Nov 1, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi;The fat cat bankers had it coming

I was contrasting the public reaction to the news that Jet Airways and Kingfisher were to lay off hundreds of employees to the stony indifference (at best) that greeted the news of the sackings in the financial sector. When people heard about the dismissed airline employees, saw photos of young girls in tears, there was a general outpouring of sympathy. Editors commissioned sympathetic pieces on the air hostess training schools that have sprung up all over the country and the newspapers asked, “What will become of these poor girls now? Their dream has died”. Eventually, the uproar forced Naresh Goyal to take back the Jet employees.
In contrast, nobody seemed to care too much about the sacked investment bankers or their dreams. You could argue that some of the apathy was due to geography: Pictures of unemployed Wall Street bankers do not have the same power as footage of the children of the new India, denied the life that we told them could be theirs.
But it went deeper than that. Many people I know actually gloated at the sight of bankers filing out of the Lehman Brothers office, cardboard boxes in hand. And though the media did the obvious follow-up stories—“When will the sackings begin in India?”—there was little sympathy in their tone. Rather, the stories were edged with breathless anticipation, as though the journos were getting ready for the next big collapse.
Nor was the indifference (if not perverse delight) restricted to lefties and those who were, in any case, opposed to the capitalist system. Ordinary middle-class professionals seemed actually pleased by the prospect of havoc in the investment banking sector. There was a sense of “they had it coming” or “they were ready for a fall”.
Some went further. They recalled how investment bankers would lecture bureaucrats and economists on how India should liberalize further. What were we so scared of, they would ask. Globalization was a good thing. We should open up our economy. We should trade in more adventurous instruments. We should make credit much more readily available. And so on.
Well, say the bureaucrats and economists now, what happened to the collective wisdom of Wall Street? If they were so sure of what was good for the Indian economy then how come they couldn’t work out what was good for themselves? “Thank God we didn’t listen to these jokers,” I’ve heard it said. “Otherwise we would be in the same mess as the US.”

The hostility to the financial sector and the utter lack of sympathy for the human beings caught up in the centre of the financial turmoil is not an exclusively Indian phenomenon. I have friends in England who are gloating over the prospect of mayhem in the City. And in the US, the anger towards the financial sector has become an important component of public policy. “Why should ordinary Americans bail out Wall Street fat cats who are in this mess because of their own greed?” is pretty much a constant refrain this election year.
And yet, on most objective criteria, we should be sympathizing more with the financially troubled bankers than with the young air hostesses. The sacked airline employees were all probationers in their early 20s. Many live at home, few have responsibilities, and most can switch careers quite easily at this young age. The bankers, on the other hand, have wives, children, school fees, loans and many other responsibilities. They are not young enough to start all over again. Their lives have been truly destroyed by the financial turmoil. And their school and college-going children are the ones who will suffer the most.
Yet few of us see it that way. Our view is that (a) the bankers had it too good for too long, (b) that they were all overpaid anyway and (c) they are the architects of their own downfall (and possibly the downfall of the air hostesses and everybody else who will suffer because of the global economic crisis).
At the root of the hostility or indifference is our ambivalence towards the financial sector. All over the world—and now, even in India—we celebrate great capitalist success stories. There may have been questions about Dhirubhai Ambani’s methods but he remains a public hero because he came out of nowhere to create wealth. Even his son Anil regularly wins youth icon polls. We admire the founders of Infosys, celebrate the achievements of the software billionaires and laud someone like Sunil Mittal.

But we have no heroes from the financial sector. Our problem is that nobody on the outside (which I suppose excludes readers of Mint) understands what investment bankers do. As far as we can see, they create nothing. They don’t produce even a safety pin, they have no factories and they do not visibly add to India’s wealth. Rather they shuffle bits of papers around, advise wealth creators, live a parasitic existence off genuine industrialists and make vast sums of money merely by manipulating figures, and employing no workers at all. Worse still, they are then arrogant, self-satisfied and vastly overpaid.
So why should we shed any tears for them when they are discovered to be leveraging their money by a factor of 30 to 1? Obviously this caricature cannot represent the whole truth. But, sadly for the financial sector, this is its global image. It may come from envy (at salaries) or ignorance (because we don’t understand finance) but this crisis should serve as a wake-up call for everybody in that sector.
How hated do you have to be by society that hardly anybody sheds any tears for you in your darkest hour? When people actually delight in your misfortune?
Obviously this crisis will end one day and the financial sector will get back on its feet. But when it does, it should be wary of repeating the mistakes of the last decade—mistakes that have left it friendless and alone.

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