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Clouds gather over high-rise buildings in the financial district of Canary Wharf in east London.
Clouds gather over the financial district of Canary Wharf in east London. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Cities in depth
Special report: an outsider’s guide to the City of London
Has the UK’s financial HQ done anything meaningful to protect itself from future economic shocks? Stephen Moss goes deep into ‘enemy territory’ to find out

Stephen Moss
Stephen Moss
Tue 27 May 2014 09.37 BST
Justin is a senior banker specialising in mergers and acquisitions at a big investment bank in London’s Canary Wharf. If anyone is a “master of the universe”, it is Justin, who never does tell me how much he earns, nor even how many digits his income runs to. I’d hazard a guess at seven, maybe eight in a good year. “I’m underpaid for what I bring in to the bank,” is all he’ll say.

My initial contact with him is a Saturday-morning phone call. I am just struggling into consciousness; Justin has been up for hours, sealing a deal in Africa. He says he gets to his office at 7am every day, and is often still there at midnight. The attraction of the City of London for financiers is that it spans time zones and acts as a bridge between the US and the rest of the world – hence the 17-hour day. The other seven hours can be left to Wall Street. Even investment bankers occasionally have to sleep.

A few days after our initial phone conversation (when Justin warns me that “we see the Guardian as the enemy”), we meet at a hotel in Mayfair, where he has been having lunch with clients. Mayfair, Canary Wharf and the old City, based around the Bank of England, are the three centres of London’s financial world. Canary Wharf – modernist, faceless, towering – houses the mighty investment banks; the City – quirky, crowded, knotty, historic – has the brokers, insurers and ancillary services; Mayfair – discreet, stylish, cosmopolitan – is home to the hedge funds and private equity companies.

I am trying to understand the culture of the City; to find out whether those who work there have learned the lessons of the crash of 2007-08, and if the City can ever be made “disaster proof” – a question that has vexed politicians, financiers and the public ever since (indeed Mervyn King, the former Bank of England governor, has been warning the Hay Festival that another Fred Goodwin – the disgraced former Royal Bank of Scotland boss – will emerge unless the banking system changes).

Seeking an insight into the City’s problems is a thankless task. The terminology is baffling – I still can’t distinguish between a credit default swap (CDS) and a collateralised debt obligation (CDO); organisations, including the Bank of England that refuses to grant me an interview, thrive on opacity; and City insiders are paranoid about talking to the media. I have never met so many people who insist on anonymity and demand to see quotes, or who, like Justin (not his real name), want both. He really must see me as the enemy, but to his credit he does talk – even if later he doubts whether he should have given the interview.

“The City is the equivalent of Venice in the middle ages,” Justin tells me. “It’s a massive international melting pot that drives London and the rest of the country.” He accepts there are bad guys, especially among the hedge funds, but insists the malign aspects of the City are outweighed by its benefits to the UK economy – providing more than 10% of the Treasury’s total tax take. “To the aesthete Guardian, the average City trader looks pretty ugly because they drive swanky cars and are spivs,” he tells me, “but you should respect the mores and the facts.” I promise to try.

City of London.
The City of London is opaque to outsiders. Photograph: Martin Godwin Photograph: Martin Godwin

Justin startles me by extending his Venetian analogy. If the City is Venice, he says, then the rest of the UK is Mestre – the boring bit on the other side of the causeway that no one visits. “The banks are here [in the UK], but almost everything they do is not here,” he says. “I’ve got no clients in this country. I’ve got clients in Russia, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland. That’s very normal in the City. The City doesn’t service London and the UK; it starts off in India and goes all the way to Ireland, then up to Russia and down to Cape Town.” The City is not especially interested in the UK; it exists to serve ‘Emea’, a land known only to bankers: Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

He doubts whether I will really grasp the City. “One of the problems for you is that the big banks are so massive. If I leave my desk and walk 10 yards, I have no idea what the people sitting there do. I’m on one floor of a huge, multi-storey building, and each floor is the size of a football pitch.” It sounds loathsome. Does he enjoy it? “With a bank you have to be in a competitive frame of mind. If you’re good at it, you like it and you make money for yourself and the bank. You enjoy it and you like the buzz of money. If you’re not good at it, you’re unhappy, you don’t make any money and eventually you get shot. I really hate it if I’m not doing well. It’s like a big competitive cocktail party where you have to be personable and outgoing and persuasive, but also you’ve really got to think through the issues, understand the complex beast you’re working for, and exploit all the various things it can do. Most of these banks can do anything.” In a good way, he means.

A few days after meeting Justin, I have dinner with three members of a City-based book club – a partner in one of the big four accountancy firms, a partner in a large City law firm, and a senior analyst at an investment bank. They are thoughtful, friendly, articulate; they don’t share Justin’s hang-ups about the Guardian; they accept there are many legitimate criticisms of the City – the accountant even recognises that the domination of the big four accountancy firms is a cartel; and they don’t wash down the expensive meal (paid for by the accountant, thank goodness) with a ludicrously overpriced bottle of wine; in fact they don’t drink any alcohol. Conclusion one: the image of the drink and drug-fuelled City may be overstated; these guys like good food, lively conversation – an antidote to the ritualised alternation of home and work, says one – and thought-provoking books. They are the antithesis of spivs.

The analyst (all three have requested anonymity) rejects my assertion that the City is hermetically sealed from outsiders and almost deliberately opaque – my main conclusion by the time I meet them. With a comment that underlines the difficulty facing the newly launched Banking Standards Council (an independent body that will monitor the City’s attempts to restore its reputation), he says, “You have to be careful when you refer to ‘the City’. It doesn’t really exist. There are lots of different parts of the City that often work together, but it’s a very long way from being homogeneous. They’re all financial markets to some extent, and the City just happens to be the geography and the legislative regime that everybody operates in.

