Abigail with attitude: Moritz Erhardt – someone must be held accountable

Abigail Hofman
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Much has changed since I used to work in the City. It is out with the autocratic, eccentric banking demigod (think Dick Fuld or Ken Lewis) and in with the omnipotent regulator. It is out with brash, macho money-making and in with a more cuddly approach to deal-doing. Think of the industry’s greatest survivor, Lloyd Blankfein, his sprouting of facial hair and passionate advocacy of gay rights. See my April 2013 column for more on Loveable Lloyd’s transformation.

Nevertheless, there are also certain constant factors. In a world where good jobs are hard to come by and saving the deposit to get on the housing ladder is even harder, the work-all-day and work-all-night culture still holds sway within many investment banks. I was shocked by press reports that Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old summer intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, had collapsed in the shower and died.

Apparently, Erhardt, a German student, had worked throughout the night on eight occasions in the two weeks leading up to his death. If these rumours are true – and Bank of America has convened a committee to examine working conditions for its junior employees – it is an absolute disgrace. Someone within the firm must be held accountable. The Abigail with attitude column will not countenance anodyne tut-tutting.

Erhardt was obviously a driven individual. He wrote: "I have grown up in a family that expected me, in whatever respect, to excel in life." And musing about his recent educational experiences, he stated: "Over the last year, I have learned that complacency implies stagnancy."

I can only feel deep sympathy for Erhardt’s family and friends, as well as those at BAML in London for whom the news, and the scrutiny that came with it, must have been very difficult. But for all the tarnishing of the banking industry, it is still the toughest industry to get in to. Will this ever change?

Ironically, my first job in investment banking was at Merrill Lynch in London. In my day, juniors – or the Bullpen as we were known because we didn’t have our own offices but sat together in the Bullpen – generally worked for several different people, so there was never one person assessing how much work you had. And the work was often pointless – crunching numbers for a presentation that never happened because it was a fanciful idea in a manager’s mind.

"Created urgency rather than real urgency," as one senior banker put it. To be fair, I never worked all night and indeed I don’t think I ever stayed in the office later than 10 o’clock in the evening. I just said no and stalked out, believing that my productivity would flag as midnight approached. I got away with it – perhaps because I was a woman.

However, there was less competition in those days. A source who until recently ran the European operations of a big European bank told me: "Investment banking is contracting. So of course, there is greater competition for entry-level jobs. Didn’t Goldman have 17,000 applicants for its 350 intern jobs this year?"

Too often, especially in the pressure-cooker environment of high finance, individuals see themselves as being defined by their work. In fact, as I often point out – we should work to live not live to work. Sometimes this is easier said than done and it is not only summer interns who can lose perspective. In late August, market participants were saddened by the apparent suicide of Pierre Wauthier, the chief financial officer of Zurich Insurance. A few days later, the saga took another bizarre twist when Zurich’s chairman, Josef Ackermann, resigned, stating that Wauthier’s family believed he should take some of the blame for Wauthier’s death.

It seems that Wauthier left a suicide note in which he claimed Ackermann had put a lot of pressure on him regarding the presentation of the firm’s second-quarter accounts. Such a futile loss of a life is horrible. A former Swiss banker mused: "This is really a tragedy. A communication breakdown between the two men exploded into a disaster."

Ackermann’s resignation from Zurich marks the continuation of a difficult period for the 65-year-old elder statesman. Ackermann failed in his desire to become chairman of Deutsche Bank in 2012 and now risks being dragged into a legal battle about the collapse of the German Kirch media group. Ackermann is also reported to have lost a board battle recently at Siemens, where he was a proponent of the recently ousted chief executive, Peter Loescher. I will watch with interest to see if Ackermann returns to the financial world or slips quietly away into a serene retirement.