Bore street

    30 March 2014

    I blame Tom Wolfe. Reading the Man in the White Suit’s epic 1980s boom-and-bust novel The Bonfire of the Vanities as an impressionable teenager etched in my mind the image of the banker as entertaining, sophisticated buccaneer. There was never any thought of a career in the Square Mile — my inability to comprehend complex transactions and a talent for losing money instead of acquiring it would have put paid to that — but Wolfe’s account of the Manhattan bonds trader Sherman McCoy (one of Wall Street’s ‘Masters of the Universe’) made me defend financiers when writer friends dismissed them as spivs and shysters.

    When, in 2007, my wife’s job relocated to the States and I moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I have to say that I was looking forward to spending some fun times in the company of bankers. But as capitalism came under pressure after the crisis of 2008, so did my view of capitalists. Never mind the cost of the crunch (about $14 trillion, according to economists from the Dallas Federal Reserve); spend enough time being bored rigid by bankers at benefits, suppers and parties in Manhattan, and Marxism begins to look almost appealing. The truth is that their jobs are so all-consuming that many bankers are simply unable to take any interest in anything outside their profession.

    When The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s epoch-defining film depicting the excesses of Jordan Belfort and his penny stockbroking firm, was released in the UK, friends in London who had just seen it kept asking me the same questions. Is banking really awash with sybaritic blondes and huge amounts of cocaine and Quaaludes? They are disappointed when I tell them that most financiers I know don’t even have time to see the film — let alone live it.

    Jonah Hill, who plays Donnie Azoff, told me at a lunch for the film, ‘It’s a representation of Donnie and Jordan at a specific point in time, not of the culture in general. The excess is too much.’ The movie’s scriptwriter Terence Winter, who worked in Wall Street at the time of the 1987 crash, said: ‘Back then the drugs made traders work harder and dial the phone faster. It’s a different world now.’

    It certainly is. Take one American friend I have known since childhood, who is now the vice president of an investment bank and lives on the Upper East Side. We’ll call him Brad. Our children are a similar age and we see each other fairly often. Yet Brad was much more interesting in 1986, when he was 14 and living as an expat in London. I was six years younger and he would enthuse at length on the merits of Top Gun. Culture for Brad these days seems to revolve around admiring the decor of the steakhouses he visits a couple of times a month. His idea of good conversation is to discuss his French clients in terms that make the average Ukip activist seem like Henry James in comparison; or to boast how his connections got his daughter into an exclusive nursery school even though she behaved unspeakably badly during the interview. Get us back to those childhood ruminations on Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell’s need for speed.

    Brad is one of the more charming bankers I know. I don’t know what happened to the idea that Wall Street should represent the brightest brains. In fact it is a black hole of cultural ignorance. When one banker told me his brother had been diagnosed as bipolar, I made a reference to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the context of mood disorder. He replied, ‘Who are they?’

    William D. Cohan, author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World and a former managing director of JP Morgan Chase, concurs. ‘Sherman McCoy was a wonderful fiction,’ he says. ‘They get paid way too much money but it’s not the most wonderful or glamorous life. There’s a lot of travel, late hours and deals that don’t necessarily happen so there’s not a lot of satisfaction. There’s a lot of crazy internal politics, alpha-male behaviour and jockeying for position. It can be downright unpleasant.’

    One veteran tells me things are getting worse: ‘Many of the new breed have lost all confidence. They’re afraid to speak because of the stigma of being a banker that has grown in the last decade. The ones who stand up for themselves end up being obnoxious.’

    Of course there are exceptions. Euan Rellie, the British senior managing director at Business Development Asia, is one. His presence on the social circuit is so assured that during my first year in New York, I thought he was a full-time man of leisure.

    He’s a rare example. Recently a banking acquaintance of mine was at a benefit auction and won supper with a director and an actress from Sex and the City. He paid more than ten thousand dollars but was so boorish about his intentions in regards to the actress that his winning bid was withdrawn and the prize was re-auctioned.

    At parties where I know that the denizens of Wall Street will be present, I’ve learned to make sure I’m acquainted about that day’s goings-on on the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq to ensure we have something to talk about. And if I’m at a children’s party on Park Avenue, I make a point of gravitating to the grandparents. They are likely to be more well-rounded and au fait with culture and society than their son or daughter.

    Many younger financiers live in downtown Manhattan in blocks of luxury flats, moving uptown when they have families. While you might think that the life change would give them a sense of perspective and put some balance into their routines, to see how little time many of the bankers I know spend with their kids has sometimes made me feel like Dad of the Year.

    The worst banker I’ve ever met is the father of one of my daughter’s friends — let’s call him William. He is a monosyllabic bore of the highest order. I once struck up a conversation with his charming five-year-old daughter when she was visiting our apartment for a playdate. ‘Your father is really amusing,’ I said, playing devil’s advocate. ‘No, he’s not,’ she replied. ‘What does he like doing?’ I asked. ‘Eating chocolate,’ she replied. I shut up at that point.

    The problems bankers have with interacting with their offspring in any meaningful way was encapsulated when one guy said to me, regarding a school concert he was going to that evening: ‘Don’t you just dread having to attend these things?’ The problem is so bad that investment banks have recently resorted to becoming corporate social workers, pushing fathers to spend time with their children by holding family parties and the like. After a recent New York family benefit for children of investment bankers at the New York Public Library, Bloomberg News reported: ‘Boaz Weinstein, founder of Saba Capital Management LP, carried his youngest girl to meet a mermaid princess. And Tim Brien, president at Cliffside Capital, worked on a coral reef made of paper plates with his son Tristan.’

    Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.