Lucy Kellaway: Wondered where the schoolyard bully ended up working?

The FT's top columnist, Lucy Kellaway
The FT’s top columnist, Lucy Kellaway

In the early 1980s I spent the most hateful year of my working life in the foreign exchange dealing room of what was then Morgan Guaranty in London.

It was beastly for three reasons. First it was boring. The currencies went up – and then they came down again, but they seldom did so in a way anyone seemed able to predict. Secondly it was stressful, as if you got it wrong you lost an unconscionable amount of money. Fortunately, I was never trusted to trade myself; instead my role was to ring up big companies and try to persuade them to buy and sell currencies with us. But mostly what I did was not very much. I sat there and watched the traders being alternately very idle and very frantic.

They were the third reason it was so horrid. Many of them were boorish, mean, sexist, racist barrow boys who operated a feudal system with its own vicious hierarchy. The chap who traded “cable” (dollar-sterling) was king and the guy who traded the “exotics” (piddling currencies like the Danish krone), was there to be bullied. Being neither a boy, nor having barrows in my recent history, I was too insignificant to be worth more than routine ridiculing of my voice and appearance.

At the end of each day of being boorish and unpleasant they would repair to the pub to be more so. Their drinking sessions fell into three different sorts: “small” (about three pints), “medium” (about six), and “monster”, which took place at least twice a week and invariably ended in vomit and assorted misdemeanours they had no chance whatsoever of recalling the next day.

Last week I was whisked straight back to that time when I read the chatroom banter released by authorities in London and Washington. Never mind that in the three intervening decades there has been the Big Bang, globalisation, the financial crisis, a push for diversity, a preference for political correctness and a technological revolution. The culture of the FX market appears quite untouched by any of it.

I’m not saying that back then the traders were fixing the market too. They may or may not have been: I was treated with such mocking disdain that they never explained what they were up to. My hunch is that they were engaged in far more minor abuses – as indeed I was myself. Part of my job was trying to hoodwink customers, who didn’t have a Reuters screen, into thinking that the exchange rate was marginally less in their favour than it actually was. It was perfectly legal, it just wasn’t all that nice.

The most reminiscent thing about last week’s chatroom messages is the uncivilised mixture of pallyness and aggression: “dont want other numpty’s in mkt to know . . . but not only that . . . is he gonna protect us like we protect each other”, one of them writes. In other words, forex is a nasty, cosy club, just as it was then, and anyone who isn’t in it is automatically an idiot.

The maleness of it all is as extreme as ever. “Well done, gents”, “Nice one, mate”, “have that my son” and “big time mate”, the messages say. The language is layered with violence – “arb it for more ammo”. One trader gloats over the stitch-up with the words “combo boom”. I have no idea what that means, but I bet it wasn’t written by a woman.

In all, the chatter reads like the gleeful product of a testosterone-fuelled jape.

One trader writes, just before the 4pm fix, “Let’s go”, to which his mate replies “yeah baby”, then: “hopefulyl a fe wmore get same way and we can team whack it”.

The proud-to-be-stupid thing is still there too. The mistakes, the lack of punctuation, are being flaunted just as they used to be.

The most surprising, and innocent, survivor in the time warp of the FX market is cockney rhyming slang. This vanished everywhere else a long time ago, but here are traders still saying: “You getting betty [ie Grable, rhymes with cable] on the mumble still? We have nowt . . . Get it up to 60/70 then bash the fck out of it.”

Only one thing has changed in 30 years – the approach to profanity. These traders swear every bit as much as they always did. But when typing their favourite four-letter word, they give it only three.

This raises the fascinating question of culture change in banks. Compliance departments appear to have had a 100 per cent success rate in training traders to drop a “U” when using company software, lest it somehow damages the bank’s reputation. Yet they have entirely failed to train them to refrain from illegal activity, or from boasting about it online as they are doing it. Instead FX traders’ worst impulses have been allowed to run unchecked, with the result that they have ended up bashing the fck out of numpties everywhere. Combo boom just about sums it up.

[email protected]Twitter: @lucykellaway

(c) 2014 The Financial Times Limited

Visited 105 times, 2 visit(s) today