THE HUMAN FACTOR: Investment banking used to be the career of choice for ambitious graduates. Aware now of human vulnerability, some are rethinking their priorities.

THE HUMAN FACTOR: Investment banking used to be the career of choice for ambitious graduates. Aware now of human vulnerability, some are rethinking their priorities. - The meaning of life is not generally much discussed in the City's dealing rooms. In the

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor, The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The meaning of life is not generally much discussed in the City's dealing rooms. In the febrile atmosphere of multi-million pound deals and intense competition, there is little room for fears. But the events of 11 September have shaken those who work in the West's financial institutions far more than they have shaken the markets. The ferocious effort to get Wall Street back up and running so rapidly after the atrocities, and the determination not to be beaten by the terrorists, masks the very human reaction of the individuals who had to keep going.

Many of those who work in London's finance houses knew someone who was killed in the terrorist attacks. Apart from the sorrow that this induces, there is the fear: those working in the compact Square Mile or towering Canary Wharf felt instantly vulnerable.

That has not stopped them going to work, but it has forced them to question what they are doing. A senior London investment banker, who was in New York and all too close as the World Trade Center crumbled, confessed to me that he had worked flat out, with his colleagues, to ensure the US operations were put to rights, but he kept asking himself: 'What's the point?'

In the face of such appalling loss of life, mundane things such as bond issues and share trades seem of little import, and if the man at the top is going through such a crisis of confidence, it's likely that those down the line are experiencing a similar internal debate.

For the managers in these firms, who must be sharing in the angst, there is a desperately difficult tightrope to walk as they try to restore morale and the competitive instinct without appearing crassly insensitive.

The immediate reaction to the attack showed the financial institutions pulling together in unprecedented fashion. Firms reached an informal pact that they would not try to profit from the chaos. Although attention has focused on the short selling in airline and insurance stocks that took place just before 11 September, some of which looks suspiciously well informed, it was the orderly nature of trading in the days that followed that was most worthy of note.

With a whole swathe of Wall Street's trading systems out of action, unscrupulous rivals could have taken advantage of the situation. Instead, effort was concentrated on minimising the disruption to markets. Where necessary, firms lent stock or extended deadlines to enable trades to be completed as planned before the attacks.

The co-operation went further than that. While bankers made plans to move their teams into hotel rooms or aircraft hangars, those with operations away from the financial district were quick to offer accommodation to the less fortunate. It could not be 'business as usual' when there were still desperate efforts to ascertain just who had escaped from the tumbling towers and what the casualty list might be. Companies that previously used the phrase 'human capital' perhaps less than convincingly, now launched extensive searches to locate staff. With telephones out of action, firms sent out teams to knock on the doors of their employees so they could delete names from their lists of missing persons.

When the New York Stock Exchange reopened, workers did their best to rise to the occasion, but it will be a long time before Wall Street is the same place emotionally. In the roaring markets of the last years of the 20th century, investment banking was the career of choice for many ambitious graduates. Although some of their generation had already bowed to the desire to achieve a work/life balance, those who chose banking willingly sacrificed equilibrium for excitement and wealth. Now, having been made forcibly aware of human vulnerability, some are rethinking their priorities. They will not head for the exit immediately, but many will seek a change of lifestyle.

In one London firm, a partner told me of a young manager who now admitted that he had always wanted to be an actor, and was going to give up the City and head for drama school. Others will head in different directions, but the traffic is likely to be out of, rather than towards, the financial world.

Given the relative lack of activity in the corporate sector, such defections will not meet with heavy opposition. The investment banks were about to embark on a round of job cuts when the terrorists brought normal business to such a brutal halt. Heads of firms have been wondering whether they can further demolish staff morale by announcing redundancies and bonus cuts. They will have no choice: the economics of their business mean that, as recession hovers, they must slim down the overheads. But no-one will envy the directors now facing such decisions.

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