Sunday, 2 January 2011

Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile

Except for a good book about North Korea, I could not have made any better choice on the Christmas and the subsequent slack period (how I call those days between Christmas and New Year’s Day when everything Polish economy comprises of is ticking over) read. I amm in two minds whether “Cityboy” is must for everyone who wants to work or works in banking, but the memoirs by Geraint Anderson, former investment banker, who shows his readers around the darkest nooks and crannies of world’s financial capital are surely a valuable read.

Before I set out to read, I was a bit afraid the book (I read original version in English, again thanks for Michael Dembinski for buying me it in the UK) would contain a lot of slang and a blend of colloquial and offensive language. My guesses proved right, but either I am already familiar with most of those phrases or it is written in such an intuitive way that I never had problems understanding the plot. Actually over 400 pages resulted in around 200 new English words, half of which I will surely fail to memorise.

I was not shocked by debauchery depicted in the book. Lifestyle sky-high bonuses paid in the City entail and the “culture” of investment bankers’ entourage have been widely described since the financial meltdown of late 2008 and those who, like me, delved into it earlier should not suffer any shock.

But what truly upset me was the ignorance, although it should not have…I generally know how to value a company and even if you ask me to value a certain public company, I will refuse to do it, for a simple reason. Every valuation rests on assumptions which are in fact subjective projections of future cash flows, profits, dividends. The very valuation is a simple task every high-school leaver could perform, if they were only given all formulas and data. The data makes a problem and you cannot even prove an analyst making wrong assumptions. This is why you can come across discrepant valuations of big Polish companies (example: in 4Q2010 KGHM was valued by two brokerage firms at 126 PLN and 175 PLN (31 Dec 2010 close ca. 167 PLN) and Pekao S.A. was valued by other two brokerage firms at 145 PLN and 201 PLN (31 Dec 2010 close ca. 179 PLN) that put you on the spot as a market participant.

Steve Jones (the character of the book, in fact Anderson himself), a history graduate, is hired by a bank in 1996 without having any in-depth knowledge about finance. His brother, at that working in the City, arranges an interview with him and then someone decides to take him on. One good change that has been made in the City since than is that history graduates have no chance to become bank analysts and nepotism is not so widespread. In Poland, on contrary, graduates of history or political science work at banks, but they open accounts and sell cash and mortgage loans in bank outlets, so at least they do not stand a chance to get really high.

The way Jones deals with clients is slightly despicable. He openly admits what he tells clients about results of his analyses is ‘bollocks’, but he wins their trust by taking them to bars, restaurant, concerts. In fact, what he does seriously matters in business and Jones knows how to entertain people. Plus this way is widely accepted as all banks have budgets for taking clients out and Jones most of the time has fun on the house.

Money… is what life in the City revolves around. Money is not what actually makes you strive for perfection; pursuit of money teaches you how to break rules to get a higher bonus. Executive turn a blind eye on reprehensible practices as long as they do not tarnish a bank’s reputation and as long as they do not come to the light. You have to make a profit, it is up to you how you make it, you only have to remember you must not get your bank into troubles… Compliance rules – they are worth as much as the paper they are written on. Insider trading is the order of the day, what marks out the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable demeanours is not decency but risk of litigation or adverse publicity.

Financial results of the banking industry much hinge upon goings-on on the markets. Bull markets mean good times are rolling in, when bears dominate trading floors business is winding down, bonuses are tiny (just 50,000 pounds per year…) lay-offs are in the offing.

The dominance of money means that for cityboys every asset can be priced. This view goes into extremes when bankers try to price women and some even delude themselves that those young chicks, their mistresses who are with them only for money, really love them. As the picture of the city clearly indicates, money does not bring happiness. Broken families, broken relationships with family and friends, divorces, sex as a substitute of love, nervous breakdowns, burnouts – is what cityboys (or “deranged fuckwits”) experience. And even if after a few years, despite spending a lot they manage to amass a fortune, they are unable to give it up, they do not make do with what they have, they get addicted to earning money and yearn for more… Meanwhile in the city there are no real friendships, the crucial element of survival there is learning to get on with relentless rivalry.

As Anderson precisely points out, the City destroys the world all around. Huge salaries of the bankers are driving the costs of living in London up (once Anderson mentions that prices in most shops seem extortionate to him, despite his sky-high earnings). This why I would not fancy Warsaw becoming CEE’s financial hub. Most inhabitants of Warsaw would be probably impoverished as a result of local inflation (prices adjusting to earnings of financial elite) and would be totally priced out of property market.

The author also explains why playing the stock market is a zero-sum game. If you buy stocks before their price goes up, you buy them from someone else and the other market participant does not in fact lose their money, but they incur the costs of missed opportunities, resulting from not holding a certain stock.

Anderson describes in the book a few job interviews he had throughout his career. They totally do not resemble the ones I have had in my much shorter career. In the City employers look for ruthless and greedy rat-racers, even the knowledge is not the most important as it is all ‘bollocks’ after all. In Poland, in turn, I was almost always asked substantial questions concerning my academic knowledge and hard & soft skills, and they often asked about pastime activities, hobby, balance between private life and work. In Poland banks do not (thank God) seek callous money-oriented graduates, integrity is an asset, compliance rules are enforced, nepotism does not seem to exist and people without proper academic background are not employed. In Poland banking industry appears to be rose-coloured, even if it does not offer enormous salaries (the pay is decent and commensurate to efforts, skills and experience).

At some moments I felt affinity with Anderson, for instance when he revealed he had worn a suit he had bought in a charity shop for six pounds three years into his career. It reminds of my first , eight-year-old suit (slightly worn-out and knackered by dry-cleaning), which still comes in useful for every day office work. In Poland times when you were judged by the clothes you wore are over. Style matters, brand tag no longer. But unlike Anderson into his career, I do not pay over the odds for brand-name clothes, but try to pick good quality stuff.

And the book is a must for every beginning stock market player. It may leave you disillusioned but shows the truth of how markets behave. And tells the truth who is privileged on the market. Anderson spent 12 years in the city and between 1996 and 2008 markets evolved. He went through roaring late 1990s, bursting of dot-com bubble, bear market of 2000-2002 and last gasp of prosperity from 2003 to 2007. He left in March 2008, when financial world began to capsize. He came to a right conclusion that old truths about investing are out-of-date in the days when markets are driven by big speculators and volatility is much higher that it used to be. Additionally, he draws an accurate picture of depravity within the financial industry that led up to the financial meltdown. No new ideas committed into paper, but it was quite nice to read a former banker saying who was (partly) guilty.

My feelings about Mr Anderson are still ambiguous. On one hand throughout his whole career he did not stoop as low as his colleagues, at least he realised he was paid far too much and obediently paid taxes, unlike his fellows, who all practised tax evasion and whose effective tax rate was lower than the one of their secretaries. But on the other hand, for twelve years he led a life of alcohol-addicted, coke-sniffing, self-indulgent party-goer whose weekly wages were equivalent of most people’s yearly wages and rode the gravy train more by luck than judgement. But after all I think by writing “Cityboy” and laying bare the murky and devious reality of the City, he atoned for all his previous misconduct.

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