“It’s a lot less homogeneous than it used to be,” he continues. “It’s much more fragmented. There’s no trade body, there’s no single profession, the regulators have been fairly fragmented, and the client base is all different. I’ve got hedge fund clients who are often managing money on behalf of very wealthy individuals. I’ve got pension fund clients who are managing the retirement funds of shopfloor workers. The only thing that’s homogeneous about it is that very little of it is consumer facing. It’s all professional clients. There’s a vague commitment to keeping London competitive as a financial centre, because that’s in everyone’s interest, but that’s as close to esprit de corps as you get.”

Interactive graphic: the divisive toll of the economic slump
The esprit de corps of the old bowler-hatted public-school City of the 1960s and 70s has gone. The US-born lawyer tells me that when he first came to the UK in the late 1980s, the City ran entirely on personal trust and had no regulation at all. “It shocked me coming from the US, where the securities markets [markets where assets such as stocks, bonds and futures are traded] had been regulated since the 1930s.” He says deals were done with a handshake, and the lawyers drew up the contracts later. In the US it was always the other way round. That informality and sense of belonging to a club, in which the main sanction was the threat of being blackballed by your fellow members, largely disappeared with the restructuring (or rather destructuring) of the City that took place in 1986 – the so-called “big bang”, from which both London’s dramatic rise as a global financial hub and the collapse of 2007-8 directly stem.

The analyst says banks are now too big. “Most banks are a series of silos,” he says. “There’s a fixed-income [government bonds] business, there’s an equities [company shares] business, there’s an advisory business, there’s a fund management business, and they all operate with different regulators, different chinese walls, different operational requirements. In theory there’s a synergy in having them all together, but in practice they’re actually quite different institutions, and sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I think the only reason organisations get bigger is so the CEO can get paid more, because there’s a strong correlation between the size of the organisation and how much money the CEO makes.”

He says that these multi-function banks, which have emerged since big bang, are impossibly complex. “I look at our business and I think, how could one person understand a big, sophisticated international investment bank? It’s almost impossible, particularly because the financial instruments have got a lot more complicated. With some of the financial instruments, you may be able to value them accurately today, but tomorrow it could be completely different. There are so many complicated things driving the valuation that no one can really understand what goes on, and the speed of trading makes it potentially very dangerous.”

In the age of high-frequency trading, where computers are increasingly making decisions with minimal human supervision, many insiders believe that, if there is another crash, the dominoes will fall even faster than last time. In 2008, chancellor Alistair Darling had 48 hours to make sure the ATMs didn’t run out of cash. Next time the window may be a lot smaller (though optimists suggest it might be possible to program the computers to shut down if markets are in freefall). What is certain is that we are entering unknown territory, and that a future crash will take a different form from that of 2007-8.

The trading floor of the London Stock Exchange as the Big Bang reforms took effect.
The trading floor of the London Stock Exchange as the Big Bang reforms took effect in 1986. Photograph: PA Photograph: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Ima
Big bang

Justin and my dinner companions are denizens of the new City of London. This came into being on 27 October 1986, when the Thatcher government stripped away all the old rules and conventions governing financial life, in particular the brokers’ fixed commissions that had made it a closed shop, and heralded a revolution that became known as big bang. “Big bang changed everything,” says David Kynaston, author of a highly regarded four-volume history of the City. “Until then, the City was just the Square Mile, and in many ways it was a village.” The governor of the Bank of England had almost papal powers and, it was said, could exert authority by arching an eyebrow.

“It wasn’t just that the financial centre was a physically much smaller place, which gave it a greater intimacy,” says Kynaston. “Business itself was conducted in a much more personal way, partly because institutions were smaller but also because markets were face to face. They became very impersonal with screen trading. There were also infinite personal connections. You had City families where one brother went off to a merchant bank and another brother went off to a discount house and another went to a stockbroking firm and so on. There was an intricate interconnected web of personal relationships.”

The upside – personal trading that bred the culture of “my word is my bond” – had a downside: this really was a closed world of public school chaps who all knew each other, dined with each other, played golf or went shooting together, and earned a comfortable living because of the closed-shop practices that Margaret Thatcher, in the City as elsewhere, quite rightly set out to destroy. She ushered in a new, meritocratic world that is much more tolerant than the old City (where anti-semitism was endemic), but also made possible the takeover of the City by American banks in the 1980s and 90s, sweeping away most of the cautious old family-owned institutions and prepared the ground for the ultra-competitive anything-goes culture that produced the crash.

In 2000 Philip Augar, a former high-flying City broker, wrote a book called The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, which chronicled the end of the old City. Even then, long before the great reckoning of 2007-8, he had an inkling of what was in store. “Ownership brings control and it is the City’s lack of control over its own destiny that creates concern,” he wrote. “There are good reasons to believe that ownership matters and that the consequences will appear in due course.”

When I meet Augar, he tells me that after a 20-year career in the City, which straddled big bang, he started to worry about what he saw going on around him. “During the 90s I started to get very unhappy about what was happening in the City, and one reason I left NatWest [where he was head of global equities and bonds] was that it was running a full-blooded trading, market-making business, and I felt that was risky. I didn’t like the model and moved to Schroders [which then had an investment bank] because it was a different kind of firm – family dominated, been around a long time – and had a number of very happy years there. But I was getting less enamoured about what was going on in the City – the culture, the business model, how level we were with people – and I had the idea that I would write about it.” The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, in some respects a lament for what had been lost, was the result.

He says the book shocked people in the City. “At the time, the British-owned investment banks had blown up to the extent that they had sold themselves to foreign firms,” he says. “The view at the time was, ‘Hey, this is globalisation, that’s what happens, and isn’t it great.’ But I took the view that it wasn’t just about globalisation. There had been a lot of mismanagement in the City, and we needed to shine a light on that, and that’s what the book tried to do. I also felt that no good would come of this. I felt that not having an indigenous investment banking industry would mean that the City would lose business. That bit was wrong. The bit that was right was that we would import the hard-charging American investment banking culture, which means conflict of interest, making money at the expense of everything and high leverage, by which I mean you borrow a huge amount of money to run your business.”

