From Dior to Dharma – Chapter 1 (part 2/3)

From Dior to Dharma, Chapter 1 (Part 2/3)

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As the months went by, I became aware of the mixed opinions that other bankers held about our team and the work we did. Some considered us exceedingly clever, others smirked that we fancied ourselves to be the James Bonds of the bank and some others openly expressed their disapproval of our work that they considered to be somewhat shady because we were constantly trying to jump through tax and regulatory loop holes. “Is it really worth making things so horrifically complicated and convoluted?”; “The money basically all goes around in a circle doesn’t it?”; “Is any of it real?” they would say.

I couldn’t say I didn’t understand where they were coming from. Personally speaking, the work was exciting and intellectually rewarding. My days would usually either be spent immersed in Excel, PowerPoint or Bloomberg, helping to develop complex structured transactions, or in meetings with top lawyers and accountants who were ever willing to please us, their wealthy clients. But as creative as the work was, in truth, it was also rather abstract. Thinking up structures was an exercise of drawing boxes and arrows on a piece of paper – the boxes representing companies we set-up and arrows representing financial instruments or flows of money between these boxes. In essence, it involved nothing more than grand imagination under certain constraints. I created several of the companies myself, spending many an afternoon entertaining myself by thinking up thematic names for them. One time I decided on a selection of Dutch cheeses and another time, on English hills.

“There’s nothing wrong with it, you know,” Chris, a bright Australian accountant in our team, had once told me. He had gone on to offer me a completely unsolicited explanation along the lines of “Who’s to say that the government spends money better than corporations? We save the bank a lot of tax and arguably, the bank spends this money in a better way, like creating jobs and paying good salaries that trickle down into the economy. And besides, tax avoidance is not illegal, tax evasion is.” I didn’t have much interest at the time, in exploring the existential or subjective dimensions of my career. As far as I was concerned, the work was unfathomably more interesting than what many of my peers were doing, which was mainly printing and binding all day long, and that was enough. Besides I trusted the large and respected organization that was the bank and the seasoned and established bankers that were my bosses.

Especially John McBride. The head of our team, John was a middle-aged, bright-blue-eyed man of Irish-Cockney stock. The quintessential hustler, he was the son of a construction worker who had worked his way up from being a bank teller in the 1970s, using his sharp wit and cunning. He was a dynamic leader with an infectious intensity and a serial charmer who often understood people better than they did themselves. Not given much to political correctness or stodginess, all women were interchangeably referred to as ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’ and all men were judged on the depth of their knowledge about football and rugby. Work skills were secondary; winning his favour hardly depended on them. It was more about whether John ‘liked’ you.

Beyond the clever humour and passionate speeches though, I don’t think I ever really understood John McBride. When I was unhappy about my role on a certain deal, he was the wise old boss and helpful friend; but if I expressed my appreciation for having a boss like him who seemed to be able to see to the heart of people and things and stand by what was true, he would overturn my sentiment by saying “I hope you don’t end up becoming a cynical old bastard like me”.

To this day, I don’t know whether he really cared deeply for those colleagues he professed to care for or whether he actually didn’t give the slightest damn about anybody but himself. Trying to figure him out was like trying to catch a slippery fish in water. He could in the same morning, be a devout Catholic and a ruthless negotiator. “Be careful not to believe your own bullshit” he would often say to those around him, and every time he said it, I couldn’t help feeling like he was saying it to himself.

Those not well acquainted with the John McBride school of thought and leadership, invariably took some time to understand its foundational sleights of charm. The truth was that even those who were sufficiently acquainted, couldn’t always tell what was real and what was not.

As for John and me, it was mutual admiration at first sight. Deep down, we were both quite amused at what an unlikely pair we made – a young Indian girl and a middle-aged, old-school Cockney man. But we got along so famously that I was jokingly dubbed his ‘favourite’. The arrogance this naturally engendered in me could not be denied. Added to that, at 24, I was one of the youngest Associates in the team ever and often touted as a prodigy destined to taste great heights in the financial world. And I enjoyed it all, the successes and the ‘spectacular’ life of travel and luxury that a banking career offered me.

 

I suppose the roots of my ambition can be traced back to a very long time ago indeed. As a child, one of my favourite hobbies used to be to go through my parents’ old postcard collection. Many a hot weekend afternoon in Mumbai would find me sprawled on the living room floor with a big bag of postcards emptied out before me. Although in time I came to know each postcard very well, I would still go over them again and again, reading the tiny print at the back in full, memorizing the names of exotic places. I would rank and re-rank the 100-odd postcards every now and then for amusement. Sometimes the Tuscan countryside came out on top and sometimes a fountain in a Swiss square. I never really figured out where the postcards came from – for they were all blank and my parents had not visited the places depicted – but it was a mystery I somehow managed to live with.

