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OPINION

7 Sep: 6 degrees; IMF; personal hygiene guide

Six degrees of supranational separation, To see or be seen at the IMF, Standards of hygiene in financial services

If you were dozing on a Sardininan beach this summer, you will have missed some noteworthy supranational appointments. Bertrand de Mazières (formerly chief executive of Agence France Trésor) succeeds the delightful René Karsenti as director general of finance at the European Investment Bank. De Mazières, whom one source described as “un gendre parfait” (a perfect son-in-law), is French, as is Karsenti. Karsenti joined the International Capital Market Association in May as executive president. However the Bond Market Association is losing its international, senior managing director, Manfred Schepers. Manfred becomes vice-president for finance of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Ironically, Karsenti was the first treasurer of the EBRD in 1991. The phrase “six degrees of separation” resonates in my mind.

Schepers was for many years head of debt capital markets at SBC Warburg and its successor organization, UBS. A talented financier and charismatic leader, Manfred always gave me the impression that he struggled to tolerate the less intelligent. So bankers who call on the doughty Dutchman should beware. But then, does any banker think of himself as unintelligent? As one derivatives sales-person told me: “I don’t have time to read books any more but I dabble in on-line poker. It keeps my mind agile.”

Someone who would never utter those words is the cerebral Ken Lay, who was confirmed as treasurer of the World Bank last month. I’ve known Ken for many years and always considered him a friend rather than a client. Ken joined the World Bank from the SEC in 1982. He is regarded as the father of the global bond because of his role in designing and implementing the World Bank’s global bond programme. When I first met Ken in the late 1980s, I represented a second division capital markets firm. He wore cowboy boots and we chatted about his ranch in Wyoming. He could not have been more charming if I had been a Goldman Sachs partner offering a funding opportunity at Libor less 80 basis points. As a naïve 25-year-old, I thought I had achieved career nirvana.

Both Ken and the World Bank’s head of capital markets, Doris Herrera-Pol (a ray of sunshine in an otherwise murky world), will be in Singapore next week for the IMF and World Bank annual meetings. Opinion is divided as to whether the IMF (as it is known) is an essential part of the financial calendar or an excuse for time-wasters to top up their air miles.

“Will you be going to Singapore, Abigail?” enquired Michael Douglas look-alike Jonathan Moulds, Bank of America’s president of Emea and Asia. And when I responded that I was not, I felt diminished. The annual meetings are a maelstrom of traffic, banal meetings and corridor conversations. But if you’re not part of it, you might as well wear a label stating: “Loser. Please ignore.”

And those who are Singapore bound feign an insouciance that increases the home aloner’s sense of inadequacy. It’s the updated version of Groucho Marx’s comment: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” “Oh Abigail,” one senior banker said, stifling a yawn, “It’s not worth you going to Singapore. It’s a pointless round of parties for the pompous.”

I disagree. I loved my times at the IMF: the adrenaline-fuelled days and the alcohol-filled nights. It was as if two weeks had been truncated into three days. And the best party was always the Institutional Investor discothèque.

Everyone agrees that the IMF is not about work. “It’s more of a relationship- building exercise. A bit like candyfloss at a funfair. Sugary but no substance,” a regular attendee opined.

Why then will so many important people (including Bob Diamond of Barclays, Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch and Peter Wuffli of UBS) gather in Singapore for the IMF scrum? Perhaps because if you’re there, it’s unremarkable, but if you’re not, it’s unforgivable. What do you think?

Maybe I enjoyed the annual meetings because today’s world is so disembodied. Mobile phones and email mean that people are always reachable but rarely present. Perhaps it’s a sign of age but I find myself disenchanted with many modern mores.

Etiquette, for instance, is ignored. When did you last receive a thank-you letter? And I mean a letter – not a terse e-mail or an inadequate text message: ‘Thx 4 sups.’

And then there is the heinous wait to speak to a utility supplier. Enduring 20 minutes of an automated message (or repetitive muzak) incenses me. I switch to harpy mode and shriek at the unmanned receiver: “Give me a person.”

Occasionally, however, a human being is worse than voicemail. Dealing with Indian call centres can be gruelling. The employee chants from a script that is usually irrelevant to one’s problem. I have taken to barking: “Are you in India or England? And if in India, please give me your supervisor.”

I was thus intrigued when a memo crossed my desk regarding dress code for a financial services’ outsourcing centre in India. “Appearance that creates a poor or improper business and personal image must be of concern to all,” reads the missive, which goes on to provide the following personal hygiene guidance: ”Daily shower, use of deodorants, light cologne and conservative haircuts make a person feel fresh, alert and presentable. Make special efforts to avoid body odor and bad breath.”

The memo closes with the warning: “The Company reserves the right to send employees home, without pay, for violations of the rules of proper appearance, attire and hygiene.” All very odd. What might have prompted such a memo? And if bad breath brings banishment, several of my City bosses would never be in the office.

Some will congratulate the author of the hygiene memo for upholding standards. I see it as an attack on individuality. Different is increasingly equated with eccentric. Friends roll their eyes when I confess that I don’t own an iPod, a BlackBerry or a flat-screen television. In his excellent book Hedgehogging, Barton Biggs gives an example of this “conformity is king” mentality.

Biggs attended a conference in August 1999 where he publicly disagreed with a journalist, Jim Glassman. Glassman insisted that the internet was the most important invention since the printing press. Biggs argued that there had been other significant inventions during the previous century: “Electricity, the airplane, the telephone, even air-conditioning.” The audience voted on whether air-conditioning was as important an invention as the internet. Biggs lost by 80 votes to 2, and one of the two was his wife. As he sat down, he overheard someone say: “The world has passed him by.” What do you think?

Next week, why are women always whingeing? I explore sexism and the City.

Please send news and views to abigail@euromoney.com.

See more from Abigail Hofman

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