The Canary Wharf financial district (front) and the old City of London emerge from the fog.
Canary Wharf (front) and the old City of London emerge from the fog. Photograph: Reuters/
Metropolitan Police/MPS Helicopters Photograph: HANDOUT/Reuters
Augar’s follow-up book, published just before the crash, was The Greed Merchants: How the Investment Banks Played the Free Market Game, which exposed the conflicts of interest at the heart of investment banks. “I tried to explain how, by being able to act for the buyer and the seller in a deal, investment banks had an edge that gave them an advantage over every other market user. I saw that the culture was wrong and the business model was wrong, and that it was going to blow up somehow.”

He says that if he goes into investment banks or broking firms now, he realises he couldn’t work in such an environment any more. “I feel uncomfortable being in the City or Canary Wharf,” he says, “and overhearing conversations in coffee shops and wine bars.” He finds “the certainty, the self-confidence, the reluctance to open up to alternative views” depressing. “The view that you get is that there is just one way and ours is the right way. That view has started to soften around the edges, but hardcore City man and woman is still a very competitive alpha male/female focused on personal goals and some corporate goals. They still believe in the unfettered market economy, and I don’t. I believe in the managed market, and that fundamental difference is why I had to stop.”

I wonder, given this philosophical divide from the culture of the City, how Augar coped in the two decades he spent at its heart. “The business model that was being run in the City then was fairly moderate,” he says. “The conflicts of interest, the high leverage, the short-termism, those things weren’t prevalent, and I felt for many years we were doing a good job for our customers, our shareholders and our staff and playing a responsible role in the economy at large. That started to change in the early 90s, and that was when I started to feel uneasy. I used to visit institutional shareholders with the then chief executive of NatWest, the late Derek Wanless, and I could see the pressure that they were putting him under. It felt wrong. It was all about results now, now, now, and if you fail to deliver we’re going to shoot you, and eventually they did.”

He locates the start of the City’s cultural transformation in the mid-90s. “It was the time when Morgan Stanley made a bid for SG Warburg [in 1994]. That started to tell you that the game was really beginning to change. The world that I’d grown up in and was comfortable in was becoming something different.” Big bang had triggered an even bigger bang. “The real watershed occurred in 1995,” says Augar. “It was quite soon after the Barings debacle. Warburgs was forced into a merger, Kleinworts followed suit, Smith New Court sold themselves to Merrill Lynch. That opened the gates to the very highly leveraged, dangerous, risky model of trading, and after that everyone really went for it big time, all of which led to the banking crisis of 2007.” Banks simply had too little capital to support the level of bad debts on their books, and without government bailouts many would have gone to the wall in 2007-8. Without a taxpayer-funded rescue, the bankers’ hubris would inevitably have been followed by nemesis.

There’s a great phrase that I hear again and again – “having your skin in the game”. The old family-owned investment banks and stockbroking partnerships were dealing with their own money. The new conglomerates were not. The ecology of the old City made it much more small-scale and cautious. The post-big bang, post-consolidation City was expansionist and risk-taking, because the risks were being taken with someone else’s money. Big bang ended the old nepotism, but introduced a form of financial despotism, when mega-banks – banks that in the end proved too be too big to fail – held the rest of society of ransom.

In banking, small can be beautiful, but whether that old ecology can ever be recreated is highly doubtful. The global financial system is simply too interconnected. Putting “moral hazard” – the doctrine that says that if a bank makes a mistake, it pays for it – back into the system would be the single greatest step that could be taken in making the City more stable, but the Bank of England admits that we are still very far from achieving this. Banks are still too big to fail, and if there was another crash tomorrow the government would again have to step in to save the system from collapse. These days, the only skin in the game is the taxpayers’.

Video analysis by Phillip Inman: the financial crisis, five years on Guardian
Evading responsibility

Meeting Kynaston and Augar was crucial to my understanding that, in a way, we were all responsible for the crash. We – the public, journalists, politicians – let it happen because we didn’t challenge the City, didn’t try to understand it. New Labour thought it had discovered a magic money-tree and gave up on regulation; journalists on the whole failed to read the runes or question the new macho expansionist, masters-of-the-universe culture; the public liked the easy credit and soaring house prices and was too lazy to examine what was happening in the City; and what naysayers and doom-mongers there were tended to be marginalised.

Much of this remains true even today. Who understands the implications of George Osborne’s great pensions reform, and who is bothering to find out what it means? Is the alleged collusion in foreign exchange trading getting the play it deserves? Do we understand the recent shake-up of personnel at the Bank of England, which saw the installation of a new head of financial stability?

The Financial Conduct Authority has been much in the news because of the bungled announcement of an investigation into pensions and other investments, but do you really understand where they fit into the complicated web of financial supervision that has been constructed in the wake of the crash? It’s complicated, technical and needs a long-term commitment to telling the story. Most of the time we can’t be bothered, even though the way the City behaves and regulates itself affects the lives of every one of us.

“The City has always managed to evade its responsibilities because people find finance incomprehensible and boring,” says Kynaston, “and the City itself didn’t do much to change that. In the 1870s, following the scandals that prompted Trollope to write The Way We Live Now, the Royal Commission on the Stock Exchange recommended that a viewing gallery be erected so that people could go and see what was happening in this place. The commission reported in 1878; the viewing gallery was erected 75 years later, in 1953.”

I approached the present-day stock exchange – now just a central supervisory office next to St Paul’s Cathedral, as trading is done remotely from banks’ trading floors – for an interview and to observe the official start of trading at 8am (a visiting dignitary is sometimes allowed to sound the bell that declares trading open). The press office team were very friendly and sent me a very nice video of the Dominican ambassador opening trading in June last year, but I am still waiting for the interview. I was told I would receive a call to set up a visit and an interview with one of the executives. Three weeks later, I’m still waiting. This remains a world fundamentally opposed to viewing galleries.

