Safe small-talk when you work in banking
A good trading floor should in many ways be like a good dinner party - plenty of lively conversation and heated debate over issues of the day. But never presume that anything goes. Trading floors have a reputation for volatility (individuals not markets), and some subjects are out of bounds.
Sport, for example, should only be brought up if you're capable of remaining civil about it. Politics and religion even more so. There are some disagreements which can get so passionate and out of hand that they risk damaging personal relationships forever. People have to work together after all. We're better off not knowing things about our colleagues which might make it difficult to look them in the eye. But what happens when the issue can no longer be avoided? As students of Karl Marx (of whom there are often more on trading floors than you'd expect) will tell you, although you might choose to ignore politics, politics will not always ignore you.
Both of the capitals of the Anglo-Saxon financial world have this problem at the moment. In London, there's Brexit; in New York, there’s Trump. In both cases, the combination of political risk and economic uncertainty are a large part of what is driving the market and creating a lot of issues for the industry itself. You can hardly pretend that they're not happening. Particularly in the case of Brexit, people in the City of London have to organise themselves for the regulatory consequences, including making plans to move key functions to Frankfurt, Paris or Dublin and you can’t expect them to not mention from time to time that they’d rather not have to do that.
Overall, there seems to be a reasonable degree of consensus among the finance community that both Trump and Brexit are on balance not good things. For the first time since 2012, the balance of Wall Street political contributions favours Democratic candidates in the midterm elections, for example. But it's more than likely that any given trading floor or IBD office contains at least a couple of Brexiteers or a few Trump voters. And even if there weren’t, there are always a couple of contrarians hanging around who love to challenge the consensus just because it’s the consensus.
So how do you deal with these matters without letting everything degenerate into an undignified shouting match which ends up tearing apart teams that could otherwise have gone on working together productively for years? Well, if there’s one thing that finance people ought to be better at than the majority of the population, it’s understanding that there’s a difference between what you want to happen and what you think will happen, and that there’s usually hardly any profit to be made in spending a lot of time talking about the first.
Everybody understands, for example, that the China strategist, even if he or she is upgrading estimates for GDP or predicting successful management of a financial crisis, is not by that token a Communist. It’s possible to have a view on the Tel Aviv or Dubai stock markets while being a member of any major world religion or none. If someone believes that financial deregulation and tax cuts are going to more than offset trade wars and be a net benefit to the US economy, for example, then we don’t need to assume that this makes them a supporter of Donald Trump personally (unless they retire from the industry to go and work for him). And even then, it turns out, we might find out we were wrong to make that assumption when they resign and write their memoirs.
So, even when the subject can’t be avoided, it makes sense to follow the dinner party rule to the greatest extent possible. Talk about whether things are good or bad for business, rather than good or evil for the people who believe in them. If someone genuinely holds abhorrent views, then sooner or later they will express them specifically, at which point they become a problem to be dealt with by human resources. Until then, we’re all likely to do better if we refrain from raising subjects for debate where we can guess that the answers are only likely to annoy us.
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