Global Policy Forum

So, How Can Bankers Live With Themselves?

In this entry to his series on the lives of financial industry professionals, journalist Joris Luyendijk talks to a recruiter who shines some light on the lack of culpability that bankers feel with respect to the financial crisis. Rather than culprits, bankers feel they were simply over-zealous facilitators, unwittingly inflating bubbles as they went along. To think high-end bankers may feel a sense of solidarity with their compatriots who were affected by the crisis is a mistake, explains the recruiter. The global financial elite, unhindered by feelings of national belonging or solidarity, merely seek prestige and safety guaranteed by the rule of law, wherever that may be.

By Joris Luyendijk

February 17, 2012

So what would you like to know about bankers, I like to ask people, and most answer: how can they live with themselves? How can bankers take home those salaries and bonuses when the rest of us are facing austerity and very painful cuts in public services?

A little while ago I put this to a financial recruiter. I'll call him Philippe. Philippe is working with the well-paid bankers everyone else seems so angry with. They come to him when they want to move to a new job, or he poaches them on behalf of banks or financial firms. Being at the high end of the industry he has extensive conversations with clients about their motives, fears and ambitions.

So how can they live with themselves?

"They feel unjustly singled out", said Philippe. "What I hear is: look, nobody would run a bank with the intention of wrecking it, would they? Banks lent to people who couldn't repay. But nobody forced these people to take out loans that they must have known were far beyond their means. Banks may have been enablers, but in the end it was reckless individuals who did this. But what politician is going to blame this crisis on his voters, some of who must have been among the reckless borrowers? Much easier to heap it all on the bankers."

This is a common refrain in the City, where people like to compare themselves to "over-enthusiastic waiters", in the recent words of one CEO.

"Then again", Philippe continued, "many of my clients simply don't seem to care a whole lot about what the general public think. These are extremely well-educated and multilingual professionals. Many are in mixed marriages with kids who have lived on two or three continents. These people don't belong anywhere and don't feel beholden to any national project. They want to pay as little in tax as they can, and they want to be safe. That's it. Rule of law is very important for them.'

This chimes with many interviews I've done. As one partner in a major UK financial law firm put it: '"When I go to these banks I am struck by how international they are. On each division there's the 'token Brit' but often that's it. The rest can be from anywhere."

That's London and those are Philippe's clients. They sound almost like the crew of "spaceship finance", don't they? The ship happens to have landed in London for now, but can take off any time. Philippe said: "A highly educated professional in the City of London has much more in common with a peer in Hong Kong, New York City or Rio de Janeiro, than with a monolingual, mono-cultural teacher or nurse somewhere up in Birmingham or Manchester. Solidarity for the new global elite is not geography-based or tied up with a state."

Knowing this was for the Guardian, he added with a mischievous smile: "This is where the left seems lost. It insists on solidarity across the nation, with higher tax rates for rich people to help their less fortunate countrymen. But this solidarity is predicated on a sense of national belonging, to which the left is allergic; national identity comes with chauvinism and nationalism, and creepy rightwing supremacists. It's quite ironic how postmodernists and many contemporary social thinkers on the left will tell you that all sense of belonging is a construct, tradition is invented and nations are simply fantasies or imagined communities. Well, the global financial elite agrees."

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