The crisis: it wasn’t personal

Book review: Swimming with Sharks: My Journey into the World of the BankersJoris Luyendijk's behind the scenes take on life in the City is worth reading for its unique perspective, says Matthew Partridge.


Published by Guardian Faber Publishing (£12.99)

Since the financial crisis, hundreds of books have been written about the failings of the banks and how the financial sector should be reformed. Most have focused on the big "macro" picture. But investigative journalist Joris Luyendijk took the opposite approach. In order to understand how the City really functions, he interviewed several individual City workers. These anonymous interviews were published on The Guardian's website and now form the basis for Swimming With Sharks.

He covers a wide range of people, from investment bankers and traders to IT staff and regulators. Given that most financial institutions strongly discourage their staff from talking to the media, many of his subjects are people who are unhappy enough to take the risk of talking to him. Dislike for the cut-throat atmosphere and the nature of the work is widespread, but a significant minority are willing to defend their choice of career and the system. This means the book is less one-sided than you might expect, and Luyendijk is forced to consider both sides of the argument.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

One thing that enhances the book's credibility is the lack of 'Wolf of Wall Street'- type antics. In fact, one of the few anecdotes about trading-floor high jinks comes from another memoir. This may disappoint some, but it underlines that while there are problems with the modern financial world, it is arguably more meritocratic and open than the old City. It also reflects that power has shifted from the "lucky monkey" trader with the Midas touch to the "quant" with the advanced science degree.

Unsurprisingly, the author concludes by calling for radical reform of the banking system. However, he is vague about what exactly this would entail. One idea, which runs throughout the entire work, is that banks may simply be too big to function properly.

In some cases this shows itself in conflicts of interest (for example, the pressure put on analysts to tailor their reports to help banks win investment banking business). However, it can also lead to wasteful duplication and a lack of effective oversight the typical bank chief executive is nominally in charge of thousands of executives, many with a high degree of expertise.

Swimming With Sharks lacks the wider perspective and detailed prescriptions of other books about the financial crisis, but its unique perspective makes it worth a read. If you want to hear about the reality behind the headlines, grab a copy. The book "will certainly not change the views of those who see bankers as moral lepers", says Jonathan Ford in the Financial Times.

However, the book's "sombre" message is that "the problem is systemic not personal". As Nicholas Blincoe in The Daily Telegraph notes, "Luyendijk tends towards the prophet-of-doom, but perhaps that is what we need".

Swimming with Sharks: My Journeyinto the World of the Bankers byJoris Luyendijk. Published by Guardian Faber Publishing (£12.99).

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri