Book review: Diatribe, by Amer Chaudri

Diatribe, by Amer ChaudriIf nothing else, the Great Recession has worked wonders for the publishing industry. One can find virtually any perspective on the crisis — the big banks caused it, Bush’s policies facilitated it, Obama’s aggravated it, and so on — and, accompanying each viewpoint, a plethora of books devoted to its promulgation.

Amer Chaudri, a longtime employee of Citibank, falls into the big-bad-banks camp. His book, Diatribe: A Scathing Journey into the Heart of the Financial Corporate Culture (and Related Digressions), represents a Main Street stab at understanding Wall Street profligacy.

I’ve read several books and countless articles, over the past year or two, on the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. Some do a better job than others of navigating the complex world of derivatives trading, regulatory negligence, and underlying psychological factors. In Chaudri’s case, storytelling emerges as his vehicle of choice for the castigation of an industry.

Unfortunately, while the anecdotes are often entertaining or enlightening, Diatribe contains typos, grammatical errors, and confusing metaphors that at times render entire passages indecipherable. Taken as a whole, too, Chaudri’s musings fail to coalesce into a meaningful thesis, often devolving into trite expressions of complaint against the C-suite set.

This is not to say Diatribe is without its insights. Chaudri is uniquely positioned somewhere between the suits facing off at Congressional subcommittee hearings and the casual observer following the proceedings in The Wall Street Journal. As a Citibank employee working on multiple continents and in various capacities for well over a decade, he can hardly be accused of misunderstanding his subject.

Perhaps his ablest analysis is in his dissection of conducting business via silos, a system in which multiple work processes are packaged together and shipped to a remote location (ostensibly to improve efficiency). Dell’s Indian call centers are a prime example of a form of silos that provoked public outcry. In Citibank’s case, these silos were usually domestic, but the sense of disconnect that their implementation engendered among employees was no less real.

The author recounts some of the headaches induced by the silo model, noting that “call-center people were talking to our clients fixing up their problems, and sometimes creating new ones. They even sold them on products and services becoming our internal competitors. These were clients that, we in the field, had worked hard to acquire [sic]. We considered them to be our privilege. Hence, an unhealthy conflict between the branches and call centers persisted within our company.”

Chaudri also captures, with acute snark, the pervasive principal-agent conflicts that (according to him) took on especially absurd proportions at Citibank. The dilemma was especially pronounced in relation to the constant structural realignments and procedural changes being implemented from the top of the company hierarchy. “When a new regime arrived,” Chaudri explains, “to remove the incumbent lot of cronies, a geographical or hierarchical restructuring was announced. Territories were sometimes broken up and re-patched under new bosses. Or sometimes territorial hierarchies were eradicated and replaced with product or portfolio hierarchies. Whenever this happened, long drawn memos were sent out expounding the new strategy and how it will aid us in our market growth.”

The author’s disgust with management’s perceived shenanigans is palpable. But at times Diatribe sinks into slapstick eruptions, as when Chaudri scoffs at the notion that banks had failed to embrace the willingness-to-pay business model: “But, for now, the point being…pricing analysts from the travel and hospitality industries were going to teach us? Us? On the doctrine of willingness-to-pay? Us! HAH! HA! HA! HAAAAAAAAH!” Earlier on, recounting one weekend in which his team was required to report for work, Chaudri exults, “We didn’t work one extra ounce of business. We had that right.”

What Diatribe most lacks is a sense of cohesion (as well as rigorous editing). In some places, it tells a tale of widespread corporate irresponsibility; elsewhere, it takes on the form of a career memoir. His understated (and often entertaining) cynicism notwithstanding, Amer Chaudri would do well to narrow his focus for any future endeavors.

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