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One man’s actions

When James Bond started smiling less and doing fewer corny one-liners – essentially when Daniel Craig cloc-ked in for Casino Royale – there was a brief philosophical discussion on the sanctity of human life. Dryden, the crooked section chief, showing admirable sangfroid as he is about to become Bond’s all-important second victim, says: “Well, you needn’t worry. The second is…” “Yes…considerably,” replies Bond as he shoots him, thereby graduating to double-O status.

I found myself remembering this exchange as I considered the motivations behind any member of Her Majesty’s financial services industry behaving beneath the standards expected of them by the compliance Nazis. And at this point I should probably stress that this week’s column is inspired by – not about – recent events at Gartmore.

To prove it, let’s consider Nick Leeson, whose trading adventures cost Barings hundreds of millions of pounds and eventually its independence. It would seem highly perverse to believe he set out to lose all that money and indeed there is little to suggest his naughtiness was connected with greed – well, no more greed than any other trader anyway.

But he lost some money and spent more trying to extricate himself from the mess and then more and then more and I am betting Dryden was right. Each time it got a bit easier until, oops, suddenly your employer’s in the chair for the best part of a billion.

I am not even going near Peter Young and Morgan Grenfell, except to say I always thought there was something iffy about him. Not at the time, you understand – I am not that clever – but alarms bells certainly went off when he turned up for a court hearing in a Laura Ashley print dress. I think we all know any serious trans-whatever-he-was/is would have worn a power-dressing two-piece for that occasion.

Nor do I plan to touch the elephant in the room, that is, whether Leeson or Young really were acting by themselves right up to the moment that the authorities got involved. Of course, I am certain that no boss at Barings or Morgan Grenfell could ever have done such a thing but I bet there would be other companies where, once alerted, the directors would at the very least hold off from intervening in the hope that their in-house miscreant got lucky and made good the loss before all that bad publicity.

Before any lawyers get involved, let us move on to some pure hypotheticals. If naughty financial folk are not misbehaving to try and dig themselves out of holes, all I can really find as motiv-ation is stupidity, arrogance or because they have comp-letely lost touch with what most people see as the line between right and wrong.

I suspect more than one psychologist would tell me that a Venn diagram of those three qualities would show quite an overlap and indeed stupidity, arrogance and amorality appear the basic minimum these days to be an MP. Or as one cartoon had it last year, two MPs walk towards two bankers with both pairs simultaneously sighing: “The trouble is, they have no idea what the public really thinks of them.” Boom, boom.

On a less amusing note, maybe I should return to the specifics of Gartmore, which does seem to have reacted pretty well to a potentially dangerous situation. If I was quibbling, I might suggest that the PR offensive could have begun a day or so earlier but chief executive Jeff Meyer has proved impressively robust – as, it would appear, have the group’s internal compliance checks.

Certainly, the allusions of assorted analysts, ably egged on by the press, to the demise of New Star look overcooked. If I had a couple of quid to spare, I would probably have been piling into Gartmore’s shares on the sort of weakness we saw – which, of course, leads one to wonder if the likes of Clive Cowdery or Martin Gilbert might be feeling the same way. Purely for their Isa, of course.

It would be a great shame if one man’s actions holed such a decent ship but whether it’s…er…let’s call them breaches of internal rules by investment professionals or the behaviour of bankers or politicians, the question I always want to ask is: “Seriously – what were you thinking?”

Julian Marr is editorial direc-tor of marketing-hub.co.uk

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