Shares might totter and markets tremble, but the stock of accountants continues to rise. Ruth Prickett finds out why scandals, economic crises and increased regulation are throwing up new opportunities for City financial managers
A new type of City slicker has found a parking place among the Farraris and Porsches of the large investment banks. And the distance from parking space to boardroom is not that far. Accountants have been hot property ever since financial management became the post-Leeson City's equivalent of feng shui -- a kind of new age security blanket to insulate them from past mistakes and nurture a prosperous future.
OK, traditionally the City banks combed the Big Five accountancy firms for young, high-flying auditors. But, just as the traditional management accountant has changed over the past few years, so have the traditional investment banks. Mergers and acquisitions have consolidated the major players, just as some extremely nasty experiences (and, in the banking world, they don't get much nastier than the Barings collapse) and a few unnerving (ie expensive) share crashes forced the banks to look far more closely at risk management.
As dotcom shares totter, investors are looking anxiously at a wobbly US economy -- and an equally uncertain Euro -- and the banks are redoubling their efforts to find people who can control and monitor their finances. The people they need see accounting skills as just the basis of what they can offer. They have to combine the ambition, commitment, iron nerve and confidence of traditional bankers, with the shrewd, rational business acumen of the accountant.
"Traditionally, the banking sector has been extremely insular with people moving from bank to bank and within banks," explains Marco Tonucci, manager of the banking section of consultancy Robert Half City. "But in the past few years there has been a change of emphasis and now they are keen to get people with commercial experience."
This is partly because banks have become far more aware of risk since Nick Leeson traded Barings into the ground and exposed the weaknesses in banking procedures. These have since been tightened up and risk managers have gained a far higher profile. Barings made the mistake of pumping money into a failing operation -- without knowing that it was supporting losses or even where the losses were. Because Leeson was trading and reporting, he became poacher and gamekeeper rolled into one.
"The finance division is the guardian of the financial integrity of the firm," says Vincent Rapley, director of recruitment and development in the finance division of Lehman Brothers. "In financial services your financial integrity is your reputation -- if that goes, your firm is in trouble."
Another reason is that investment banks have not traditionally paid enough attention to costs. "Most banks thought that if their front-office people were making enough money, high costs didn't matter," Tonucci says. "Costs were spiralling and no one really knew why - a lot was disappearing on vast expenses, pay and guaranteed bonuses."
On top of all this, the Japanese stock market crash last year and collapse of Far East economies, coupled with failing dotcoms, plus concerns about the US economy and the Euro mean that shares continue to be volatile. The need for banks to offer high-return products means that risk is a crucial part of their business, but they are looking for ways to hedge their bets.
These new circumstances are forcing banks to take a more cautious approach to security and monitoring business processes -- and they are holding out big carrots to the business-focused accountants they hope can provide this. But, just as the new breed of banks are seeing the value of caution, so they are looking for a new breed of accountants who relish the challenges of a high-pressure, exciting industry.
"The people who will benefit from and add value to these businesses are ambitious, dynamic and happy to work in a fast-moving environment. …