Former treasurer at a collapsed bank: 'Right and wrong became blurry'
Joris Luyendijk talks to a former banker who grew afraid of what he was becoming and decided it was time to get out

•This monologue is part of a series in which people across the financial sector speak about their working lives

The Gaurdian | March 12, 2012
By Joris Luyendijk

Why aren't there more whistleblowers in finance? A former treasury manager at a major bank was prepared to meet for a chat. He is medium build in his late 40s, with a quick laugh. He orders a black coffee.

"I was in a bank that collapsed due to the risks we had taken on. Why did virtually nobody speak out? Well, you get sucked into the corporate culture. And you know that if you take something public, they'll find a way of getting back at you. They won't sack you right away but when there's a new round of redundancies … You isolate yourself when you act against the institution you're part of. So the only people to do so are those with very high morals, and those who just don't care.

"Bankers work in teams, and the ethic there is: you are with us or you're against us. Speaking out makes you vulnerable. If you have a guilty secret hidden somewhere, they'll find it and expose you. At one time I had this boss who was typically ruthless. At some point a woman accused him of discrimination – some stupid thing he said in a bar that a bloke, in that situation, wouldn't have had the same reaction to.

"She filed a complaint, landed an inquiry and those who had been present in that bar were summoned. My boss came up to me and warned me: don't say anything against me. Otherwise I'll tell them about that one time in the strip bar. I was thinking, what is he talking about, then I remembered that very early when I started working for him, he had taken me to a strip bar. Many people are made subtly complicit.

"I was in treasury. Outsiders have this idea that banks take on deposits and then they go and look for a way to lend them out again, making a margin in the process. In reality it's the other way around. Banks embark on projects for which they need money, and they find it with banks that take on deposits. The process is what we call 'asset-driven'.

"At the end of each day there will always be banks with money left on their books, and banks that are short of money. Everyone needs to balance out and supply and demand meet in the short-term market for money. This is where banks lend and borrow from each other. I was working in that. I was benefiting from the banks' practices. I was making between £250,000 and £500,000 a year.

"Since we were taking so much risk, we were making a lot of money. And all these profits meant we were on top of the world. The markets rewarded risky behaviour. Risk produces profits, profits lead to a higher share price, and executive pay was linked to that. It was so fucking easy to manipulate the share price; simply take some more risk.

"I was having a great time – travelled around the world, feted by people. I used to be invited to every major sporting event in the world … Everyone is nice to you because you represent a chance for them to make money. It becomes very tempting to think that actually all these people like you for who you are.

"I stressed internally the risk we were taking. But you have to understand, nobody likes a prophet of doom. We were doing long-term mortgages, which were very profitable because we borrowed the money for them in the short-term markets – where the rates are lower. I wanted to borrow in the less risky mid-term markets, if only because it was more challenging and would give me more to do. But I was overruled as borrowing mid-term was less profitable.

"In some ways I was always an anomaly, in finance. In a way I always thought of it as a game. I didn't take it that seriously. I would be thinking, what the hell, it's not my money is it? I suppose that's why I could cope with the stress reasonably well. I always saw it as a bit of a laugh. I had gathered this band of anti-establishment people around me and we would mock the seriousness of the banking world.

"Right and wrong became blurry and hard to define. If you shaft people and get a very good deal, this is considered the greatest thing there is. What I mean is that in business when you deliberately, consciously make money out of someone, that's what it's all about isn't it? Excessive profitability is deemed cause for promotion. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you realise that somebody is paying for what is going into your bonus pot. But then you're kidding yourself that you're making the world a better place, grease the wheels of capitalism and all that.

"Finance is not alone in this. Drug companies try to get you to take as many medicines as they can, while thinking of themselves as being in the business of curing disease. Having said that, the City is an extraordinary working environment and as such it is in my view fundamentally different from other business sectors and the civil service. I am sure the things we're talking about are happening there, too.