A group of young activists inspired by the Occupy movement now do tours of the Square Mile, Canary Wharf and Mayfair. I joined the Mayfair tour one Sunday afternoon, and for two and a half hours we strolled around looking at the offices of all the hedge funds and investment companies in the area. What was most striking was that not a single one had a nameplate on the elegant building that housed them. They didn’t want anyone to know they were there. There were about 20 people on the tour, which has to be booked online, and I got talking to a woman in her 20s. It’s ridiculous, she told me, that finance isn’t an integral part of the curriculum – both personal finance and the big-picture stuff about the City. She is of course right. How are we supposed to make decisions about our own finances – should I cash in my pension pot and buy that Lamborghini? – or even try to understand the City without a basic grounding?

The Square Mile is run by the City of London Corporation, which traces its lineage back almost 1,000 years and prides itself on being like no other local authority. The Occupy activists see them as secretive and insular, as part of the problem. I found them efficient and eager to help, though I accept Occupy’s point that they lack the democratic accountability of an ordinary local authority. The electorate is small – the 9,000 residents of the City and senior figures in the businesses that operate there; the electoral structure of wards, councillors, aldermen, sheriffs and, at the top, the lord mayor labyrinthine. The Occupy activists have a good deal of fun with the “Remembrancer”, a legal official from the corporation who represents the City’s interests in the House of Commons and gets to sit behind the speaker’s chair – a prime example, according to Occupy, of the overly close embrace of politics and big business.

Canary Wharf, a private estate with a private security force, is even more of a closed world. It feels as if it could be anywhere in the world – Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai. Both the old City and the new are self-governing islands of wealth: not only not part of the UK but barely part of London. The fact that the Corporation of London has its own 800-strong police force, separate from the Met, emphasises that this is a world entire unto itself. The Square Mile grew up within London’s old Roman wall, and that wall has become symbolic of its otherness and defensiveness. Most City buildings may be made of glass these days, but they are still far from transparent.

The City of London.
The City of London is a world unto itself. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian Photograph: Martin Godwin
Macho culture

The Dutch writer Joris Luyendijk spent two years from 2011 to 2013 writing a blog for the Guardian about the City of London, and next spring will publish a book encapsulating his thoughts about this strange, secretive, self-contained world. The fact that he is an anthropologist by background has helped him delineate its tribes and rituals, and when we meet – in his favourite Turkish restaurant in north London – he tells me he has reached a counterintuitive conclusion about the inhabitants of the City. They are not masters of the universe, he insists; they are victims – clocking up 100 hours a week, working in an ultra-competitive environment, getting kicked out with just a few minutes to toss their possessions into a cardboard box if they can’t hack it.

“How they survive is by self-delusion,” he argues. “They completely deny and ignore their own vulnerability.” The City, he points out, is full of psychotherapists giving help to troubled financiers. “The bankers are the best-paid victims of a system that turns all of us into victims. The whole culture of always squeezing more growth and wealth out of something makes for a very totalitarian system where everybody’s constantly after success.” Luyendijk sees Canary Wharf as the empty heart of City life – towering offices, glitzy shops and a setting that (except for the dreary London weather) could be anywhere in the world. “It’s the crassest illustration of the human condition in the 21st century,” he says.

He calls the working life of people in the City “dysfunctional” and says there is no evidence it has changed since the crash. “There is ripping off, where you lie to your clients. There is market rigging, where you lie to the central administration of Libor or forex. Then there is risking, where you lie to yourself about the risks you are taking or lie to your superior and then the regulator. And then there’s rogue trading, where somebody hides their losses for a long time.” Some banks are more predatory than others, but the prevailing culture remains short-termist. “As long as you can be out of the door in five minutes,” he says, “your horizon is five minutes.” A Dutchman like Luyendijk is horrified by such a culture. Dutch society is founded on social-democrat and Christian-democrat principles – long-term relationships based on trust rather than control – whereas the City now runs on anglo-American neoliberal rules of zero job security and control rather than trust. “The City of London is a little pocket of Hobbesian jungle,” he says, “and I don’t think that’s tenable in the long run.”

Luyendijk’s critique is powerful, though it is rejected by most of those who work in the City. They accept the high-risk, high-reward structure, and say no one is forcing them to work there. But burn-out rates are undoubtedly high. In quitting after 20 years, Augar is by no means untypical. This is a world of ambitious young people on the make, and by the age of 50, especially on trading floors, you are ancient in City terms.

Savvas Savouri, who has worked in the City for more than 20 years and is now a partner in a hedge fund that manages assets worth £2.5bn, says the value placed on youth in the City is misguided. He also argues that the fact that many of the people entering the City have no financial qualifications – he speaks as someone who has an economics PhD and was an economics lecturer in the 1980s – is insane.

“The first thing you should ask anybody in this industry – very carefully, because they can get rubbed up the wrong way – is, ‘Do you mind giving me your background?’ Their instinct is to tell you where they’ve worked, but you say, ‘No, no, your education.’ You’ll be frightened by what you’ll hear. You’ll have professionals that have degrees in the humanities and the arts, and most recently engineers and physicists. I’m not suggesting that those aren’t laudable subjects, but they don’t have an application in this industry. It’s like asking someone who’s trained as a mechanic to become a surgeon.”

In the course of a long conversation, in which he dismisses the veneration of the pre-big bang City as “nostalgic crap”, he keeps returning to this theme that the standard of people entering to the City has to be improved. “We are in the same state of development as medicine was before it was formalised,and you had to go and do a medical degree. In the old days, your dentist or your barber or your butcher was also your surgeon. We’re still in that in finance, and that’s why 2007-8 happened. Rather than regulate bonuses, regulate and manage the human capital that comes into it.”

The City of London
The City of London. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian Photograph: Martin Godwin
Russell Taylor has spent the past 25 years chronicling the ups and downs of City life through his cartoon character Alex, which started in 1987 in the London Daily News, migrated to the Independent when the LDN closed and currently trades in the Telegraph. He says he and cartoonist Charles Peattie concocted an archetypal monstrous, money-obsessed yuppie from their imaginations, and then, as they got to know the City better. were shocked to discover he really existed. “I remember once talking to someone in the City about Alex and saying, ‘Well, he’s just a prat, isn’t he?’, and he said, ‘But he’s my hero, my role model.’” Taylor’s view is that many of those who went into the City in the 70s and 80s drifted into the City, but that the new intake are totally committed. “The Alex generation [of the 1980s and 90s] has cleared the way for them morally by saying it’s OK to be shallow. It’s OK just to want money. You don’t have to pretend that you want to save the world or write a protest song.”

