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Satyajit Das: Best in Show

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By Satyajit Das, a former banker and author of Extreme Money and Traders Guns & Money

Autumn is the time for awards. The EU has received the Nobel Peace Prize! The approximately US$1.2 million should help alleviate the parlous finanial position of the Euro-Zone. But it is also the season for banking awards. Financial magazines and newspapers assign bouquets to the best Finance Ministers, banks and bankers to coincide with the annual World Bank shindig and the approaching year end. Here is an insight into the process.

In the mock-umentary Best in Show, Christopher Guest mercilessly portrays the world of dog shows, following five dogs and their owners in the competition for top honours at the Mayflower Kennel Club Show. Bankers have their equivalent – banking awards. There are many similarities – an overt self-absorption, ferocious competitive bitchiness and feigned good sportsmanship. Both are completely meaningless and very funny.

Just as dog shows bring out the essence of humans, awards highlight the absurdities of banking and bankers. Any industry, which celebrates transactions with “tombstones” perhaps depicting the post deal status of some clients, has issues.

The idea behind industry awards is that clients and peers vote on who is the best. In reality, the major driver is not recognition by clients and peers. The value of the award is in promoting the bank’s services. A dealer voted best “something in something somewhere” uses it prominently to solicit clients. “See our clients and peers have voted us ‘best in show’”.

It complements the ostentatious self-promotion in “pitch books”. There are lies, there are statistics, and then there are league tables that inevitably show the bank in the top one or two of the relevant categories of financial services. Young analysts learn to manipulate league table positions to ensure the required status. Bank XYZ is the top rated underwriter of debt for resources companies resident in Congo in the month of December 2011 between the hours of 400 and 430 p.m.

Publishers and media companies also love awards. It is a rich source of sponsorship and advertising revenue, a phenomenon shared with any activity associated with celebrity and sizeable egos.

You have award receptions and dinners – for which you can sell sponsorships. Trade shows for suppliers – mainly information providers, IT companies and consultants to the industry. There are sponsors of individual awards. Suppliers of conspicuous consumption for bankers – prestige carmakers, expensive tchotchkes (watches, jewellery, personal electronics), designer clothes – can be sprung for contributions.

Then there is the magazine award issue. You can sell ads for the winners. You can sell ads to those who are associated with the winners congratulating them on their achievements and congratulating themselves on being associated with them. Winners can be persuaded to insert sponsored statements of their peerless capabilities.

The trick is to create enough categories so that everyone can be a winner. Losers might take offence and hold deep-seated resentments. Taking a lead from the construction of league tables, it is not difficult to create enough award categories to ensure everybody wins something.

There are even individual awards – lifetime achievements, the Hall of Fame etc. The possibilities are endless.

Polling is supposedly anonymous and independent. Like democracy, it is not clear who votes or even who is eligible to vote. A significant portion of the registered voters may be deceased. Some banks get customers to vote early and vote often. The polling process is obscure and vague. There are “hanging chads” and rigged counts. There are no independent UN observers or electoral commissions.

You ring the magazine arranging the awards. You explain that you had heard scuttlebutt that you or your bank would be crowned “Best Something in Something”. If this was correct, then you indicate the possibility of the purchase of a platinum sponsor of the award event (cost say $100,000) and a full-page ad in the magazine ($20,000). In a strange coincidence, you or your bank win the award.

Of course, there are standards. As Dr. Theodore W. Millbank III observes in Best in Show: “And really, I think what we’re talking about is standards, basically; very, very specific, rigid, you could say, but in this world where would we be without them, I think. And notice where we are.”

The real reason for awards is revealing. Financial products are largely undifferentiated and bankers are generally anonymous – after all it’s all money. There is no try before you buy, no test drive before you commit. Having entered into a transaction or appointed an underwriter or adviser, you are at risk of discovering ex post that you made the wrong choice. To avoid this risk of error, customers need a basis for discriminating between financial institutions. Awards standings provide one basis for selection – after all no one ever got fired for selecting IBM!

Maslow’s hierarchy identifies 5 layers of human need: basic (food, water, shelter), safety, love or belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. The equivalent for bankers is different: money, more money, even more money, more please, self-actualisation (synonymous in the modern world with celebrity)! Bankers don’t lack self-esteem. They have never had to worry where their next meal is coming from. Money can buy everything else. Awards meet a deep psychological need for validation.

No one really understands what they do. How only elite bankers know how to get things done. As one banker told ethnographer Karen Ho: “We’ve made everyone smarter. We know much more … we’re the grease that makes things turn more efficiently.” The receipt of an award from a glamorous B grade nymphet or sporting hunk while trussed up in dinner finery is recognition that they are truly Masters of the Universe.

As the character Hamilton Swan puts it in Best in Show: “Don’t look at the fat ass losers or freaks, look at me!

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19 comments

  1. Brian

    “Parlous Finanial”, brilliant. It reminds me of a work my Mssrs. Marin and Chong, regarding the winning dog named “Fifi”.

  2. rod

    Because self-promotion is evil, that’s why naked does this for free and Satyajit is a selfless person not looking for any type of remuneration. (Sarcastic).

    Everyone needs money, all people work for it. Satyajit, I really liked your book- but don’t get too faux indignant, this is all self-promotion in pursuit of money.

