August is the season for conversation about career choices. Every holiday party seems to include new graduates or next year’s graduands in need of grown-up advice. Many yearn to be pastry chefs, having devoted their student years to watching The Great British Bake Off. Some want to be journalists, and I tell them it’s more fun than having a secure job with a decent income. Happily I’ve only met one young man this summer who wants to go into financial PR, the métier in which I believe Satan himself did his first internship. ‘Diplomacy’ is often mentioned, I suppose because there’s a lot of that on the telly these days too; but it is invariably pipped as a preference by ‘wealth management’, or ‘emerging markets’, or some other City niche.
Despite my weekly aspersions, I’m not against youngsters venturing into the financial arena — there are vivid experiences to be had for those who can hack it and stay human. But I worry that many bright kids are attracted to it simply because the entry-level pay is higher than elsewhere and because, being in many respects a loose discipline, it looks easy. Barristers can become even richer than bankers, but they have to scrape through pupillage and memorise volumes of law first, and I’m sure that prospect pushes many towards other callings to which they were always going to be better suited. So my advice this summer is to try the baking, the blogging, the Foreign Office, the travelling circus — whatever else takes your fancy — first, or get with the entrepreneurial zeitgeist as some 365,000 Britons have done so far this year and start your own company; and if none of that works, then try the City in a couple of years time. But not the other way round, and don’t go near PR.
The Duke of Cambridge is a pretty good role model, by the way. He did work experience at HSBC after graduating from St Andrews in 2005 — ‘mostly in the charity services division’, according to the Palace, anyway definitely not in the division handling Mexican drug money that in due course attracted a $1.9 billion fine. A month was enough for him, however, and after a stint in the army and a pause for thought he has finally decided to become an air ambulance pilot. He was right to take advantage of the freedoms of time and choice with which today’s young are blessed. ‘What’s happened to X?’ I asked one Oxbridge son-of-a-friend about another, ‘He seemed pretty determined to find a serious job when I talked to him last summer.’ ‘Oh him,’ came the answer, ‘He’s loafing around in Paris trying to be a playwright.’ That’s more like it.
If I had taken time to try other things, I probably wouldn’t have followed my father into the financial world. But I did, and one of my most vivid experiences there, certainly the most challenging in a professional sense, was the privatisation of Malaysia Airlines, on which (as I mentioned when MH370 disappeared in March) I worked for a sweltering year in Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1980s. Following the shooting down of MH17 by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists, the airline which had already made big recent losses has suffered such a collapse of passenger confidence that it has had to be renationalised via a sovereign wealth fund, and will probably change its name.
If those measures fail to stabilise the business, it will have to seek a merger partner, as has often been the way out of trouble for former state-owned carriers elsewhere. Air France-KLM was an early example; the British Airways-Iberia combo International Airlines Group has just announced strong results; and Alitalia is about to become half-owned by Etihad of Abu Dhabi. I wonder whether it would be possible despite local sensitivities — it would certainly be a challenge for any young investment banker — to engineer a re-merger of Malaysia Airlines with Singapore Airlines, from which it was split out in 1972. In Ukraine and across the Middle East, we are seeing attempts to turn back history’s clock; for Malaysia Airlines it is happening by cruel accident.
From France, where I’m enjoying a working holiday, come parallel stories confirming my thoughts expressed a fortnight ago on the complexities and unintended consequences of deploying economic sanctions to deter conflict threats. A Russian embargo on food imports — in response to EU and US sanctions, and targeted measures against ‘Putin’s cronies’, following the MH17 incident — has come as a blow to French farmers who sell 10,000 tonnes a year of tomatoes, cucumbers, turnips, carrots and broccoli to Russia, and are already suffering an unexplained drop in vegetable consumption at home. A price slump is now feared as surplus produce floods European markets, while French meat and dairy exporters also stand to lose more than €200 million worth of Russian orders; even apple-growers are in for a €20 million hit.
These snippets cast an ironic slant on the completion of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, the Vladivostok and the Sevastopol, being built in Saint-Nazaire under a €1.3 billion ‘technology transfer’ deal signed in 2011 between Paris and the Kremlin. President Hollande has declared himself determined to deliver Vladivostok in October (Sevastopol is not due until next year) — despite France’s Nato membership, Nato’s warning of a ‘high probability’ of a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, and the example of Germany’s cancellation of a contract to supply ‘military exercise field simulators’ to the Russian army. More sophisticated than any warship Russia’s own yards are currently capable of building, these vessels will enable Putin’s navy to land troops and tanks, under helicopter or jump-jet cover, not only on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast but on any beach within 10,000 kilometres of their home port. If, as seems likely, that happens to be Sevastopol in Crimea, they will be within easy reach of the Côte d’Azur.
Oh well, I suppose Hollande can always command his naval base at Toulon to bombard the invaders with unsold ratatouille.