Slavery In The City

Unpublished – 2o Aug 2013

Any sensible person recruiting suicide bombers knows that your target demographic has got to be young, insecure men. These impressionable chaps can easily be manipulated into believing that throwing their life away for some nebulous cause is a price worth paying.  It should come as no surprise then that this same strategy is utilized by all the world’s leading investment banks! 

When I took up my internship at ABN Amro in August 1996 I think it’s fair to say that I was not typical ‘stockbroker’ material. I had just returned from a long sojourn selling trinkets in Goa and had spent the previous day having my Catweazle goatee, preposterous ponytail and numerous earrings removed. The six pound Oxfam suit that I waltzed onto the trading floor in would have looked more appropriate on a tramp… albeit one lacking any kind of sartorial elegance.

My fellow interns were slightly more representative and exhibited all the traits that would make them perfect intern material; they were, to a man, hideously competitive, desperate to please, driven and ambitious. This blend of ‘qualities’ ensured that they were ripe for being manipulated into believing that being offered a permanent job at the end of their internship was not just a matter of life and death – it was far more important than that. This, I suspect, was the mindset of poor Moritz Erhardt – the young intern who recently died after having apparently worked three 21 hour days on the trot.

From our very first day at ABN it was made crystal clear that if we failed to become a banker it meant that we would never amount to anything; that we had been offered a golden opportunity ‘to be somebody’ and had fluffed it. This psychological manipulation resulted from seeing the flash cars our superiors drove, hearing rumours of 23 year olds receiving 150K bonuses, the hushed tones that were used when some ‘loser’ dropped out and the after-work chats we had in bars with macho bankers in their mid-twenties who relished being on the other side of the hideous brain-washing that they had once endured.

Unlike other industries banking also had a bonus system that gave you an unequivocal annual appraisal of your brilliance – and the competitiveness that resulted from such a system filtered right down – even to we losers at the bottom of the food chain.

I remember hearing a rumour back then that the HR department of the banking behemoth Goldman Sachs actively sought to recruit people who were ‘probably bullied at school’. Only these chaps would have the drive and requisite psychological vulnerability to be manipulated into becoming ‘Goldman types’ i.e. people willing to throw away their twenties and thirties in the search for… ‘success’. These chaps had more in common with members of some two-bit religious cult and their glazed eyes and unquestioning loyalty to ‘the firm’ meant you knew that they’d be the first in the queue when the spiked cool-aid was being passed around.

Whilst I had not been bullied at school I had two straight-laced elder brothers, one of whom had secured me my internship, who had both given me a pretty tough time when I was younger. Looking back it’s clear that I only stayed the course at ABN because I longed to casually mention to them over Sunday lunch that I earned more in a month than they did in a year whilst also proving to my parents that I wasn’t the feckless waster they feared they had spawned. Indeed, I strongly suspect that pleasing mummy and daddy is a surprisingly important motivation for many of the half-formed adults that enter these banks’ internship programmes.

All of these retrospective confessions make me despair of my younger self but it is my behaviour towards the end of my career as an investment banker that makes me cringe in the dark, small hours. By 2006 I had become a team leader at a major bank’s equity research department and would invariably have an annual intake of interns. Despite the misgivings I was beginning to have about my career I found myself conning these poor blighters into believing that 16 hour days staring at spreadsheets was an entirely appropriate way for a smart man to spend his youth. My motivation was simple: laziness – the more work they did they less I would have to do. It is now clear that, like some dodgy step-father, I was merely perpetuating the cycle of abuse that I had once suffered.

There is a photo of a young Moritz with a thick Windsor knot in his tie, City shirt and folded arms. He stares proudly into the camera looking every bit the eager stockbroker. There is one of me towards the end of my career in exactly the same pose. Without being too melodramatic I cannot now look at that photo without thinking ‘there but for the grace of God…’

Thoughts ?

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