"What makes the City so special is that historically the sector has been very close together. There are all these pubs and bars close by where you can meet discretely. It becomes a huge playground, a social network at very close proximity. You can bond very easily, and become bonded to like-minded people. Colleagues become buddies. Throw in the alcohol and the client entertainment and you get an explosive mix. Boundaries are crossed very easily, leading to massive conflicts of interest. Brokers and traders are friends, but one also gives business to the other. 'I'll get tickets for rugby for you if you do that trade with me', that sort of thing happens very easily.

"I never thought I was stressed. There just wasn't any time for self-reflection. I ended up drinking huge amounts. Alcohol is a quick mood changer, it stops you from thinking and dulls you down. Not that I was aware of that at the time.

"You need to hide the stress, from yourself but also from others. You cannot admit it because if you let on about being stressed, it makes you look unreliable. So much in banking depends on taking quick decisions, daily, hourly. Do we do this deal or not? It's rarely a clear cut decision, there's never time to establish the situation, intellectually.

"Every decision that is made about the markets is an impossible call on the future. Imagine having to make decisions like that regularly every day. You simply can't be right all the time; if you are you're just lucky. It becomes impossible to have self-doubt, you have to create an image to the world where you maximise your successes and minimise your failures.

"Inevitably that makes you less humble, more arrogant and it will spill over into all areas of your life. You become lonely in your responsibility, in all that's resting on your shoulders. As your career progresses, you become responsible for more people than you're capable of influencing. You need to protect yourself, stay within your zone.

"This isn't just the bonus culture. This is about tribal bonding, about belonging and sticking with your mates. Your sense of worth begins to be formed by what you do. It is often the first question people ask you, right? What do you? In that time, when I answered that question, I was a superstar.

"If you go public about something in the bank you believe to be wrong, in one stroke you place yourself outside of that world. It's not just your job. It's your identity.

"I can't say that one day I woke up and I realised … There was no tipping point and it took me a long time to untangle myself. There were a trillion reasons. A general feeling of malaise, corporate and personal. There was fear, absolutely: the fear of fucking something up big time. Because I wasn't taking things seriously I wasn't doing everything I could to prevent that. And that made me afraid. Then the personal malaise: what was I becoming? My marriage was in trouble. What helped me get on with things was therapy, and I was very lucky to have earned so much money, meaning I was insulated from financial trauma.

"Friends in the bank said: 'Why would you leave? Just stay around, get paid well, do nothing.' I couldn't. It had become existential: what's this all for? Am I really enjoying this?

"It's weird how your perspective changes once you are out. I realised I had lost all pleasure in life. The birds singing, mucking about with the kids … When you're working so hard you just don't expose yourself to these things and over time you forget they exist. I know now that I had become not a nice person. The kindness you show to your parents … I stopped doing that. And I wasn't aware that I had stopped doing that. I had my mates. They were like me. I was like them.

"The substance abuse was huge, really, and everyone was enabling everyone else. There were so many reinforcers to keep me drinking; physical, mental, peer group pressures …

"You have these discussions: 'Are we drinking too much?' People would say, yes but I can stop any day if I want to. At the same time we'd ostracise people who didn't drink. Actually, no we wouldn't, not deliberately. But they wouldn't be there with us, miss out on the bonding.

"I don't regret my years there. I am not going to give this massive apology – well maybe I should? If I am sorry for anything, it's for what I became in those years. God, I am beginning to sound incredibly selfish.

"For this system ever to get truly better, you'd have to untangle the inherent tendency to amorality. And that tendency is embedded in the system. Regulation to keep the City in check? Don't hold your breath. No matter what rules you put in place, they'll always find ways around it. It's like prohibition.

"Anybody can get out. You might say, I was weak for jumping out. You might say, I was strong in making this point. What would I say to somebody reading this who is in the position I was in for a long time? Look in the mirror and ask yourself: 'Is the City turning me into a nasty person?' Then again, since people lose the ability for self-reflection, I wonder if anybody would look in that mirror."