There are numerous gauges of economic health – whether you prefer to look at retail prices, consumer prices, industrial production, gross domestic product or business confidence the list, it seems, is almost endless. And with today’s news of the return of City bonuses and bank profits we might also see the return of lavish lifestyles.
For those of us on the periphery of the financial services industry itself, however, there is a much more direct way of measuring sentiment – the lobster test.
Corporate hospitality is as much a feature of the business as the 12-hour days and the pin-striped suits. Whether it’s champagne and cucumber sandwiches in a box at Lord’s or fine wines and nouvelle cuisine at the Connaught Hotel, Mayfair, being wined and dined is very much the axel grease of the industry during the good times.
It was all the more noticeable, therefore, when despite bullish statements of business as usual the freebies dried up last year.
I’m sure it was in part a response to the pressures of public scrutiny – it would never do to be caught swilling champers while you’re sacking the back office workers – but unspoken significance of it was a creeping belief that the days of excess might really be over.
And it wasn’t just the bankers. PR companies, which fed like ticks on the excesses of the industry at its pomp, suddenly went silent as attention turned from public posturing to simple survival.
This week, sitting over a seafood and saffron risotto in the heart of the city while my host worked his way around a lobster’s blushing carcass, it was starkly demonstrated to me that those ‘good ol’ days’ might not be as gone as we’d imagined.
Lo and behold back at the office the phone has started ringing again with PRs positively bristling with new and exciting ideas to pass on over a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
Though a welcome return to busyness I have to confess it all came laden with an unpleasant sense of déjà vu. While an expensive meal here and there was perhaps symptom rather than cause of the chaos of the past 18 months, it still left me wondering whether a return to the back-slapping ways of the early noughties is warranted or even desirable. I suspect the average taxpayer would find the idea completely unpalatable.
Still there are some signs that things aren’t all as they were. After coffees, and almost with a sly wink, the corporate card was produced and the conversation wound to a close. On the way out my host turned to me with nervous geniality:
“If anyone asks you had the lobster.”