Hard Times On the Thames
Friday, October 10, 2008
LONDON, Oct. 9 -- The flash of cash by the super-rich bankers and traders who work in London's financial district had come to symbolize the capital. They ordered birthday cakes with emeralds. They ran up $10,000 bar bills at nightclubs. They drove, or were driven in, Porsches and Bentleys.
But now, said Kate Marshall, who works at a 24-hour concierge service called Quintessentially, bankers have suddenly stopped ordering champagne fountains for parties: "Gone are the days of flashy wealth."
The City, as the London financial district where 400,000 people work is called, has undergone astounding expansion in the past decade. Recently it had been touting itself not just as the chief rival of Wall Street but as the city poised to overtake it.
Now the boast is gone.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown vowed Thursday to "punish" the bankers and traders who helped create the financial crisis with "excessive and irresponsible risk-taking."
The London Paper, an evening subway tabloid, shouted in a headline, "Greedy Bankers Must Pay."
Just last year, analysts estimated that London's financial wizards were paid a total of $17 billion in annual bonuses, including more than 4,200 people who received bonuses of at least $2 million each -- all on top of their already fat salaries.
The joke was that there were so many wealthy that there were "the haves and the have-yachts." Now, with thousands losing their jobs and "for sale" signs sprouting up across some of London's wealthiest neighborhoods, it seems more like the "hads and had-yachts."
"It's about prestige," said Nick Ferrari, a popular talk-show host on LBC radio in London, who takes listeners' calls for hours every morning. "People think the British are not given the respect we deserve. The one thing we did best was finance, and we felt great about that. That's why this hurts so much."
As quickly as the City's fortunes have fallen, Brown's have risen.
Brown's approval rating dived into the teens in recent months as the slow-to-smile Scot, the bookish son of a Presbyterian minister, was criticized as having the charisma and leadership skills of a moose lumbering through a forest.
But in the past two weeks, public assessment of Brown has shifted. He hasn't changed, but his low-key style is now widely being interpreted differently. Instead of dull, he is seen by many as unflappable, a voice of moderation and restraint amid a screaming horde of Chicken Littles.