Hard times for high finance
(© Jane Sutton)
A statement like "I worked at Morgan Stanley, on the trading floor, for just over 13 years" sounds almost like an admission of guilt these days. The words are those of the Irish writer Aifric Campbell, whose recently published novel On the Floor was inspired by her experiences in the high-finance sector.
The novel opens in 1986, around the time Campbell fetched up in that world, and ends in 1991. Those were the days of Gordon Gekko, when greed was still good and "enough" was a dirty word. And when the seeds of the present crisis were sown. Campbell recalls: "When the PhDs, the mathematicians, and the physicists started to arrive in the City in the late Eighties the mathematical models that they developed changed the way and the size in which people traded. They allowed larger risks, larger bets to be taken. And crucially, they made the business much more complex to manage. Many years later it's part of the problem that led to the sheer scale of the financial crisis that we're witnessing right now. Mathematical models do not accommodate very well what happens to humans when they get afraid or when they panic."
On the Floor moves at a breath-taking pace, but offers a lucid and enjoyable look at the machos of the markets and at damage and repairs to egos in an industry where peacocks that don't flaunt their feathers are invisible. But it is nuanced too: "Public anger is totally understandable, because the fallout is enormous: unemployment, problems in the euro zone... So it is understandable that people want a hate figure, but bankers are not some sort of evil scientists or mad geniuses trying to destroy the financial world and create carnage. I think the problems are much more to do with an issue of complexity and poor management and a failure of regulation, as well as greed. It's not a simple story of the bad guys and the good guys. We were all in this together: politicians, regulators, bankers, and all of us who were out consuming."
Essentially, On the Floor is a bildungsroman that follows the life of 28-year-old mathematical genius Geri Molloy – Irish, like Aifric Campbell, and the first woman on her sales floor – in London and Hong Kong. In her work she sees an opportunity to push the process of becoming an adult to one side; in work-related stress a means of suppressing the stress of making choices in her life. In 2001 Aifric Campbell, Morgan Stanley's first female Managing Director, swapped the breakneck rhythm of working in finance for the solitary life of a writer. "I loved my job and I thought it was really interesting and incredibly challenging. You're very connected with what is happening in current affairs. It tests the whole range of your skills. The harsh side of it is that it requires enormous dedication, and that it is what is physically most punishing. Sometimes when I look back I can't believe that so much time has passed. [laughs] Now the days are a little bit different. Writing a novel is a very long project. That was a difficult shift for me: to move from something that changed from day to day to a long-term project. And the solitary nature of writing: really, you're the only person who cares about your book, nobody really needs you to write it. And I have found that selling books is a lot harder than selling bonds! [laughs]"