Banking life allowed me to take my love for faraway places from postcards to business class boarding passes. The truth was that my real desire in life had been to travel and broaden my experience – banking was only a sensible way of acquiring the means to do that. Sure, the intellectual stimulation was appealing but it was not the money or power I craved as much as the experience of different places and quite simply, of life. Little did I know, in those heady days of 2006, that a financial crisis was bubbling in the background, waiting to erupt and that my ‘spectacular’ new life, would shower me with more experience than I really wanted. And I could never have guessed that when the financial empire came crumbling down, it would become impossible to keep up with the survival games of formidable and seasoned players whose rule books were dead silent on matters of scruples.

 

I read an entry from my diary from March 2008:

Spring time in London is always a dicey affair. It’s hard to judge whether summer is seriously courting or merely teasing; whether the skies will be faithful to the sun or cheat with the rain. With the air charged with uncertainty and impending change, the financial climate this particular spring, seems to reflect the natural one.

Tim was let go last week in a bank-wide round of firings. Many people are saying that the problems in the sub-prime market augur a full-blown crisis. I have that sinister feeling that I first felt in New York during our graduate training, that something is not quite right amid the clanking champagne glasses and swishing designer suits. I also caught John looking very serious and worried a couple of times this week which is very uncharacteristic of him.

Soon after that, the winds of disruption picked up momentum; winds that were destined to bring the global financial system to its knees.

I read the next entry in my diary.

2 June 2008

Dear Diary,

A lot has changed in the world of finance over the last few months. There is little doubt that we were now in crisis territory. Markets are jittery and there is genuine confusion at the trading desks as to what the prices of many securities are. Many mortgage lenders have collapsed, stirring fear and paranoia not just in the financial sector but in the whole economy. John has been spending long hours on the phone in his office, enough of a signal to the rest of us that something very serious is a-brewing. Our transactions have to be monitored ever more closely and are being re-negotiated all the time as the news keeps getting worse and other banks get more and more edgy.

The bank had another round of firings last week which didn’t help to calm the already fraying nerves. Some in the team have figured that the best policy at such a time is to keep the boss happy even if that involves bringing his morning coffee. Others like me, follow the policy of keeping our heads down and working harder than before. A definite spirit of competition and a ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset has also reared their heads. Everyone wants to be on the big deals and on as many deals as possible to establish their indispensability within the team. We have lost two people to the rounds of culling already, so there is increasingly more work on everyone else’s plates, at least for the time-being. I’m quite exhausted from having to spend long hours in the office now and even have to go in on weekends.

Also, annual bonuses were announced yesterday. We were all disappointed with what we got, which was much less than last year. I was quite angry to have gotten a low bonus when I’ve been working so much harder than everyone else. But at least I was given an early promotion, which I’m happy about.

Meanwhile the world outside has developed a deep resentment against bankers. They think we are immoral, greedy and irresponsible. They accuse us of taking home million dollar paychecks only to bring about the collapse of the mortgage market. They are right in a way. Where I once hesitated to tell people where I worked so as to not sound like a show-off, I now hesitate for very different reasons! I’m quite embarrassed to admit where I work. Looking at this bigger picture, actually, we should all just be happy to have our jobs, instead of grumbling about bonuses.

 

I recalled how the fairytale life of travel and fancy dinner parties had slowly turned into a nightmare. My relationship with John changed from one of trust and friendship, to one in which I was having to frequently decline personal drinks invitations and quietly make notes that I might someday need to hand over to HR or possibly a lawyer. He confessed to me on one late night taxi ride after a team dinner, that what he valued above all else was ‘loyalty’. I soon discovered that what he referred to as loyalty was in fact submission and surrender. And he was eager for me to know how difficult life could be without his loyalty and goodwill. As others in the team sharpened their back-stabbing knives, I suddenly no longer had anyone to insist that I be treated fairly on deals. And all the while in the background, a merciless force was slowly tightening its stranglehold on the banking industry, adamant to shake it to its core.

The insecurity and uncertainty could be tasted in the air every day when I walked into the office. 15 September 2008, the day that one of the great powerhouses of the financial industry, Lehman Brothers, collapsed, was also the day of culmination of a tense power struggle in the office. Some of the old guard that had worked with John for over a decade, were increasingly voicing their vexation at the fact that my work-desk was in a very prestigious spot in the office, right opposite John’s. They wanted a complete re-organisation of desks so that “‘juniors would sit with juniors”. John was conveniently out of the country during the drama and had no say in the matter. He had a fine talent for getting others to do his dirty work while retaining, at all times, a spotless reputation as a fair and kindly boss. Continue Reading Chapter 1

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