have any Chinese nieces, as far as I know. Indeed, I don't have any nieces at all. So perhaps it was the tug at unused avuncular feelings that made me part with 100RMB. If this turns out to be a regular hard-luck story deployed with foreign financial folk, I shall feel a fool. But the story resonated with what one hears about the problem the Chinese now have, with armies of well-qualified (her English was quite good) yet unemployed graduates.

In spite of the clement weather, I chose to spend a spare weekend in Hong Kong, on the way to Singapore. I arrived in town two hours before 3pm, UK time, and discovered that Manchester City were live on a cable channel which the W hotel was too mean to buy. So I checked the club website to discover where the Hong Kong supporters hang out.

They use the Trafalgar, a high-rise bar in a low-rent part of town. As you enter the lift of an office block you can't quite believe you are in the right place, but on the fifth floor it opens out into a pub that would not be out of place in east Manchester, except that City and Chelsea fans cohabited nervously, watching different games on separate screens at different ends of the room. It was like watching those mating pandas in a cage - warily sniffing each other out, with a hint of suppressed violence. But someone knew my name and kindly offered me a pint of San Miguel, so all was well, except the team's performance, managing only 1-1 against Stoke City, away, with Crouch taking a slightly suspect goal and new signing Garcia equalising for Stoke.

Back at the W in Kowloon it was a pool party night. Imagine my distress at finding every part of the hotel, including the lifts, full of gilded global youth dressed only in skimpy swimming costumes. International business travel is really very tiresome. If only I had been at home with a cup of cocoa.

On the Sunday night I took the tube to dinner with a friend on the Island. As I boarded a crowded carriage a young woman pointed at me and said: 'Tony! Great to see you. I have a picture of you on my wall.' The Tony bit was something of a letdown, but she corrected herself quickly. She had mixed me up with my predecessor at the LSE, Lord Giddens. It was definitely me on her wall.

Now I am not in too bad shape for a 61 year-old, spend a bit of time in the gym, don't you know. But I had never quite imagined myself as a bedroom wall pin-up for a twentysomething Cantonese fixed income trader at Barclays Hong Kong, alongside Bruce Lee (and Chris Patten, I suppose). Sadly, it turns out that the photograph in question is of me handing her a BSc, so more a memento than an inspiration. Sigh.

Later on, I met another LSE graduate, a young Frenchman (without my photo on his wall). He is starting a business there and said the consulate told him that hundreds of young French professionals are arriving in town every week, escaping Hollande's socialist nirvana. But for me it was time to make the reverse journey, back to Paris to meet a new crowd of students eager to learn about Risk Weighted Assets and the Macroprudential mechanism. Oh joy.

The French are in pensive mood. One has the sense that they are not quite sure they can recall why it was that they kicked out Sarkozy. Hollande is embarked on an interesting experiment. The conventional wisdom is that if you have a major fiscal adjustment to make, the majority, maybe 80% of it, should come in the form of spending cuts, with the balance from tax increases. That is what most European countries are doing. The French have decided to do it the other way round.

The reaction has been sharp, among small businesses in particular. A new social media network set itself up in days, calling itself Les Pigeons, after the French slang for a victim. A flock of said pigeons has descended on the Finance Ministry, and they are doing what pigeons do to you when they fly overhead. The government seems genuinely surprised.

I tried out the City of London post-crisis joke: Q. 'What is the difference between a pigeon and an investment banker?' A. 'A pigeon can still put a deposit on a Porsche.' But the French were not amused. They still think that I-bankers make telephone number salaries. They are sooo 2007 it's not funny.

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