Most weekday mornings during breakfast I read the London Financial Times (FT). I worked twice in London as an American ex-pat for Shell Trading and balance the US news against European reporting. On the 9th of July 2019, John Gapper wrote an editorial in the FT titled: ‘Deutsche’s bankers were alienated from their job: The way in which Christian Sewing dismissed traders is a symptom of the industry’s lack of loyalty.’ Deutsche Bank recently decided to exit trading which will cause the loss of 18,000 jobs by 2022. The bank’s rational was both economic and strategic. Costs for trading exceeded income and management decided to invest in disciplined automation rather than speculation.
The FT editorial did not deride Deutsche Bank’s managerial decision to close their trading activities. The editorial concentrated on the relationship between employer and employees. “It is difficult to see how any business can achieve long-term success when there is evidently so little bond between it and its employees. Deutsche is not alone in this absence – many investment banks rely almost entirely on money as their motivator, and have very fragile cultures.”
While at Shell, I traded with many investment banking companies during my 24 years in energy trading. I watched the highs and lows, the comings and goings, the ins and outs. Sometimes I wondered how these speculative traders made money, like Enron before they went bankrupt. I observed the fast-paced lifestyle of the high bonused traders; however, few sustained it for long. Speculative markets tend to eventually reverse fortunes which leads to unemployment, then the cycle begins again with a new employer.
My company grew their energy trading business around the delivery of various energy products to its customers. Energy trading was needed to do this efficiently. Speculation was only a small part of the portfolio. Shell’s primary risk taking was managing optionality and prudently pricing it. During my years with Shell, trading grew both in volume and profits. It is a vital supporting business to their upstream and downstream operations.
“The bankers did not expect any loyalty from above and took it for granted that they would be dismissed one day.” Mr. Gapper quoted an investment banking study last year: “when there is no purpose, work becomes absurd, alienating or even demeaning.” If your only reward is money without any benefit to society besides your own personal spending, then the relationship between the employer and employee is broken. The relationship is simply: pay me or I leave (employee) ¬– make money or you’re fired (employer).
I was fortunate to progress through Shell Trading while working many years with colleagues who started with me and eventually retired from Shell. We began as young employees learning about energy, then entered their trading department. Through competency, we advanced into various trading assignments. At first, the professional salaries were much lower than investment bankers. Over time and with performance, we were well compensated. Our focus was to add value to the upstream production and downstream energy products which made Shell a competitive supplier of energy. Shell Trading built their trading business with a long-term strategy and employees stayed because the relationship was deeper than the bonuses. It was a community. After retirement, I still have Shell friends who care for one another.
Christians are called by God into vocations that are meaningful, both individually and to our community. I came to Shell for a career that included personal growth. Energy benefits our community and my trading years allowed me to deliver energy competitively and compliantly. If the only purpose of employment is to receive a large bonus, then I question this calling. Utilitarian employment results in eventual burnout from stress and internal existential conflicts. Have I sold my soul for a buck? It may seem exciting at first to live the fast-paced life of a trader, making the big bets and reaping the financial rewards. But as the years pass, the bigger questions start popping up. What is the purpose of life? How do I want to be remembered? Is there more to life than fighting the financial markets for a possible big bonus?