At this firm, we comply with Swiss law. A bank’s mandate is to grow its clients’ wealth, not to police how this wealth is used, acquired, or taxed.
Following this lesson in business ethics, the firm’s compliance director – a chipper, lean, and maternal French Canadian woman in her mid-50s whose bouncy voice and silver bangs radiate positive energy – opens the stack of portfolios on her desk and begins presenting her daily routine.
“Here, we don’t want dirty money. So I perform background checks on prospective clients and review current clients’ sizable transactions to ensure against money laundering and other criminal activity.”
She waits for me to nod, then continues her wholesome chirp.
“Look here. This man sold his yacht’s parking spot on the Riviera for 1.5 million Euros.”
The account manager beckons Come-in-come-in with his non-phone-holding arm, so I enter and slump at a seat.
“Move to England for 8-10 years, then return to Canada with your Swiss money. Claim you made that money in England.” The account manager mouths two minutes in my direction, straightens his spine, and moves a hand through is full head of silver hair. Lean, fit, and about 5’7” or 5’8”, he’s the less energetic but far smoother version of the compliance director.
Twenty minutes later, the account manager orders wine, 30 Franc (1 Swiss Franc was about USD$1 at the time) appetizers, and 75 Franc entrees for the two of us on the sun-deck at his favorite week-day lunch spot.
After firm handshakes and broad smiles with other men in suits, the account manager’s attention shifts to me. At a conversation lull, I ask why he advised the nervous man on the phone to move to England.
“You see, Swiss banking secrecy is on its final limb. The American government is hounding us to become more transparent. We operate as if there are 10 years left. So legalizing the 95% of the money we manage that’s been hidden from governments – and, thus, un-taxed – is an important part of our work.”
“So what do you do for the firm?”
“Some very very very wealthy Arab men. They trust me. Their money follows me.”
Another week on the job, another casual 300 Franc mid-day lunch. This time my benefactor is an impeccably dressed Pakistani. Pressed black Italian suit with thin cream pinstripes covering a starched cream-colored button-down shirt – his maroon tie and mocha shoes, which match his complexion perfectly, are the only articles of clothing that are neither black nor white. A man in his mid-70s, he’s lost most of his hair; yet, he manages to groom what’s left and polish his scalp in a tasteful manner.
Money. That’s the image this man projects. That’s what he talks about. Those who have it are the people he admires. He’s endearingly polite and awkward. He opens doors for others, his head-bobs and hand gestures are jerky, there’s an unnatural pause before he speaks, and he cranes his head forward with a static gaze when he listens.
This man enjoys discussing what he loves, not why. While elegant, there’s a void where substance should be. His style is antiquated. I’m sure he has no idea how to use a computer. While presentation may have been the name of the game 30 years ago – when he built his Arab clients’ “trust” – today’s connectivity and big data analyses expose lack of substance.
He proclaims his love for American literature and states that my grandfather was “a very very very good man.” I’m sure they barely knew each other, but embellishing positive sentiment is what people in Switzerland do. After attempts at other subjects hit premature dead ends, conversation circles back to money.
At the end of the meal, I convey a similar degree of gratitude I’d expressed to the other four co-workers who had taken me to lavish lunches. While the lunch was a treat for me, it was arguably even more of a treat for him. The ability to pay for lavish treats is why he’d made all that money in the first place.
Upon arriving a little before 9am, I turn on my computer, check my email, and scan espn.com, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal headlines. Between 9:30am and 10am, I crack open my French textbook. The firm pays me 4,000 Francs/month to study French, procrastinate, and consume chocolate croissants while observing swans dance on a glassy lake upon which the sun’s reflection hurts my eyes.
I receive an email from my college roommate. He’s a counselor at a summer camp for an orphanage in Ethiopia. He functions as underprivileged children’s exposure to Western culture. He teaches them English and sports, and he organizes their days so that the lessons/fun mix is optimized. And he learns from them. He improves his ability to interact with young children, and he exchanges laughs and smiles with accepting villagers who have nothing but are happy anyway. They teach him cultural dances and expose him to how the developing world operates. Of particular note are Ethiopian construction sites. In the USA, scaffolding is metal. In Ethiopia, it’s sticks glued together with gum. His room is hot and sticky, and he sleeps on a cot. Connecting to the Internet requires miles of driving down unpaved roads to a nearby hotspot.
I receive second email from a different friend spending his summer building a hospital and introducing vaccines to a small village in Sierra Leone. The deterioration of his personal hygiene is a lowlight – he sweats constantly and never showers. The laziness of his co-workers is another lowlight – even when provided resources they refuse to build the hospital in a timely manner. But at the end of the summer, he will have contributed to healing the maladies of villagers for generations to come while having encountered the inefficiencies of the developing world.
My response to both emails evokes the glamorous land of chocolate shops, swans, Italian suits, casual 300 Franc lunches, and 1.5 million Euros parking spaces. The pristine world in which bankers work 9:30am-5:30pm and make millions. And where scenery for sunset jogs sets fresh water streams and massive pastures beneath an Alpine horizon. Like my impeccably dressed Pakistani co-worker, I project elegance, but there’s a void where substance should be.
This void stems from selfishness. From consuming without contributing. A depressing day for an asset manager is when he loses $1 million for a client who has $40 million in the bank. It’s $1 million that would have languished in a vault – not built hospitals for villages in Sierra Leone or connected orphanages in East Africa to the Internet.
I try stretching capitalist theory to embellish the asset manager’s contribution. The world needs asset managers. People need to be confident they can retain wealth once they’ve acquired it. And getting rich is a contribution in and of itself! The wealthy spend more, and every dollar spent trickles down and multiplies throughout the economy. Indirectly, the asset manager feeds the poor through his diligent pursuit of turning $40 million into $41 million.
Perhaps this logic is valid on a large scale. But, on an individual level, I have trouble convincing myself that Mr. 40 Million would spend more if he became Mr. 41 Million. And even if he would, this contribution is too abstract for me – it’s not observing the hospital you helped build or listening to an eight year-old Ethiopian girl speak the English you taught her.
I work at an environmental NGO now. Everyone wishes paychecks were higher – snarky catch phrases, such as “that’s why they pay us the big bucks,” are commonplace. Budgets are tight, and pursuing grants from private donors who dedicated their careers to accumulating wealth is core to our organization’s existence. Daily conversations, however, revolve around the creation of incentives to reduce deforestation and wean the world off of coal far more often than around personal wealth. And it’s inspiring to work alongside people who are more focused on the global influence of their work than how their work will impact bonuses.
I don’t hate finance, and I love money. It makes life cozy, and I want a lot of it. I want to consume, and I judge people who spend at an unsustainable rate. And my Swiss co-workers from the summer of 2010 treated me with kindness. But obsession with wealth can be costly. It can deprive one of a sense of citizenship – how one can claim he made the world a better place, beyond tax-exempt charitable donations. Furthermore, wealth obsession can instill a mentality that prizes elegance and prices over substance – preference for the $30 can of beans over the $25 sushi platter.
I’m unmarried with zero dependents and at least 40 years from retirement; the NGO salary is more than enough for me. But as I get older, I foresee this state of affairs might no longer be the case. What’s frustrating is that luxury and public service, from what I’ve experienced so far in my brief career, has been either-or, not both-and. I tip my hat to those in lucrative professions who are fulfilled by their contribution to society.