Many observers believe that getting more women into the City, especially at board level, might help to curb the macho culture. There are a healthy percentage of women in law and human resources, but very few in trading or in the upper echelons of banking management. The analyst I met at dinner told me he had recently attended a meeting of almost 50 executives at his bank, only one of which was female – and even she had just returned from maternity leave. This remains a man’s world, especially at the sharp end.

At a breakfast discussion of women in the London economy at the office of the Centre for London thinktank, there is general agreement that anti-social hours and the culture of presenteeism in the City are barriers to women. There is a further problem, Diane Perrons, professor of gender studies at the London School of Economics, tells me after the discussion. “Within an organisation it’s often very unclear what the progression structures are. Many of the mechanisms for promotion or pay increases are very opaque. What tends to happen is that people make judgements about other people’s qualities in terms of leadership, dynamism, competitiveness, drive and so on, and they tend to be based on what one can think of as a kind of reciprocal recognition among peers. Other kinds of skills that may be important, more competitive, collaborative skills, are not really appreciated.” They are the very skills, she says, that women are likely to have, but all too often they are ignored by male executives who tend to promote in their own image.

Perrons describes research she did at a bank that said it wanted to change its working practices to encourage women, but found it very hard to do so. “People at the lower levels of the organisation took advantage of leave schemes,” she says, “but people higher up did not because of what were seen to be the negative effects of how they would be understood by the organisation.” She says she had found no evidence that women were breaking into trading and other traditional male areas.

Women do have one significant champion in the City – the Lord mayor, Fiona Woolf, only the second woman in more than 900 years to occupy that position. I meet her at the Mansion House, the lord mayor’s residence close to the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England in the heart of the old City. Woolf is an energy lawyer, an area of relative female strength, but she recognises there are other areas where women are finding it hard to break in. “There are curious pockets where women are absent, like in asset management,” she says. “Even the law still has a long way to go. It has a long-hours culture, and measures success by the number of hours charged rather than the quality and efficiency of the output.”

“We want a much more diverse working culture, and we haven’t got there yet,” admits the accountant with whom I have dinner. “Personally, I think we should have quotas, and we should start at every promotion stage and fill them half male and half female. We have 50% male and 50% female at graduate level, but by the time you get up to senior management level we’re 70:30. That’s because we don’t try to create the working environment that accommodates being a working mother.”

But getting more women in the City is unlikely to be a panacea. “The chief financial officer of Lehman Brothers was a woman,” the lawyer points out drily. The analyst is also sceptical that more women in the City would have averted the crash, arguing that the problem is not too few women at the top, but too many traders. “Never let a trader run a bank,” he says emphatically. Traders are instinctive gamblers, and, as the crash showed, when banks place huge bets the most likely losers are the rest of us.

Bank bailouts compared. Click this link for a larger image.
Bank bailouts compared. Click for a larger image. Graphic: Paul Scruton Photograph: Paul Scruton
After the crash

Has anything really changed since the crash of 2007-8? That’s the trillion-dollar question. Have lessons been learned in the City? Can the culture truly be said to have changed? Can we trust the new system of regulation? Some insiders argue that there are encouraging signs of a cultural shift, but plenty of others are sceptical. My most worrying encounter is with a derivatives trader who trades interest rate futures. He insists behaviour is as bad as ever, supervision as lax and, with increasingly high-frequency trading, the market even more unstable than it was in 2007-8.

“There is no morality in the City,” he tells me. “There is no justice, no law, it’s ruled by Billy the Quid, it’s a free-for-all. There are fewer colourful bankers hanging out in chatrooms calling themselves ‘the Cartel’ these days. Now it’s mathematicians and computer scientists programming algorithms from the Czech Republic. The Financial Conduct Authority no longer have any control over these foreign-based hedge funds.”

The trader says misbehaviour is endemic. “If you’re in an environment where misbehaviour is taking place, it’s accepted. For example, with Libor if you were there you would have to have done it. If you didn’t do it, they [your employer] would have said ‘What’s your fucking problem? Out.’ You’d have been fired. There is an ongoing manipulation of interest rate futures on a scale much larger than Libor. We all know it’s going on, we see it every day, we’ve reported it and it’s been brushed under the carpet.” He claims algorithms and trading from overseas make rigging easier, the regulators are weak, and the exchanges are primarily interested in the volume of trading. The picture he paints is nightmarish.

Luyendijk is convinced that the steps taken so far in terms of regulation and reining in bonuses are a charade. He argues that both banking and politics are run by mutually supportive cartels, and that the status quo is inherently unstable. I ask him for his prescription. He replies with a counter-question. “Can you have global finance without global government? And if you don’t want global government, what do you do about global finance?” He says the banks are so large and powerful that they have co-opted politicians and academics, and despite the shock to the system in 2007-8 have now reverted to global business as usual.

“The way the economics profession have washed their hands of all this is quite astonishing,” he says. “On the global issue I don’t have a solution. I really don’t know whether you can have global finance without global government, and I don’t want global government. But various steps [worth taking] would be that credit rating agencies should not be paid by the banks they rate, and accountancy firms should not make lots of money through consultancy to banks whose books they audit. It’s deeply incestuous.”

Savouri says the conflicts and overlaps will get worse, as accountancy and legal firms, eyeing the investment banks’ fat fees in merger deals, start to develop banking arms of their own. He may not be nostalgic for the ordered pre-big bang City, but he doesn’t seem too enamoured of the chaotic of the one that has emerged since, though he does say that, with so much misinformation and mismanagement, a hedge fund which knows what it’s doing and can sort through the rubbish can find that edge which everyone in the City is pursuing.

