Leading Article: Rogue traders and other Eighties relics

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The Independent Online
Are the Eighties on their way back? With huge City pay-outs, the return of house-price inflation and the return of giant financial fraudsters to rival the junk-bond kings of Wall Street a decade ago, there is a strange financial nostalgia in the air. Is greed good again? Are the buccaneers of capitalism coming back?

The word being bandied around this morning in reports of Sumitomo's huge losses on the copper market is "maverick". It got a good airing in the Leeson case, too. By using such words, people find a sliver of reassurance in these tales of corporate legerdemain. It has to do with the individual's capacity to buck the system. Mavericks prove that the system has openings and flaws - that cheek and chutzpah can pay off. There's anxious talk these days about globalisation, shorthand for inexorable flows of trade and capital around the world. But globalisation turns out, at least in Sumitomo's trading rooms, to be a game which is possible to read and subvert.

This is false and dangerous romanticism which helped to discredit the Eighties when they happened for real. Rogue traders deserve to be nobody's heroes. They are merely unable to realise their money lust in the ways legitimate colleagues do. "Money lust" may sound like an old hair-shirt phrase; we have, of course, all learnt that it is acquisitiveness that makes the markets go round; and the Eighties were not in vain. Our public conversation does now have a more economically realistic make-up. Greed, we agree, is functional - up to a point. What is difficult, however, is to find the point. Some of the recent figures do sound like a replay of the late Eighties. Goldman Sachs pays out million-dollar bonuses by the score; Deutsche Morgan Grenfell lays on recruitment incentives with a golden trowel. The Bollinger bubbles in Broadgate. Happy days are here again - for at least some of the children of the Square Mile.

But the Nineties remains the decade of shake-out. In the City, high-paying firms are firing at the same time as they are hiring. And outside the City, yuppy spoors are less easy to trace. Real earnings are up, but only slightly. Like the Cheshire Cat's smile, house-price inflation is seen here and there, but when you look close, all that's left is a suspiciously familiar anecdote about gazumping.

The truth is that the Eighties are dead and irrecoverable - if what we mean is the exuberant mood that gripped the nation between late 1987 and the fall of Margaret Thatcher. And a good thing, too. It was a binge. The mood had something to do with Tory political dominance and a lot more to do with Nigel Lawson's inflation. Today, City traders revelling in a huge bonus feel good because they are enjoying a burst of inflation. But today, many of the rest of us are deflating - which makes the relations of City rewards to our prices, incomes and employment in the domestic economy somewhat hard to see.

Money-grabbing in the City is significant if it becomes a harbinger of revival in the mysterious feel-good factor. This is like the truth in The X-Files: it's definitely out there, just very difficult to spot at present. Conservative Party analysts scan the horizon with their field glasses as through the famous factor were a homing pigeon which has to get back to the loft before the dissolution bell sounds. And the rest of us remain puzzled and grub for clues. It feels like the Eighties; but it doesn't feel like the Eighties.

For instance, if we are all better off, which we are, why doesn't the Government get some benefit? Part of the answer is that we are too well aware that "we" is not all-inclusive. The other day, the Social Security Secretary, Peter Lilley, made a speech in a church about poverty and wealth. If ever we wanted evidence that the Eighties are over, here it was. Actually, he had a good story to tell, based on empirical evidence about rising spending levels for the bottom decile of the population. Yet he seemed throughout to be on his back foot. Once (in the Eighties) he would have derided the very idea of "fat cats"; now Mr Lilley is defensive. There were only a "handful" of cases, he said airily, apparently accepting the moral force of the criticism of exceedingly large boardroom payments. A robust defence of inequality (which we heard from the right last time round) this was not.

The Zeitgeist does not win elections; political parties lose them. Time has moved on and the Conservatives' problem is how uncomfortable they look in a world they have done so much to create. Do they no longer have any views about million-dollar bonuses for options traders? Do they still think greed is good? They used to sound sure. They used to celebrate their brave new world. But that was long ago. That was in the Eighties.