”I am a banker. Why are the people on the street below me creating a ‘perp. walk’ of shame from the subway to my office?” Victoria Robertson has been there.
I am a banker. My nose is pressed against the glass of my office window as I stare down at the Occupy Wall Street protestors below me. Who do they think they are laying claim to my street? Creating a ‘perp. walk’ of shame from the subway to my office, making me feel bad for just turning up to work and trying to make a living. Little do they know, if I didn’t feel so trapped in this air-conditioned coffin of a banking career, I’d be down there with them sharing equal anger and frustration at the whole goddamn mess.
This particular banker may be fictional but I guarantee that there are people sitting behind the stone and glass facades on Corporate Street feeling these emotions, right now. I know because these are my people; the banking class of 1997 and this is their story.
It was a Friday night in September 1997 and I found myself in the middle of this new class, propping up a bar on Moorgate in the heart of the City of London. The London Stock Exchange shouldered my new employer’s shiny office building on one side; the Bank of England protected the other. I had survived an induction week at a major investment bank; I was exhausted, elated and high on all of it.
We were all high back then. High on scoring our dream job; high on all the potential that lay ahead; and high on the years of strong economic growth that had just passed.
Most of us had joined for the same reasons: banking was the top job in finance; it provided an exciting environment in which no two days were the same; you gained the opportunity to work with many different companies and engage with their senior management; you got to travel the world; and, yes, but at the very end of the list, the money was good.
Fourteen years on and the banking class of 1997 find themselves playing the part of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’: a washed out middleman, not old enough to be running the banking world yet not young enough to be blameless for the state that it is in. Where did it all go wrong?
The answer actually lies in when the seeds of wrong were sown rather than where. The when was November 12, 1999; the day the Glass-Stegall Act was repealed. On that Friday evening in 1997, we were in fact toasting a ‘Glass-Stegall’ world; a world that had learnt its lesson from the Great Depression in 1930 and created an act which banned banks from being an investment bank and a commercial bank at the same time.
In 1999, driven by frustration at watching securities firms make a lot of money, the big American banks used their political connections to arm-wrestle the act into repeal. We were less than two years into our careers and we didn’t know how that change would hit us; and hit us it did.
The first thing that happened was a wave of consolidation as the US banks swept into Europe and mopped up smaller investment banks with their billion dollar check books. Money flooded into the system and the banks all competed to steal the big game out of the investment bank’s mouths.
One minute we had signed up to the image of the trusted banker: a solid voice of advice and reason in a valued client’s ear; someone who puts their clients needs above their own commercial needs; a relationship banker whose word and judgment could help create wealth and be prized among industry leaders.
The next we were small, greasy cogs in a big commercial wheel. The trusted advisor became a technical salesperson selling Bigbank’s product set. A few short years later we were relegated to a ‘mouthpiece’ as our bonuses, promotions, many of our jobs were eroded. “You didn’t win that business,” said Bigbank as it turned on us “it was our strong balance sheet”.
So, here we are—we’ve climbed up to the middle of this greasy pole only to discover that when you are almost at the top there is more grease than pole. The promotion system in banking has rewarded only the risk-taking political animals who have brought home the kill at the end of the day and they are at the top piling on the grease, scared out of their minds and protecting their positions at all costs.
Many now are reflecting on whether or not that climb was worth it. Some of it was: most of my peers used any bonus they received wisely by paying off the rest of their parents’ mortgages, or buying their in-laws the car they really needed or investing in their own children’s education. Some of it wasn’t: the 16-hour days; the constant traveling; and the long term effects on relationships with spouses and children that you never see.
We could get let go of the greasy pole, you say, “Come and join us on the street below: Take a stand!” We could, but what happens after that? Few will give a banker who’s downgraded their financial skills to a balance sheet mouthpiece a start in a new career.
No need to start a ‘Hug-a-Banker-thon’ though—those are the breaks, aren’t they? Compared to many of the protestors, the banking class of 1997 has done OK. Some still have jobs; most said “No” to the 10 times earnings mortgage offers and bought affordable houses that we have managed to hold on to; and a few made the break to Sensible Street when they could.
Back to the fictional banker with his or her nose pressed against the glass: whom does he or she see on the street below them? A bunch of freeloading hippies who’d rather turn up and sit around watching people who are clinging on to their jobs, than get one of their own? Just as some stereotypes of ‘greedy banksters’ are true but not the full story, it seems that the Occupy Wall St movement has a sprinkling of wacko undesirables of its own—but it also has a voice of reason.
Some protestors are simply saying: we have played by the rules; we’ve worked hard; and we deserve to win over greed and corruption. It seems to me the only thing standing between some of the bankers and some of the protestors, is a thick pane of stubborn corporate glass. If we drop the stereotyping and take the time to look in the whites of each other’s eyes, we might just find a common ground on which to reoccupy Wall St. from the inside out.
The banking Class of 1997 may be tattered and torn but we still have a role to play in this whole sorry saga. We should push from the inside for a return to the basic values of the banking industry that we joined: hard work; sharp judgment; sensible lending; and client relationships built on trust, not deal size. We should sack HR and replace it with a promotion and remuneration system that values ethics as well as economics. We should encourage our leadership to be fearless in their attitude to league tables; missing a deal is not as bad as losing your conscience. If we manage to do that, we will once again be able to walk down Wall St. with our heads held high.