Luyendijk rejects the whole system – a tempting, if impractical, position. Lobby group CityUK – another organisation that was reluctant to grant me an interview – likes to point out that financial services account for 8% of UK GDP and almost 12% of tax revenues. It also claims almost 2 million people work in finance and associated professional services, though that figure is largely meaningless as it will include large numbers of lowly paid workers in high street banks – not really part of the City by any proper definition. Justin sees high street banks as corner-shop operations compared with the investment banking titans. A more relevant figure might be that the old City and Canary Wharf each has around 45,000 fully fledged bankers. But even allowing for CityUK’s inflation of the real figures, this is not a sector that can be dismantled without taking the UK economy down with it. Reform and some degree of disaster-proofing seem the only answer.

My three dinner companions are, however, doubtful whether that can be achieved. “You always solve the problems that you don’t have any more when you try to do these things,” says the lawyer. “We’re just bolting the stable after the horse has gone,” says the analyst. “Greater regulation won’t future-proof the industry. It just pushes up the cost of doing business.” So what should have happened, I ask him? “We should have sent more people to jail. Not enough senior people were put to the sword.” “And more banks should have been allowed to go bust,” chimes in the accountant. “I’d have let them all go, personally.”

Andrew Hilton, the affable director of the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation, takes a similar line, arguing that moral hazard is the only way to ensure the operation of a free market. Hilton says the answer is to have less regulation rather than more, and to let the failures go to the wall. “Big banks like regulation,” he explains. “Regulation is a fixed cost, so the bigger you are, the more clout you have to amortise [spread] it over. It favours the big over the small, and is another row of bricks in the wall that keeps competition out. You may complain like hell about it, but in the end you like it because it preserves your oligopolistic position. There isn’t a single regulator in the world who has ever advanced his or her career by letting a bank go broke, so the answer to every problem for a regulator is a regulation, like a carpenter and a nail. So you have an ineluctable tendency for regulators to regulate more and more, and for banks to get bigger and bigger. We’re in a cul de sac, and heading for gridlock in the financial system.”

Hilton welcomes the growth of hedge funds and what he calls the “shadow banking” sector because the institutions are smaller, more flexible, less closely regulated and can be allowed to go under. “They may be very loathsome people,” he says, “and I’d want to count my fingers after I’d shaken hands with some of them, but the model is good because these guys have their own money at risk and they’re not too big too fail.” Hilton hopes this shadow banking sector will grow – though not so much that the institutions in it start to pose their own systemic risk – and also believes peer-to-peer lending will expand, with internet marketplaces matching entrepreneurs and private investors.

Everyone, except Justin the investment banker who blames two uppity Scottish banks, recognises that, in the years leading up to 2007-8, thinking in the City was suicidally short-termist. “There was so much emphasis on what you delivered this year,” says one City insider. “I can remember times when bosses in banks and hedge funds would turn around and say, ‘You’re just not performing well enough this year. If you’re not performing by the end of the year, you’re fired.’ Some guy would come through and make a load of money and he’d be hailed as the new star trader, but it was just that he was on the right side of whatever wave was striking the markets that year. I’ve seen a number of people do really well one year and then do terribly the next year, but because of the asymmetric nature of the bonuses you might get a million euros one year and nothing the next, but you’ve still got 500,000 euros a year.”

James Barty, strategy director at the British Bankers’ Association, insists the City is now being more rational about remuneration. “Salaries have gone up, and bonuses [the analyst at dinner insisted on calling them ‘variable pay’] have been deferred.” You can take some of the bonus, but the rest is kept back in case you perform poorly in subsequent years. If you “blow up”, to use the argot of the City, your anticipated bonus will not be paid, or it will be much reduced. In theory, it reduces risk-taking, makes traders take a more long-term view, and is also a way of ensuring loyalty among staff.

“It changes behaviour,” says Barty. “If you say, ‘I got a really good bonus last year, but I’m either going to get zero or possibly get fired this year if I don’t make enough money,’ you’re incentivised to roll the dice because you’ll think, ‘If I lose €5m I’ll get fired and if I lose €10m I’ll get fired.’ But if you say to somebody, ‘OK, you made €20m last year, you’re down €5m this year, we’re going to claw back a little bit of your bonus but if you go to down €20m we’re going to claw back everything,’ it changes people’s behaviour, and that’s a very healthy thing to happen.”

A worker carries a box as she walks away from the Canary Wharf office of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008, when the 158-year-old Wall Street firm sought bankruptcy protection.
A worker walks away from the Canary Wharf office of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008 when the 158-year-old Wall Street firm sought bankruptcy protection. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters Photograph: Andrew Winning / Reuters/REUTERS
Regulatory failures

The other key contributor to the crash was the failure of the new system of regulation set up by the Labour government. “The regulators didn’t do their job properly,” says one former hedge fund manager. “The Bank of England got away with murder, Mervyn King [the then governor] in particular. There is some evidence that the Bank of England saw some of the problems coming, but if it saw some of the problems coming why did it not say to RBS when it was going to buy ABN Amro [the Dutch bank which helped bring RBS down], ‘You are our biggest bank, we’re worried about the stability of the financial system, we cannot allow you to take an acquisition like this, which is going to leverage you up so much that you will put the UK economy at risk’?

“A whole bunch of us in the City in 2007 were saying, ‘Why is RBS still trying to buy ABN Amro?’ because everyone knew that ABN Amro was probably the worst and most leveraged bank in Europe, with lots of horrible stuff on its balance sheet. RBS should either not have been allowed to buy it, or the regulators should have insisted they raise equity to buy it. They were allowed to fund the acquisition with debt, which is why RBS had so little equity to absorb the losses. That should never have been allowed to happen.”

The Financial Services Authority carried the can for the regulatory failures, and has now been replaced by two regulators (which are costing £128m a year more to run than the FSA, according to recent figures). The Prudential Regulation Authority, which operates under the Bank of England’s umbrella, is responsible for the financial health of the banks, building societies, insurers and investment companies. The Financial Conduct Authority concentrates on the way they behave and how they treat their customers.

