State of the union

State of the union - The focus of blame has moved on from corrupt executives to the Wall Street system, of which the investment bankers are emblematic.

by NICK DENTON, in New York, starting his third business;
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The focus of blame has moved on from corrupt executives to the Wall Street system, of which the investment bankers are emblematic.

Dot.commers roam the coffee shops in daylight, retirees worry how they'll make the payments on their Florida condos, refugees from Enron and Worldcom tell sceptical employers that they were only following orders ... but spare a thought for the investment bankers who helped get us into this mess.

Pity for investment bankers? Bear with me. The brokers and bankers of Wall Street and the City, who did so well out of the boom, will find the correction particularly painful. For them, the adjustment is as much psychological as financial.

That investment bankers are being laid off in droves is not surprising, given the collapse in financial markets. JP Morgan recently laid off 2,000, including mergers and acquisitions bankers rather than just support staff and expendable brokers whom securities houses cull in bad times. It was as if, wrote Nicholas von Hoffman, the Mafia was laying off capos after six straight quarters in which earnings had not lived up to the dons' expectations.

Average Americans have lost more, as a proportion of their net wealth, and certainly more innocently. And the focus of blame has moved on from corrupt corporate executives - there just aren't enough of them - to the Wall Street system, of which the investment bankers are emblematic. Redundancy is their just dessert.

Personally, I take less pleasure in the humbling of investment bankers - I have friends among them. But it was always a mystery to me why they were paid quite so much more than people of equal ability, if not the appetite for such a soul-destroying environment.

I know all the arguments. The securities industry is a winner-takes-all market, like the movie industry, in which companies reward their best talent lavishly because the best talent wins all the business. And there are the crumbs - an explanation borrowed from Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the hero explains to his daughter how brokers take discreet crumbs, but of gargantuan loaves.

Neither makes much sense, so there is a curious efficient-market satisfaction in seeing bonuses fall for those still in work. Financial historians remind us that, until the 1980s, the brokerage industry was no more glitzy than accounting. Believing that the capitalist system should reward real economic activity, you cannot help but rejoice that investment banking is returning to earth.

On a less elevated level, no-one is shedding tears, because investment bankers can still be insufferable. 'Those still in employment are so used to bigging themselves up to colleagues and superiors that they're unable to switch this off over dinner,' says a friend who momentarily forgot her rule about dining with bankers. 'They still suffer badly from busy-itis: I'm so busy, blah, blah, blah. Which is just dull.'

Finally, investment bankers are hardly - yet - feeling sorry for themselves.

Those made redundant typically receive three to six months of salary in severance, plus a sum related to their previous year's bonus. And they're still spending money as though they could just walk into another lucrative job.

Upscale New York nightclubs such as Lotus and Suite 16 are doing robust business - on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. There's no work the next day. And members of the '405 Club' are not worried. Their running joke: paying for lavish meals at Craft and other downtown restaurants with their dollars 405 unemployment cheques.

So why should anyone else care? For a start, they are deluded if they think they can walk into another job. Their expectations are way too high for mainstream corporations, and financial skills are not all that relevant to the operational grind of most businesses. The unemployed bankers all talk about getting into private equity, but that is a small sector and it already looks overcrowded.

Worst of all, most of them defined themselves by money. They may indeed be pleased to enjoy life after years of slaving over M&A contracts, and they always intended to quit banking while they were still young enough to write that book or become a windsurfing instructor in the Caribbean.

Rubbish: almost no-one gives up banking voluntarily; most of them have not a clue what to do next; and status, at least in the milieu of Upper East Side Manhattan and the Hamptons, depends on last year's bonus.

On the Manhattan dating scene, the investment banker, the boring boyfriend par excellence, has one redeeming quality: he picks up the tab. 'Now the money's gone, and you're left with nothing,' says a young Wall Street professional.

Investment bankers may have enriched themselves on the misplaced savings of ordinary Americans, they may still be rich, and they may still be out downing bottles of Cristal at Lotus at 3am on a Monday night. But have a little pity: they sold their souls to the devil long ago; and the devil, like the market, has reneged on his side of the deal.

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