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Page last updated at 12:26 GMT, Wednesday, 17 September 2008 13:26 UK

Should we feel sorry for bankers?

Banker hands over face

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

With thousands of bankers suddenly out of work after the Lehman Brothers crash, will they land on their feet and quickly find work, or should we feel a pang of sympathy for them?

There are many people who do not take a sympathetic view towards investment bankers.

From American fiction we get the greedy banker of the film Wall Street and the hubristic banker of Tom Wolfe's novel Bonfire of the Vanities.

Indeed the latter's Sherman McCoy has provided easy newspaper headlines in recent days.

In boom times they can find a new job or go to a hedge fund - a lot of people are going to have to quit banking
Allister Heath, editor, City AM

"Bonfire of the vanities as Wall Street and the City get their comeuppance," says one newspaper. Another shouts: "Downfall of the masters of the universe."

One can almost sense a degree of schadenfreude for those seeing an Icarus-like fall of epic proportions. If you believe one extreme view, bankers are greedy people who have taken unacceptable risks and are now suffering the consequences.

But as besuited men and women, laden with cardboard boxes, stream mournfully out of the offices of Lehman Brothers, and perhaps other giants soon, is it time to feel sorry for bankers? Or is it acceptable for people to revel in their downfall?

"I don't share this view," Allister Heath, editor of City AM, a newspaper that focuses on London's Square Mile.

"A lot of people will think 'who cares'? Some people will be privately satisfied but it is short-sighted. Yes, they have made terrible mistakes, but it is just wrong to take pleasure in other people's misfortunes.

MG Rover
Mass redundancies such as at Rover in 2005 prompted much public sympathy

"Their misfortune will make everyone else worse off. They have powered the UK economy in the last few years."

During the boom years, bankers earned big bonuses and it is perhaps not surprising that some felt resentment. The same people may now feel no sympathy for sacked bankers, as they will land on their feet, finding other jobs in the City and resuming their rapid wealth-building once things pick up again.

But, with Lehman Brother having laid off 4,000 people in London alone, and other big financial institutions facing straitened times, things may not be so easy.

"There is a bloodbath in the financial markets," says Mr Heath. "In boom times, when a banker loses their job, they can find a new one or go to a hedge fund. A lot of people are going to have to quit banking."

And while City recruitment firms will be deluged by suddenly out-of-work high-fliers, there may not be jobs for everybody, says Lucy Robinson of financial recruiters Jonathan Wren, a subsidiary of Adecco.

"From our experience the saturation point of free vacancies versus available candidate was reached six months ago across more or less the whole of the City. An absolute like-for-like move is going to be impossible."

Wall Street
Bonfire of the Vanities
Rogue Trader
Mixed portrayals:
Mary Poppins
It's a Wonderful Life

Of course, even in a slump, the best of the banking world will still be in demand as they mill in between the glass towers of City finance.

"I understand a few headhunters were setting up in Starbucks just to be portable locations for people to come and see them," says Ms Robinson.

And some people may not realise the massive range of salaries in the world of investment banking. With the emphasis in the media on the top earners and their telephone number bonuses, few thoughts will be spared for the younger bankers on more modest salaries.

Of course, it is not unknown in high finance for some to decide they have had enough of the "rat race" and take redundancy, or even for graduates to enter investment banking with a definite plan to depart.

Ed How, 34, spent five years at Deutsche Bank after university before quitting in 2002 to pursue a career as a science teacher at a private school.

Celebrating traders in Sao Paulo
The rewards can be huge... but junior staff don't get headline salaries

"The banker's dream is by the age of 40 to retire. It doesn't often happen - the amount of money you need goes up year on year."

Mr How, who had always felt drawn to teaching, chose the manner of his departure during the post 9/11 downturn.

"Post 2001, things weren't as great, the work wasn't as exciting. I was looking for an out. I had almost been planning, I didn't buy a house so when I chose to change career I didn't have to sell."

And while there are some at Lehman Brothers that may be plunged into penury because of big mortgages and other outgoings, the naturally pessimistic will have made sure they had a security blanket.

"Who knows how much financial planning they have been doing? Some work on the basis you are only as good as the next month - they always tried to keep six months salary in an emergency fund," says Mr How.

Aggressive and macho

And whether bankers are leaving to fulfil an ambition or because of a rampant crisis, there are some things they will miss.

I had learned painfully the importance of filing and I am a demon at spreadsheets
Ed How, on a banker's transferable skills

"Possibly a bit of the salary, but I'm not exactly on the breadline," says Mr How. "The lifestyle you lead changes. I was living in London... the expense of living in London, when you go out for a drink or a bite to eat. I socialised more. That was the scene."

As well as those who have taken out monster mortgages, there are some at Lehman Brothers who will have most of their money sunk in now-worthless shares in the bank.

All a lot of them will have left will be the skills they have built up in their work, says Martyn Sloman, learning, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

"They range from people who come from the lending departments - quite a lot of them have got fairly good interpersonal skills; people who work on the trading floor - a lot of them are very aggressive and macho people. But they have quite strong quantitative skills, tending to be pretty numerate."

Working as a banker helped Mr How with some aspects of teaching.

"I had lost a bit of naivety, I had learned painfully the importance of filing. I was and am a demon at spreadsheets."

It is going to be difficult for many people struggling with their own financial difficulties to feel sorry for bankers, but there's no doubt that many of them are facing an uncertain future.

Below is a selection of your comments:

These poor bankers, rubbing their hands with glee during the feeding frenzy, with no regard for ordinary peoples' savings and pensions in the companies they were raiding. Now the tables have turned and we're supposed to feel sorry for them? No chance.
Paul, Nottingham, UK

What is completely lacking here is the recognition that only a small number of people ever get to benefit from the mega bonuses that are referred to here. Most do not. Likewise, where has the assumption come from that the big fish or the high fliers are the ones who are getting fired? Sure, some of them will, but mainly it will be the small guys who are going to be most affected not the masters of the universe that you are talking about here.
Patrick, Zurich

I thought the picture of the young female banker leaving her office with all her possessions in a cardboard Champagne Box said it all.
Patrick De-la-Hunty, Bristol

Feel sorry for bankers? What nonsense is this? They caused the current mess and deserve all the hardship they get. It's like Karma, but funnier.
Alan, Aberdeen

I feel extremely sorry for those who have lost their jobs. Those who do not feel sympathy are just jealous of those who are highly intelligent and hard working then they are. Think about the amount of tax generated from these bankers wages that are used by the government to support the rest of society.
Sona, London

I think a bit of hardship will do these high-flyers good, make them aware of how the majority of the world have to live.
Kev, Hastings

My heart goes out to the administrative staff, starry eyed interns and the folks in maintenance who worked for the bankers. The support staff didn't get the massive rewards or the fat pay checks - they got shown the door.
Shannon Spillane, Jamesburg, NJ, US

Why should we feel sorry for them they are the ones who have put the world economy in the situation it's in, let them pay the price they have enjoyed the good times at our expense.
Adrian Miles, Leeds

Whilst it may sadly be a hard time for many middle-to-junior staff, who had no hand in the immorality of the sub-prime fiasco, I don't think we can be asked to sympathise with the plight of those who did, and whose reckless actions in pursuit of profits have had such a serious effect upon so many others. Unfortunately the top men, who knew exactly whose lives they were playing with, are unlikely ever to be called to account.
Bob Downing, Seaford, England

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