Critics of the quality of regulators say they have difficulty dealing on equal terms with highly paid City professionals. There is also a risk that staff, who tend to earn a lot less than the people they are supposed to be regulating, will be poached, especially at a time when in-house compliance officers are multiplying. This need to show they can compete on level terms may be why the FCA’s office in Canary Wharf is so imposing. The reception area is vast, and the scanners and TVs make it feel like an airport. The reception staff are efficient and keep calling me by my first name. There is a sense that the new organisation is trying very hard.

I am here to meet Clive Adamson, the FCA’s director of supervision. Like many at the FCA, he used to work at the FSA, but that was then. This is year zero in bank regulation terms – a fresh beginning. “A real breakdown in trust has occurred,” he says, “and we have to restore that trust.” He accepts the regulators were, as the cliche has it, ‘”asleep at the wheel”. “There was so much froth in the financial system that we didn’t spot where the froth was leading too. Financial engineering, over-leverage, a lack of capital in the system, no real liquidity, banks taking on too much risk. While everything looked good, it looked good, and nobody really spotted the elephant in the room. In the UK it was unclear who was really responsible [for the well-being of the system], the central bank or the regulator, and because the regulator was too over-stretched and had too broad a remit, it was insufficiently focused on those issues.”

Can we now be confident the regulator is awake at the wheel and knows an elephant when it lumbers into the boardroom? “There have been several key changes,” says Adamson. “The regulator has been split into two. The PRA looks at individual firms’ financial robustness and works out if they fail, how would they fail? The Bank of England’s financial policy committee looks at the system as a whole. And the FCA has a very clear remit about consumer protection, market integrity and competition, which is all about making markets work well for the benefit of consumers. By splitting it in that way, we can be much more focused.

“The other key thing that’s changed is that we now put the interests of the consumer at the heart of what we do. Historically, we focused more on firms, but now we are focused on the consumer. Thirdly, we’ve changed culturally. We are much more forward-looking and pre-emptive now, and want to act quicker when we see things. We don’t always want to be fighting the last battle. Conduct regulation tends to be very reactive, dealing with things when they’ve happened and trying to clear the mess up, as opposed to asking what the next mess is going to be and trying to stop it before it happens. That in essence is what we are now trying to do, and it’s very difficult.”

The light-touch regulation beloved of the Blair-Brown governments has now been abandoned, but Andrew Hilton at the CSFI will be pleased to hear that Adamson is wary of going too far. “It’s a real issue how to get the balance right,” he admits, “because what we don’t want to do is to be so intrusive that we stop markets developing. That’s partly why we have a competition objective – to make markets work better.” He says the stability of the financial system can never be guaranteed. “You can’t disaster-proof. What we can do is reduce the risk of something going wrong. We can’t eliminate the risk. And if we did try to eliminate the risk with ever tougher regulation, by for example prudentially demanding more and more capital and from a conduct perspective being much more prescriptive on products, the costs would be too high.”

I ask Adamson whether he believes the culture in the City has changed since the crash. “I think it’s changing,” he says after a moment’s hesitation. “That’s the biggest issue of all – to change both the corporate culture and individual attitudes. In our experience when bad things have happened, whether it’s financial problems or big conduct issues like PPI [payment protection insurance], in virtually all cases there’s an aspect of the culture in the firm that’s wrong. Either the incentive system is wrong, or the people at the top didn’t know what was happening. So we think very strongly that in order for less bad things to happen in the future, the culture and behaviour in the firms have to support doing the right thing, and that’s difficult to change.”

Workers at the Canary Wharf business district.
Workers in the Canary Wharf business district. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters Photograph: EDDIE KEOGH/REUTERS
Towards an ethical City

In 2010, the lobby group CityUK brought together 21 young professionals from banking, asset management, accountancy, insurance and the law to write a manifesto for the future of the City. Called Next Generation Vision, its conclusions were eminently sensible. Its mantra was that financial services should be “a part of society, not apart from society” – Venice needed to engage with Mestre.

The document produced by the 21 called for “a standardised, formalised moral code to encompass the industry as a whole”; “remuneration based on the long-term value created”; greater transparency and accountability in an effort to regain trust; and “an independently audited annual report assessing the wide-ranging aspects of the contribution of our industry to society”. It also called for industry to “work with the appropriate education experts and bodies to establish an enhanced programme of lifelong financial education and assistance, embedded into our school curriculum and beyond”. All laudable aims that, if acted on, could transform the relationship of the City and wider society, which at the moment, if it can be said to exist at all, is a combustible mixture of incomprehension, envy and loathing.

I have breakfast with Alan Mak, a 30-year-old corporate lawyer turned private investor who was one of the co-authors of the Next Generation Vision, and ask him why he got involved. “It’s about generation Y, the next generation of leaders in the City, setting out a vision for what they think it should be like in 10 to 15 years,” he tells me. “It’s not a minute blueprint of everything that should happen; it’s more a vision of how things should be: an ethical marketplace that is tied to society; a sector that should be successful but should also help businesses, communities and families.”

Mak’s background has shaped his proselytising mission. His parents were Hong Kong Chinese who came to the UK in the 1960s, and he grew up in Yorkshire. They were poor but very ambitious for their son, who studied law at Cambridge and joined a big City law firm, which nominated him for the Next Generation Vision project. He is also a Christian, and the combination of his religion and the deprivation he experienced as a child gives him a strong moralising mission. “The City has to be successful – it employs hundreds of thousands of people, provides the finance for hundreds of thousands of businesses, and keeps food on the table for hundreds of thousands of families – but those who are successful in it have a duty to use that success to benefit others. There was a sense in the crash that certain parts of the sector had become detached from wider society.” He also emphasises that the City is unique among industries in that it is systemic. It has the power to take every other business down with it, so unethical activity in the City poses society-wide dangers.

