Books: Journal of an obsession that knows no bounds

As a contemporary satire of the City's compensation structure, says Paul Donovan, this book fails to provoke a smile of recognition.

by Paul Donovan, a managing director of a London-based investment bank
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

AT BONUS TIME, NO-ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM

By David Charters; Elliott & Thompson; £9.99; MT price £8.99; To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

David Charters warns us in his introduction that this book is not about any particular time, but is an 'exploration of a type of character and the way that character responds to the extraordinary pressures placed upon people in the extreme situations that the City produces'. In short, presumably it sets out to satirise the Square Mile's contemporary compensation structure.

The kernel of At Bonus Time is the overwhelming importance of the annual bonus payment to employees in the City. The size of the bonus relative to salary rings true (although I make no comment on the precise figures quoted in the book). For most professionals in the City, the annual bonus forms a large proportion of their overall annual income. Part of that bonus, in some cases quite a large part, will be tied up in some structure of shares or options, which 'vest' in a dripfeed fashion over two or three years - the 'golden handcuffs' that Charters refers to (although his main character never includes vesting bonus payments from previous years in his calculations of this year's income, which I certainly would).

It is also probably true that some City workers run up an overdraft in anticipation of their bonus payments. Indeed, economists (even a City economist like myself) would consider this a perfectly rational response - consumption smoothing in line with the best precepts of the life/time income hypothesis. Inevitably, in idle moments, City professionals will speculate on how they will spend their bonus, although I cannot think of any of my colleagues who would indulge in the competitive, conspicuous consumption of Charters' world.

So much for the facts. However, Charters distorts this factual kernel to create a central character whose obsession with the bonus payment knows no bounds, who counts down the days until bonuses are announced and whose nights are dominated by vivid, bonus-related nightmares.

The book is styled as a series of journal entries, with each date headed by something like 'B minus 50' - a sort of investment banker's Bridget Jones' Diary.

As it happens, I am working my way through the bonus and assessment process at the moment. I have a vague idea of when bonuses are announced (I know the month), and nearer the time I will find out the precise date (because I should be in the office to give staff their information), but I do not cross the days off on my kitchen calendar.

In sharp contrast to the obsessive certainty about the calendar, the protagonist of At Bonus Time remains chronically uncertain about the amount of his bonus. The range of speculation he runs through varies by over a million pounds. This also does not ring true in today's City, at least not for a senior member of the investment banking profession. A bonus depends on three key elements: the bank's performance, the team's performance and the individual's performance.

Most people will have a fairly shrewd idea of the bank's performance.

The immediate team performance, considering that a large team is 30 people, is also fairly obvious to all those involved. As for personal performance, the bonus round is inevitably accompanied by a comprehensive analysis of each individual's performance, accompanied by peer appraisal and manager appraisal.

Performance against measurable personal targets and objectives does not leave much room for uncertainty. In today's financial markets, uncertainty cannot be allowed - investment banks have enough to deal with without their staff acting like rabbits caught in the headlights of the oncoming bonus juggernaut for two months of the year.

If this book was supposed to be a satire, it has failed. Of course, there will be exaggerations - a grotesque of a character who amalgamates the worst characteristics of several real-life people. But surely a satire should provoke at least the odd wry smile of recognition when, looking beyond the comic exaggeration, one can recognise and appreciate the underlying reality.

The modern City is nothing like Charters' world. The book might have served as a satire of the City of 20, maybe even 15, years ago (something hinted at in the introduction, when Charters rather irrelevantly laments the decline of the 'British merchant bank'). But the book is written as if contemporary, and as such it leaves a contemporary audience feeling lost.

Charters says that At Bonus Time was a short story that 'never knew when to stop growing'. Had it remained constrained by the length of a short story, some of the more outlandish embellishments might have been avoided, leaving a more realistic core. In future, Charters would be well advised to use a lot less fertiliser when writing about life in the City.

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