Books: The square mile relegated - Hidebound by snobbery, the gentleman capitalists failed to fight back when the hard men came Stephen Fay reads an important account of the City's eclipse. The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, by Philip Augar Penguin poun

Books: The square mile relegated - Hidebound by snobbery, the gentleman capitalists failed to fight back when the hard men came Stephen Fay reads an important account of the City's eclipse. The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, by Philip Augar Penguin poun

by STEPHEN FAY, who has written books on the Bank of England andthe collapse of Barings
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The City of London was still run by gentlemanly capitalists when Philip Augar started work in 1978. He observed their decline and fall at first hand, and makes a modest appearance in the story running NatWest Market's equities business and as a member of the team that sold Schroders to Citigroup. He knows what he is talking about, and holds strong opinions. Take this for a start: 'The speed and totality of the submission of the City's leading firms is one of the most abject surrenders in business history.'

Although Big Bang happened only 16 years ago, life in the Old City seems a distant memory of another place. The first train from the heart of the stockbroker belt, in Haslemere, did not depart for Waterloo until 7.15am.

Lunch often began with a couple of snifters and was served by butlers in rooms decorated like an English country house. Class counted. Brokers and jobbers were partnerships, run like large families, and managed in a minimalist way. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it was no way to run a business in global markets after 1986.

Within a decade of Big Bang, the British in the City had, for the most part, become highly paid mercenaries, having accepted 'Wimbledonisation'.

Augar says he first heard this term from Eddie George before he became governor of the Bank of England. George meant that City businesses were staffed by locals, dominated by foreigners, but were still generating prestige and money for the UK. Augar would argue that Britain provides excellent facilities, but that the foreigners always win the game and take the prizes home.

Augar identifies George as one of the villains of his story. The Bank of England once regulated gentlemanly capitalists by means of raised eyebrows and nods and winks. After Big Bang, the Bank - abetted by government - decided to give London an advantage in the game of regulatory arbitrage with New York and continental Europe.

Augar is unusual among City people because he argues that a lax regulatory regime only encouraged seat-of-the-pants-management and informal controls on bankers and brokers who desperately needed rigorous attitudes to costs, credit and risk. The more heavily regulated US companies had learned to take this for granted; they were therefore much better prepared for global capitalism, and their domination of the City now seems inevitable.

The most striking instance of the failure of gentlemanly capitalism is drawn from Augar's own experience. After Big Bang, Warburgs had wanted to become an investment bank on the Wall Street model, but when it failed, the For Sale sign went up. One of the bidders was NatWest, but the deal crumbled because of instinctive class attitudes.

Augar explains: 'Martin Owen (who ran NatWest Markets) is not an investment banker. He has a regional accent, mixes in different circles and did not attend Oxbridge or a major public school. The Warburg people were classic gentlemanly capitalists and would not have been able to stomach reporting to him. At a crucial moment for UK investment banking, class got in the way.'

It sounds as though Warburgs got what it deserved, but the story distresses Augar because the sale confirmed the inability of the British to run their own financial markets.

George does not agree. He believes that market forces turned the City into a vital component in the global market. George told Augar that it is impossible to tell from the people around the table at meetings the nationality of the companies they represent. Augar writes: 'This is not how it looks from the shop floor. The City has become a branch office of New York with no control of its destiny. Its position in relation to other European capitals can only get worse.'

Come the next bear market, Wall Street banks will withdraw to their New York-based hub, says Augar. His pessimism is based on relentless factual analysis. He may turn out to be wrong, but this important book ought to provoke guilt and grief among many of its leading characters.

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