In a lecture at St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the publication of his biography of the great financier Siegmund Warburg in 2010, the historian Niall Ferguson spelt out the need for an ethical reawakening in the City. “The real lesson of history is that regulation alone is not the key to financial stability,” he said. “Indeed, over-complicated regulation can be the disease it purports to cure, by encouraging a culture of box-ticking ‘compliance’ rather than individual moral judgment … What is more important is to instil in financial professionals the kind of ethical framework that was the basis of Siegmund Warburg’s life and work. ‘Success from the financial and from the prestige point of view is not enough,’ Warburg told his fellow directors in 1959. ‘What matters even more is constructive achievement and adherence to high moral and aesthetic standards in the way in which we do our work.’” Warburg, the king of the old City, died in 1982, just as the new anything-goes culture was about to destroy it.

Take a short walk down Cheapside from the Bank of England and you come to St Paul’s Cathedral. In the City, God and mammon are intimately connected. On virtually every street corner, there’s a gorgeous church designed by Christopher Wren to fill the gaps after the great fire of 1666, which destroyed the medieval city. Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein once claimed he and his fellow bankers were “doing God’s work”, and, judging by the way banks and churches sit cheek by jowl, the City seems to take the same view.

St Paul’s has its own chinese wall, with contentious political and economic issues dealt with by the St Paul’s Institute, which, according to its website, exists “to engage the financial world with questions of morality and ethics”. Until 2011 it was run by Canon Giles Fraser (now a parish priest in south London and a Guardian columnist), but he resigned in October of that year because he disagreed with the cathedral’s decision to evict the Occupy protesters camped all round the great church. “I would have wanted to negotiate down the size of the camp and to have appealed to people to help us keep the cathedral going,” Fraser said at the time, “and if that meant that I was thereby granting them some legal right to stay then that is the position that I would have to wear.”

Occupy London demonstrators outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011.
Occupy London demonstrators outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Since Fraser’s resignation, the institute has been overseen by Peter Selby, the former bishop of Worcester and author of Grace and Mortgage: The Language of Faith and the Debt of the World, though a new full-time director will be appointed later this year. Selby is a thoughtful, articulate 72-year-old with a wonderfully sonorous episcopal voice, and all through our conversation at the cathedral, I feel he wants to be more radical in his prescriptions for remaking the City than the institute’s rules of engagement allow him to be.

Selby tells me the institute surveyed financial professionals in the City, and that he was struck by the apparently contradictory findings the survey threw up. “It goes to the heart of many of the questions you are raising,” he says. “Two thirds of the people that were surveyed said financial-sector professionals were overpaid, and two thirds of them also said they were in it for the money. If you draw a Venn diagram, you can see that there are a significant number of people who are in it for the money and feel the profession is overpaid, which I think is the kind of conscientious difficulty that the church ought to be sticking a crowbar into and prising open.” The conflicted nature of the respondents to the survey may be another aspect of the self-delusion that Luyendijk pinpoints as a feature of City life.

The bishop highlights another feature of the survey. “More than half of them said the big bang had contributed to a decline in ethical standards. Given the almost universal acceptance at the time of the necessity of deregulation, that’s also an intriguing area in which we need to insert ourselves. How can a huge community of people say that the work [they do] is absolutely necessary and wrong?” So what needs to change? “The prescriptions are very hotly debated,” says Selby, “and most of them in my view don’t go to the heart of the matter. The real question is how far the City is connected with and deeply committed to the real economy of people’s actual work. The difference between the virtual and the real economy is another crucial area in which we need to work. The virtual economy is entirely about numbers and money, and that’s what led us to the abyss.”

I ask him how Jesus would have dealt with the City. I don’t get a direct response to this question, but there’s not much doubt Selby would want to take a hard line with the moneylenders. “We have to say to certain people, ‘What you just said doesn’t tally with what you just did. And this is not being said to you because we want to condemn you personally. It’s the system that is leading you into these contradictions.’”

A few days before coming to St Paul’s, I had met a leading figure from a Christian charity who recalled having lunch with a banker friend high up in the executive dining room of a City office. “We are buying that company tomorrow,” the banker had told him, pointing to a building far below, “and most of the staff will have to be sacked.” “That’s terrible,” the man from the charity said to his friend. “Why are you doing that?” “It’s the will of the bank,” said the banker. The charity man told me he had tried to unpick what that phrase meant, and had found it impossible to discover who had made the decision. The bank had become an impersonal entity, almost literally with a will of its own. The story and the phrase had stayed with me, and I put it to Selby that this was crucial to the dehumanised way in which the City tended to operate.

He cites Vince Cable’s recent criticism of the bankers for saying they feel they have to earn multimillion-pound salaries because all their peers in other banks do – a feeble reason, Selby (and indeed Cable) thinks. Selby’s colleague, Canon Mark Oakley, who has overall responsibility for the institute and has joined our meeting, makes a wider point: “That picture you describe says so much about the anger of a lot of people. Money represents a huge source of power that is seemingly out of democratic control, and that gets us nervous. But if something is out of democratic control in a democracy, it’s a political problem.” “It’s worse than that,” adds Selby. “It’s not only out of control. It’s in control of the things it should be being controlled by.”

Oakley is right: only the politicians can really get to grips with the City and decide what part it should play in our national life. But do they have the will to do so? The Vickers and Tyrie commissions, set up in the wake of the crash to look at both the way banks operated and the culture within them, have made a series of sensible suggestions – dividing investment banking from retail banking; making bank executives personally responsible for scandals such as Libor; deferring bonuses; protecting whistleblowers – but there has no fundamental questioning of the role of the City in our lives, and we are now more or less back to business as usual. As David Kynaston points out, the City scandals of the 1870s produced a royal commission; why wasn’t there one this time?

Many of the people who work there deny it, but the City does feel like a separate, self-contained world, protecting its age-old rights, wary of intruders. The Occupy activists told me that, when I visited the Mansion House to meet the lord mayor, I should look at the stained-glass window in the dining room where the chancellor makes his annual speech. It shows Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, being slain by the then lord mayor, William Walworth. One doesn’t necessarily want to take sides in that 600-year-old battle between property and privilege, but I did wonder if replacing it might be one symbolic way for the City to mark a fresh beginning in its relationship with the peasants who exist outside its gilded world.

Stephen Moss on why Russians are obsessed with London

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