Not the sharks’ fault

Joris Luyendijk is speaking at the Festival of Economics in Bristol in November so naturally I had to read his book and have torn through it. It’s a fantastic book, and is up there with Whoops! by John Lanchester as a guide to the financial crisis. There is lots of close observation, not unsympathetic. For example, spotting that it’s the Continental European bankers who wear blue suits and brown shoes – so true. What’s that about? His many interviews also provide revealing vignettes, like the group of middle-ranking bankers singing ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ in authumn 2008 when news of another bank failure broke.

[amazon_image id=”1783350644″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Swimming With Sharks: My Journey into the World of the Bankers[/amazon_image]

It’s also a terrifying book. In the opening pages Luyendijk reminds us how close the economy and consequently society came to collapse in October 2008. In the UK we were a few hours away from cash machines, supermarket and petrol station tills not working, logistic chains breaking down. The Bank of England Court minutes recently published confirmed demand for cash had shot up and new banknotes had to be printed. I certainly got out a lot of cash. By the end of , you realise that the whole thing can happen again, and probably will. Nothing has changed.

This is not because bankers are immoral and greedy, although many, he says, are amoral. It is a whole system problem: the gripping image is a plane, on which we’re all sitting having a meal and a drink, slowly realising that the cockpit is empty. Interestingly, he pinpoints a specific London problem of people staying with high-paying City jobs because they have a huge mortgage and high school fees.

Like Luyendijk, I’ve often wondered why there has been so little political imperative to change the system – it is a matter of politics. And some of the key measures are not at all difficult to get your head round: smaller banks, and much, much more equity capital and less leverage. Simples. It’s a good time for new books about finance, with John Kay’s and Adair Turner’s . Let’s hope that a new crop of books making exactly the same recommendations will help change the political climate. That means lots of people need to read them – and of course come the the Festival of Economics.

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