Dec 2009

The absurd delusion of bankers

Bankers are warning that if the UK imposes a tax on bonuses when other major financial centres, such as New York, do not then the biggest stars might relocate from the City.Barclays’ chief defends bonuses

Contrary to what those involved would have us believe, investment banking is not actually that difficult a job. Certainly when compared with being a successful surgeon, nuclear physicist or civil engineer; the skill set required by banking is neither extensive nor terribly difficult to acquire.

Which isn’t to say “anyone could do it”. Along with the necessary skills, there are certain personality traits without which, a person would find investment banking extremely arduous. There’s a lot of politics involved, probably more than most jobs, and a person needs to be adept at navigating an upwards trajectory in a cut-throat environment. Also required is a willingness to work more hours than many people are comfortable with. Those tend to be difficult characteristics to acquire. Crucially however, those who already have them are far from being a rare breed.

So the reason successful bankers are paid enormous wages and even more enormous bonuses is entirely down to the nature of the industry they work in, rather than any inherent “star quality” they may possess as individuals. It isn’t due to the hard work of modern investment bankers… humble beginnings investing their pocket money in local community projects when they were twelve, and a few decades later finding their activities have grown into a multi-billion dollar bank. It’s because they got a job in the money industry and were successful at it.

Investment banking deals with huge sums of money. In fact, pretty much the entire purpose of the industry is to move large sums of money around. So when the bank takes a percentage profit on a given transaction, it’s a percentage of a large sum. And this needs to be stressed. They don’t earn huge amounts of money because what they do is extremely difficult (or even all that useful… but that’s a discussion for another day), but because there happen to be more zeroes on their Excel spreadsheets than on the spreadsheets of a bakery or a pub.

Which is why I find the outrage and arrogance of London’s investment bankers, when confronted with a windfall tax on their bonuses, to be so hilarious. They talk about how such a move will force “the stars” of the banking world to leave London for places without such “punitive tax rates”. The implication being that this will deal a serious blow to London’s — and by extension, Britain’s — economy.

I’m forced to wonder if this is just posturing on their part, or do they honestly believe such twaddle? It appears that earning huge salaries for several years has the ability to convince highly ambitious, semi-skilled sharks that they are indispensible. When the truth is that there’s a mass of similar people more than willing to do the same job for 50% of the cash (bearing in mind that 50% of Bob Diamond’s cumulative £20million bonus is more than enough to motivate most people).

I’m also wondering, given that this latest windfall tax will target the bonus payments of “tens of thousands of bankers”, exactly where they all intend to go? Are there really places in the world looking to hire tens of thousands of foreign bankers and pay them huge lightly-taxed bonuses? Is there truly a major lack of experienced investment bankers in New York, Frankfurt or Tokyo?

And even if a handful of banking “stars” do find work elsewhere, the idea that they are taking a unique skill set with them, and that nobody in London is capable of stepping into their shoes, is deluded beyond belief.

Posted in: Opinion