US bankers bury heads in sand

This may seem a bit far fetched as investment banks such as Lehman Brothers collapse around our ears, but it is possible to argue that this disaster could have been largely avoided if they had been a bit more willing to communicate with the outside world.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

For years most investment banks have regarded PR and the media as a tap - something to turn on when they were thirsty for favourable publicity and turn off when they had no need for it. The main role of in-house PR was to keep the firm out of the papers, leaving it free to do what it did, unhindered and away from the public gaze.

Ironically, Lehman in the UK was one of the nicer banks with which to deal, and in Jeremy Isaacs had a balanced leader. More typical, however, was the view of another senior London banker who publicly said there was no point at all in talking to the British press because, unlike American business journalists, they never wrote it as it had been dictated to them.

Now the point is that, because they never had to interact with anyone outside their environment, investment bankers became disconnected from reality. Whenever the outside world signalled its disapproval it was dismissed as the inconsequential ramblings of lesser beings if it was acknowledged at all. They, after all, were the masters of the universe; as such they did not have to answer to critics.

They should have listened. Lord Hanson once said to me - as a backhanded compliment - that the best thing about financial journalists was their naivety because occasionally out of that came insight.

But investment bankers deliberately distanced themselves from the outside world, so when the credit crisis broke, firms such as Lehman could not believe it affected them too and went into denial. The more things went wrong, the more they became convinced if they ignored it, things would eventually turn out right.

If instead they had been willing in the good times to see themselves as others saw them, and willing to debate the issues, they might have been better prepared when it started to turn sour.

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