    1. YouDon'tSay?

      In a monetary economy, everybody’s a whore for money, more or less. That’s the beauty of it! It encompasses it’s own possible contradictions, and spits them out as just so much more meaningless detritus.

      1. scraping_by

        Not everything is measured in money. Much of what’s wrong in the world is pricing what’s not for sale.

        Even economics depends on noneconomic qualities and ideals. No trust, no transaction.

        Economics is not a closed world.

  3. jerry

    Don’t worry guys, we’ve got QE!

    according to Bernanke today on FT.com: “but by boosting US spending and growth it has the effect of helping support the global economy as well”

  4. ambrit

    Mr. Das;
    The fellow just above, Rod, has it just a bit wrong. It’s not just about money; a lot of it at that rarefied level is about having the power to move the money around. Ego does indeed drive much of the ‘elites’ behaviour. There is a mind set among the ‘elites’ that encourages all the worst aspects of human nature. The results of their actions bear out this assertion. Because one asserts that these ‘elites’ are “human, all too human” one cannot excuse their misdeeds. Justice must be seen to be done. Anything less leads us all to ruin. No excuses allowed.

  5. rod

    1 blog post is not going to change that, time, history, nothing will change how “elites” act- nothing, ever.

    The book was good but it was based on his experience- selling or consulting. Without that…. no book….. no expert status.

    Altruism tempered with self-interest- nothing wrong with that.

    Name a time in human history, that actually happend that justice was done.

    1. scraping_by

      Justice is a goal, not a state. Give up working for it, it will disappear.

      Called a self fulfilling prophecy.

  6. SomethingSomethingComplete

    Well… they are called “tombstones” because (1) each deal is summarized for presentation purposes in a small rectangular image that looks like a tombstone (and who wants to call them “deal rectangles”?) and (2) when the deal is still ongoing/being negotiated it is said to be “live”.

    When it is closed it is no longer “live”.

    It doesn’t take much to figure out why tombstone might have arisen as a tongue in cheek way to referring to a deal that is no longer “live”.

    There is nothing sinister, weird, strange, odd, or interesting about all that.

    So the thing about the tombstones is a bit of a giveaway. The author wants readership and will reach for anything that seems juicy and pops even the tiniest bit.

  7. SomethingSomethingComplete

    PS: I have never, ever seen a managing director going into a meeting with a client brandishing awards as a sign of trustworthiness and achievement.

    Clients don’t care about awards. So the whole thing about bankers wanting awards so as to differentiate themselves seems so wide of the mark.

  8. 305d85

    Someone please give Rod, commenting above, an award, it sounds like he needs validation; attempting to pull someone contributing to a better understanding of the financial system and the psychology of the actors and behind their actions down. Rod you get the reward for stupidest comment on this post.

    Das is excellent.

  9. Fiesty

    I’m just a cute little pooch. Humans call me a lap dog, but not the same way they mean about politicians and journalists – it’s because I really am a lap dog.

    But I have my own cat, hamster and rabbit exercise clinic. Even I know that if I act like a big macho fool and brag that I rip the faces off my clients, I wouldn’t have any clients left. Or what about, “Wanna put your pet at risk? Come to Fiesty’s Exercise Clinic!” That’ll draw ‘em in.

    Dog shows are ok, but the contestants are like Miss America level intelligence. It’s almost demeaning for some of us pooches.

    But bankster awards? C’mon now. Who do they think they are kidding?

    1. Fiesty

      How ’bout the “We Eat What We Kill” Award?

      arf arf arf arf.

      BTW: Is there any way to make a “Pay Savings Account” with a .2% interest rate sound good?

  10. Newtownian

    Great article Satjayit. The only amused reservation I have is other than the EU you didnt identify a single worthy recipient of an anti-award in the economics/finance area. And heaven knows there have been a few worthies out there these last few years.

    This is at first sight strange given other industry awards which do identify the offenders – like the razzies, the igNobel prizes, the Darwin Awards and one from your neck of the woods – the Ernies for sexism (I used to think this was in honour of a notorious TV presenter but apparently its for a neanderthal union boss (no offense to the real neanderthals who clearly were rationalised)).

    But thinking about it this lack of lampooning makes sense as Economics is rather more like religion than an objective free exchange of culture/knowledge – and we know what trouble blasphemers with a sense of humour can get themselves into – my favorite is the University College anonymous blog – Jesus and Mo.

    One suspects your circumspection in not awards a few best in shows in this article (also very evident in your books) is that bankers and the finance industry et al. are so dependent on maintaining their unjustified reputation that a simple cost benefit analysis would show any award receivers the need to sue the hell out of you or Naked Capitalism if any such award were instituted – and as we know they have both the knowledge and tendency to ligitate for more trivial reasons.

  11. Aussie F

    The French critic Guy Debord exposed the nature of the charade brilliantly in his seminal work ‘Society of the Spectacle.’ Analysing the decline of being and having into mere appearing’ in ‘advanced’ societies, Debord charted the destruction of authentticy, critical thought and quality of life that attend the spectacles apalling victory.

    “By mans of the Spectacle the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise…the locus of illusion and false consciousness..in form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself.”

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