Margaret Pagano: Don't blame the bankers

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The Independent Online

One of the more chilling aspects of this week's financial meltdown has been the astonishing venom from some commentators gloating over the sight of rich City bankers clearing out their desks.

This schadenfreude towards those involved in the financial crisis is not only misplaced but distasteful. From the rolling camera crews parked outside Lehman Brothers to the front-page pictures of workers taking home their belongings in black bin bags, there has been a rather nasty undercurrent to the cataclysmic events now unfolding in the US and the UK. For the real victims of this financial disaster are the hundreds of people who work as secretaries, back-office staff, cleaners and those in the coffee shops, bars and restaurants around the Square Mile who will be hit the worst.

Then, of course, there is the impact on the wider economy – the houses that may now have to be sold, the second cars that will go and tightening of the belt of the families of those who have lost their jobs at Lehman Brothers and now possibly at Lloyds TSB and HBOS as they merge. The really fat cats, and there are many, will already have hidden their fortunes.

Everybody wants a villain. So everyone involved in the bull market party is now being blamed – from the nasty short-sellers, to the vulture hedge funds to the traders who made their millions from packaged assets into securitised bundles of things which everybody now pretends they didn't understand. What about the art dealers, the car salesrooms, the champagne bars and the luxury goods shops which have been happy to take their huge bonuses over the past few years? Aren't they to be blamed too?

Perhaps the most unfair criticism of all is to blame this generation of bankers and traders who were enticed into the City with salaries that make your eyes water. Who can blame a young engineering graduate for starting with an investment bank at £40,000 when he would be earning half that by joining a manufacturing company? Or what about the mathematicians who were enticed into becoming "quants" earning millions trading in hedge funds when they would have worked as maths teachers taking home about £23,000?

If blame is to be apportioned, then maybe it should be our schools and universities who played along with the party, encouraging their brightest to do "something in the City". As Oliver James, the distinguished pyschologist, said earlier this week: "If the current stock market rollercoaster symbolises lunacy, it resides in those who set up and monitor the system, not the individual money-chasing traders wanting a larger second home."

Second homes will be history for some time to come. But there is a silver lining out of this crisis. Happily, our youngsters won't be so keen on the City now, certainly until the next boom. Investment banking was still the most popular career in a survey of graduates back in June – that will have changed today. The first thing the banks will be dropping is their graduate training schemes and I don't think many of them will be doing the usual milk-rounds this autumn.

Last year, more than 60 per cent of our engineering graduates went into careers other than engineering. Maybe now the promised renaissance in manufacturing in the UK will really start to fly.

Margaret Pagano is Business Editor of The Independent on Sunday