Comment: More than their job's worth

High-earning City folk have always fascinated Helen Dunne

Twenty-five years ago I  was on the cusp of leaving university without any real idea about what I wanted to do with my life. My friends were applying for graduate trainee schemes but nothing really appealed to me until I spotted an article in a glossy magazine about a female bond dealer. I didn’t have a clue what one of those was, but she was earning £100,000 a year (according to the report) and her photograph indicated possession of a designer wardrobe that was just what I desired.

That’s it, I thought. I’ll use my economics degree to good effect and go into the City. Sadly, the City didn’t want me. It was the stuffy old post-Big Bang world, where who you knew was more important than what you knew. The British merchant banks focused on where you gained your degree rather than the grade achieved.

The American banks were just making inroads into the City, and were less constrained by old school ties. A friend got onto Salomon Brothers’ graduate scheme. She was, by her own admission, useless at math – but she was a very talented musician. In fact, she noted, every person on her course had an outside interest, whether that was art or sport; it was the only common factor in their selection.

Both methods seemed flawed to me. I moved into journalism, where editors were less concerned about the university you had attended than they were about your willingness to work long hours in grotty offices for minimal wages. My first proper role was on a trade magazine writing about bond markets (finally, I understood what that dealer actually did).

I met the graduate intake I had failed to make and studied them carefully to determine which quality they possessed that I lacked. Confidence, certainly – but they were already growing in arrogance, too. Lunching at The Savoy with a team from Goldman Sachs, it was the recent graduate trainee who went off-menu (an act that was unheard of in London in the late 1980s/early 1990s).

My career progressed and I joined a national newspaper. Every year I was tasked with finding out who had been paid what in the annual bonus round. The first time, in 1993, the headline shouted 250 millionaires for Christmas. They were only dollar millionaires, granted, but it shook up the City. As the years went on, the numbers of recipients grew and a lucky few received bonuses that read like phone numbers.

Then one day I was asked to join the herd. ‘I could offer you a basic salary of £125,000 ($200,000) plus a guaranteed bonus for the first year of the same again,’ a contact proposed over lunch. ‘What would I do?’ I asked. ‘Bond sales,’ came the reply.  

It was then that the penny dropped: how on earth could somebody with only a journalistic understanding of bond markets be worth £250,000 a year? When I asked them, friends in the City laughed at my naivety. Few people working in financial markets were really worth what they were paid, they said. That was when I realized that the house of cards would one day fall; I just never guessed how far it would topple.

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