Banking: Stars and bars

Once divided into mainly-Protestant clearing banks and often-Jewish merchant banks, the City has since been transformed. But it is still learning from its past.

By Alex Brummer, December 13, 2010
Thatcher’s Big Bang sent traditional barriers in the Square Mile tumbling down

Thatcher’s Big Bang sent traditional barriers in the Square Mile tumbling down

Time was when the City of London divided into two separate breeds of banks.

There were the clearing banks founded by Protestant (in the case of Barclays, Quaker) families. And the merchant banks, many (but not all) with Jewish roots.

When Sir Victor Blank was appointed chairman of Lloyds TSB in 2006, before the disastrous merger with HBOS a year later, it was a case of two firsts. He was the first Jewish chairman of a clearing bank and among the first to travel from merchant banking - at Charterhouse (via GUS) - into the rarefied world of high-street banking.

Such distinctions may now look like ancient history. However, the credit crunch followed by the "great panic" of 2008-09 has re-awakened a sense of difference.

Indeed, the independent Banking Commission - headed by former Office of Fair Trading chief Sir John Vickers and including FT commentator Martin Wolf - is currently looking at whether it is time, once again, to separate the utility banks (the old clearers) from the "casino" or investment banks.

Grand merchant banking houses, many Jewish, stood at the centre of Britain’s pre-Big Bang financial system

The old divisions between clearing banks and merchant banks held just as true on Wall Street as in the City. The great "money centre banks" - the equivalent of our clearing banks - Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan, Chemical and the rest - were Protestant and preppie.

The investment banks (or
broker-dealers), the equivalent of our merchant banks, from Lehman to Salomon and Goldman Sachs, were largely Jewish. Many of them could trace their origins back to dry goods or commodity dealers in the Deep South.

In America, the differences between the money centre banks and the broker dealers was enshrined in law by the Glass-Steagall Act (1932).

This was one of the "New Deal" laws designed to make American finance a safer place. It was this act which among other things forced the break-up of that most blue-blooded of American banks, JP Morgan, resulting in the birth of a series of baby Morgan houses including Morgan Stanley in New York and Morgan Grenfell (long deceased) in London.

In Britain, grand merchant banking houses, including such Jewish houses as Samuel Montagu, SG Warburg and NM Rothschild, stood at the centre of Britain's pre-Big Bang financial system. Their prestige and connections were partly based on approval by the Bank of England, which authorised them to "accept bills" issued by the UK government. The "accepting houses" were regarded as the elite of the system, while those that stood outside were regarded as below the salt.

It was Siegmund Warburg, a refugee from Germany, founder of the greatest of the post-war houses, SG Warburg, who began to change the image of staid investment banking. He and his colleagues were not satisfied with traditional operations in the bill market and trade finance and developed their advisory arms.

Warburg became regarded as the master of the hostile takeover, something new to Britain. It was a golden age, when the City was protected from outside influences by capital controls and restrictive practices which kept fees up and newcomers out.

Historian Niall Ferguson, in High Financier, his recent biography of Siegmund, notes that his "meticulous business methods and strict ethical code set Warburg apart from the mere speculators and traders who inhabit today's financial world".

Mrs Thatcher's Big Bang in 1986 changed the City forever. Capital controls and the traditional barriers in the Square Mile came tumbling down . Houses like Warburg and Morgan Grenfell were snapped up rivals, there was a free-for-all in lending. It was open season in the City of London for foreign buyers.

Most of the traditional merchant banks, like Warburg, had the skills but not the capital to compete globally. Gradually, over the subsequent two decades, they were snapped up by overseas marauders.

Citibank - run by a Jewish interloper Sandy Weill - having bought Salomon Brothers (perhaps the purest trading house of all in the United States) bought


This was a surprising acquisition, in that Schroders, with its origins in Hanseatic ports of Germany, was not known for its philo-Jewish policies.

When, in the 1970s, James Wolfensohn (later to be president of the World Bank) rose to chief-executive and deputy-chairman, he was passed over in favour of Lord Airlie, in what was seen as an anti-Semitic snub.

SG Warburg, without Siegmund to lead the defence, was swallowed by Union Bank of Switzerland and renamed UBS Warburg. Many of the Warburg veterans (including James Sassoon now a Tory Minister in the Lords) remained in place, but gradually its identity was destroyed by the Swiss.

Amid all the turmoil, very little of Britain's native merchant banking community was left intact. One of the few survivors was NM Rothschild, which unlike other family-controlled banks studiously refused to be tempted by the huge fees involved in global trading activities.

It had its own rift, when Lord (Jacob) Rothschild fell out with his cousin Evelyn de Rothschild and the former went off and set up his own operation under the rubric Rothschild Investment Trust.

But Evelyn proceeded cautiously, focusing on advice on mergers and takeovers, the privatisation revolution in Britain and the financing of the smaller and medium-sized companies of no interest to the universal banks like Barclays, Citibank and JP Morgan.

It proved a successful strategy. Under the stewardship of his successor, Baron David de Rothschild, the head of the French branch of the bank, the British and French houses were brought back together and steered their way through the noughties without becoming caught up in the curse of the sub-prime mortgage crisis which brought banks as large as Citibank and UBS to their knees and on the verge of bankruptcy.

Amid the tidal wave, NM Rothschild was a rock of stability. As companies and banks sought advice on fundraising, capital reconstructions and deals in the wake of the crisis, it was the traditional houses like NM Rothschild and Lazard (run by the late New York financier Bruce Wasserstein) that were the trusted survivors.

They rocketed back to the top of the advisory and merger and acquisition league tables because of their perceived reliability.

Integrity once again was seen as more important than the size of the balance sheet and global reach.

    Last updated: 12:19pm, December 13 2010