As yet another rogue trader starts his jail sentence, it is the sheer oddness of the connection between a spivvy nobody and the vast finances over which he and people like him have control which is most striking. The crime of Kweku Adoboli, gambling away £1.4bn of a Swiss bank’s money, is a cranked-up version of the very recklessness and greed which have devastated economies and lives since 2008. Yet the trader himself is faintly absurd – a man so greedy and money-obsessed that even a salary and bonus amounting to £360,000 was insufficient.
Perhaps, after four years of crisis and recession, one should become used to the mismatch. In the real world, the loss over which Adoboli presided amounts to real and significant power, but not, it seems, in the City wonderland. All the reports of the world to which he belonged suggest that his idiocy was not a wild aberration from the norm. He simply went a bit too far, and then got found out.
In the banking industry, there is a “risk-hungry” culture, he explained rather unnecessarily in court. Over the past few days, we have heard in more detail what that means. On the trading floor, one former USB trader has said, gambling of one kind or another is endemic. Anything is worth a bet: the length of the budget speech, the number of chicken nuggets a person can eat at one sitting, the bra size of a new trainee.
Can it really be true that the behaviour of these ghastly people, with their mindless greed, their contempt for other people, their grubby sexism, has been able to influence the way the rest of us live? City trading, according to Geraint Anderson, the former stockbroker who wrote the book City Boy, is “just well-informed, sophisticated gambling”, and the high-flyers take their hunger for risk into their private lives.
One would think, after recent experiences, that an attitude which sees money as an expression of personal potency, an end in itself without real cost or value, would be distrusted. The opposite is happening. The grabby, something-for-nothing City ethic has, with the encouragement of those in power, been working its way down the financial food chain.
The City trader’s dream of gaining instant riches through low cunning and luck is precisely that of the punter gazing at his computer screen or lurking hopefully in one of the many betting shops on our high streets. It is identical to the twice-weekly fantasy of the millions gambling on that happy family pursuit, the National Lottery.
At a time of general misery, the gambling sector is booming as never before, and, because politicians now have to follow the money, both parties have encouraged it, bringing more tax revenue into the Treasury’s coffers.
Those who enjoy bringing a bit of risk and excitement into their lives do not have to look far. The gaming industry is spending billions on flashy TV advertising, aimed specifically at the young, offering tempting “risk-free” bets of £50. As fast as retail shops close in the centres of towns, bookmakers open up. A few months ago, they argued that, rather than have clusters of bookies, it would make sense if they were allowed to grow in size, each running 20 automated gambling machines – the crack cocaine of gaming – rather than three. The government, needless to say, agreed.
Meanwhile, at the soft end of the market, families are encouraged to see gambling on the National Lottery as an act of social philanthropy.
Today, just as City traders can bet on bra sizes or chicken nugget consumption, the rest of us can get odds on virtually everything from the next person to be ejected from the celebrity jungle show to which football manager will finally be fired. It is just a game, we are told, a way of making everyday life a little more exciting while offering a dream of escape from our daily drudgery.
As the TV ads put it, the world is in play.
A better class of villain
There was something innocent about JR Ewing, as played by the great Larry Hagman, who has just died. With his every move – driving his wife Sue Ellen to drink, swindling poor, vacant-looking Bobby out of his inheritance, insulting someone who has crossed him (“Mary Lee, if you don’t hurry, someone else is gonna get your street corner”), pouring yet another drink, flashing that demonic, insincere smile – we were cheering for him all the way.
Today, we are altogether more prim. Business has become less interesting. A Texas oilman would, before he said a word, be obviously an enemy of the planet. We are generally less amused by bad behaviour towards women. If the part were being created now, it would require serious personal issues written into it to explain his conduct.
Perhaps with JR’s departure, the great age of the glorious TV villain has died.
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