LONDON: It is the mark of a strange employer to pay some of its employees millions each year but, when it decides to let them go, instruct them to leave the building rapidly, clutching their belongings.
Since the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the scene we witnessed on Monday (Jul 8) at Deutsche Bank in London, New York and Hong Kong has become familiar.
It was regarded internally as evidence of rare humanity that Deutsche’s departing equity traders and sales people were permitted to remain in its London headquarters for three hours before being ejected.
THE AXE FALLS ABRUPTLY
Some displayed signs of distress but many of them adjourned to a nearby pub, having anticipated that their days at the bank were numbered.
That is what you come to expect if you work on the trading floor of any global investment bank — the last ticket you sign is the one with your pay-off.
There is some logic to the way that the axe falls so abruptly at investment banks, with security cards being invalidated and access to systems shut off in case a resentful employee executes a rogue trade in revenge.
But it is also a symptom of malaise — the alienation of bank from banker, as if the job is just another transaction.
MONEY AS MOTIVATOR
“Discipline” was the word Christian Sewing, chief executive, used to explain why he was ending its ambition, reaching back 20 years to its purchase of Bankers Trust in 1999, to rival Goldman Sachs and others.
The individual of whom he spoke most warmly was Bernd Leukert, a former SAP executive who will be in charge of bringing more automation to the bank.
It is understandable that Mr Sewing tired of employing people who did not produce enough to justify their bonuses — Deutsche’s costs were higher than its income in the final quarter of 2018 and he plans to shed 18,000 jobs by 2022. Under the traders who led its expansion, what he calls “spectacular ambition” was substituted for strategy.
But it is difficult to see how any business can achieve long-term success when there is evidently so little bond between it and its employees. Deutsche is not alone in this absence — many investment banks rely almost entirely on money as their motivator, and have very fragile cultures.
Most professionals, particularly in sectors such as medicine or education, identify with their jobs and gain purpose from them.
Citing Karl Marx’s notion of labour alienation, one study last year concluded that “when there is no purpose, work becomes absurd, alienating or even demeaning.”
Two academics who studied investment bankers in London who had survived the industry’s upheavals to become successful and highly paid were surprised by their degree of cynicism and noted the absence of “meaningfulness, emotions and personal investment in work values”.
They encountered “identity minimalism” among investment bankers, who focused solely on making money with an “instrumental, almost mercenary attitude to self and work”. The bankers did not expect any loyalty from above and took it for granted that they would be dismissed one day.
Investment bankers are human, despite the popular image, but they tend to cultivate loyal relationships with the colleagues around them, or with the asset managers and clients with whom they work, rather than with their employers.
The latter reward them for the money they bring in, and they return that lack of feeling.
“They do very well, they get paid an awful lot, they are considered indispensable, but in bad markets they don’t do very well, and frankly then they get treated quite poorly,” concluded one senior executive, referring to the “beta” — correlation with market performance — of traders’ jobs.
NOT SUFFICIENTLY DEVOTED?
This is an apt description of what happened at Deutsche, and the fatalism with which it was greeted by those fired. After commiserating with colleagues over a drink, some would have called headhunters, citing their revenue-earning potential for another bank.
“We lost our compass in the last two decades,” Mr Sewing told investors after announcing the restructuring; he also wrote to staff about wanting to create a new corporate culture that “always puts the bank and its clients first, before the interests of the individual.”
The implication for Deutsche’s departing equities traders was obvious.
But suggesting to people whom you have just dismissed that they were insufficiently devoted is irrational.
Some may have treated Deutsche as no more than the place that paid their bonuses for a while. They turned out to be correct: It would have been foolish to place too much faith in it.
Disloyalty is so embedded at investment banks that the habit is hard to break for both sides.
Traders demand big bonuses and threaten to leave for higher offers because there is no security; banks expand in profitable activities or growth regions such as China while firing laggards.
Mr Sewing is not the first to conclude investment banking is too unstable and the risks too great. Perhaps one day, another aspirant will crack the code and build a bank that works differently.
Until then, bankers will carry on being highly paid and disposable.