Business, Finance & Economics

Britain's bankers ready for a brutal year to be over

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London's Bank Subway Station is named after the Bank of England (Photo by Flickr user Felipe Ortega, cc-by-sa.)

There’s one group of people in London who will probably be happier than most to see the end of 2011. It’s the bankers, the men and women who work in the financial district known as The City.

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The industry used to be full of high-fliers and to an extent, it still is, but this year, thanks to continuing economic turmoil and the “Occupy” protests, bank bashing appears to have reached new levels.

With all the uncertainty over the euro and the continuing economic gloom in Britain, it’s been a stressful year on the trading floors of the big banks in London’s financial district; apparently a little too stressful for one senior bank executive.

“Shares in Lloyd’s Banking Group have fallen by almost five percent after its chief executive announced he was taking long term sick leave. Doctors say that Antonio Hortas Osorio is suffering from fatigue due to overwork”, said the BBC last month.

Hortas Osorio was recruited to run Lloyd’s earlier this year, after British taxpayers bailed out the banking group in 2008. His may have been the most high-profile case of banking sector stress but addictions counselor Richard Kingdon, said he’s certainly not alone.

“Especially with the climate at the moment is not helping as well, you know. A lot of people are under a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. It’s not a good time to be up here at the moment, you know. The bankers are being kicked by the media so I don’t think it’s doing much for people’s esteem,” Kingdon said.

Kingdon set up a practice, called City Beacon, in the financial district 2.5 ago to treat bankers with addiction problems. He said he has seen a steady flow of clients, those who embraced a fast-paced, big spending lifestyle fueled by alcohol and cocaine.

One of Kindon's clients, a banker who didn't want to be identified by his real name, said when he was using, he’d be out doing drugs and drinking every night of the week — and then spend the weekend sleeping.

He said he has been clean for two years and has a clear-eyed view of the tumult in the City these days. He is also quick to add that there’s been much less substance abuse in recent year, but he said not everyone has the ability to handle the financial storms that are hitting them.

“Everybody’s losing money, it’s not a very happy place. There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty. I’m pretty fine with it. I don’t know how they (other bankers ) cope with it. You wouldn’t get the truth out of them anyways. They’d just tell you they were fine. The whole City’s based on fear anyway,” he said.

Those inside the bank buildings may well feel fear, but it seems many who work outside its boundaries believe it is a place where the greedy squander money: taxpayers’ money. They saw the government bail out some of the banks, then watched as bank executives were rewarded with bonuses.

Just a few weeks ago, the BBC aired a documentary called “When Bankers Were Good.” The host, satirist Ian Hislop, made special mention of the suicide of one banker back in 1856 after his bank went bust.

“You see it’s that Victorian shame again. No one is suggesting that those responsible for the current financial crisis should do the equivalent and all go and throw themselves off tall buildings in Canary Wharf. Well not all of them obviously. But as a sign of repentance it is fairly impressive. Certainly a lot more convincing that giving yourself a bonus and saying it’s time to move on,” Hislop said.

Vilified, stressed and scared, it does not sound like a good time to be a banker, but many young people are still itching to get onto those trading floors. One intern, just 21, said he loved the work.

“The worst thing I could imagine is sitting at a desk just processing or number crunching. At the moment I’m sitting there and I’m hearing news first hand and I’m seeing how markets react first hand to some huge events in the current crisis. It’s very exciting,” he said.

He said he worked hard to get the one-year work experience. Though he hears the public anger aimed at bankers, it does not deter him from planning a career in banking.

“I think there’s a lot of other people in this country and around the world that exploit the public and public opinion a lot more than bankers do, but people have chosen to publicize bankers as the public hate figure and almost scapegoat them for everything,” he said.

On the other hand, the banker who had the substance abuse problem has spent two decades in the business. He admits to feeling the sting of the public’s condemnation.

“Yeah I do feel that. It’s not very nice is it, to be in a job where nobody likes you,” George said.

He does not think the criticism is justified.

“We’re good for the economy, but it’s easy to point the finger at us, I suppose, and maybe it should be the politicians.”

In the runup to Christmas, thousands of City workers flocked to bars and restaurants, celebrating the season, and perhaps toasting their survival. But the banker said uncertainty lingers.

“2008 was hard, but then 2009 was good because of it so – and now? Same sort of thing is happening, we’re weathering the storm as we did in 2008 but the next couple of years will be good because of it. It’s tough these day,” he said.

The New Year is not likely to change much for those who work and worry on the trading floors and the executive offices of what is still is one of Britain’s most important sectors. But they're not likely to get much sympathy.

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