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Banking will never go back to pre-2008, but banks more robust as a result: Tanusree Guha

A director at Bank of America in the UK, with a strong Kolkata connect, on how banking has evolved and why she wants Rishi Sunak as PM

Priyam Marik | Published 03.09.22, 01:00 PM
Tanusree Guha, who has been working in banking for more than one and a half decades, is presently a director at Bank of America in the UK

Tanusree Guha, who has been working in banking for more than one and a half decades, is presently a director at Bank of America in the UK

Tanusree Guha

Tanusree Guha was only a handful of years into banking when the 2008 disaster struck. Then an associate at Morgan Stanley, she had an insider’s perspective on how the supremacy of banks came crashing down, before being rebuilt with more caution than ever before. Presently a director at Bank of America in London, Tanusree finds herself in an ideal position to reflect on how banks have coped after the annus horribilis of 2008 and how banking itself has become far more regulated and robust since.

My Kolkata caught up with Tanusree over a Zoom call connecting a quiet midnight in Kolkata and a bustling evening in London.

Moving from a small town wasn’t easy, Kolkata seemed very big

Tanusree with her husband Sourav Niyogi, her parents and her in-laws

Tanusree with her husband Sourav Niyogi, her parents and her in-laws

Tanusree Guha

My Kolkata: Where did you spend your formative years? When did you move to Kolkata and then move out of the city?

Tanusree Guha: I spent the first three years of my life in Aizawl in Mizoram, then moved to Silchar in Assam, where I finished my schooling and college. Growing up, I’d often come to Kolkata during my vacations since it was my mamabari. I moved from Assam to Kolkata for work in 1998 and stayed there till 2003. Moving from a small town wasn’t easy, Kolkata seemed very big, the attitude of its people and the way they interacted was very different. I also missed speaking in Sylheti, which used to be my main language of communication in Assam. After staying in Kolkata for around five years, I moved out to London in 2003 with a one-way ticket in search of a job in the UK.

When in Kolkata, you can afford to just go on yapping

Esplanade is one of Tanusree’s favourite places to return to whenever she is back in Kolkata

Esplanade is one of Tanusree’s favourite places to return to whenever she is back in Kolkata

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How often do you come back to Kolkata? What are your favourite things to do/places to visit/things to eat when you return to Kolkata?

I come back at least twice or thrice a year. When I left Kolkata, I was probably still discovering the city. I knew north Kolkata well, but south Kolkata still had a lot left for me to explore. Over time, I’ve developed a sense of longing towards Kolkata, which I now associate with my family. Whenever I’m back, I like to visit the Esplanade area, which has a lot of the old buildings of the colonial era, many of which have been renovated. 

Kolkata has transformed massively in the last 15 years or so. The roads are much faster thanks to the flyovers and there are so many more restaurants and cafes. I’m not a foodie at all, but I still like to check out a new place every once in a while. One of my favourite things to do in Kolkata is to sit in a coffee shop and chat with my friends or relatives without keeping a tab on time. When in Kolkata, you can afford to just go on yapping. 

When in London, you may miss your family, but you’ll never miss home

Tanusree finds the train stations in London to be as puzzling as those in Kolkata

Tanusree finds the train stations in London to be as puzzling as those in Kolkata

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In almost two decades of living in London, what have you enjoyed the most about the city? To what extent does it remind you of Kolkata?

The best thing about London is its diversity. The number of nations that come together in the city and the way they all live so harmoniously is truly a testament to the concept of the melting pot. When in London, you may miss your family, but you’ll never miss home. This also applies to a great extent to Kolkata, where we have people from lots of different backgrounds and cultures. People in both London and Kolkata are also very sympathetic. Then there’s the architecture in both the cities, with all the old buildings, which are a tad bit cleaner and less polluted in London. The biggest similarity is probably the train stations, which look the same everywhere, so you end up forgetting where you are, be it in London or Kolkata! There are obvious differences, too, that come with development. London’s work culture is far better and more encouraging compared to what I had experienced in Kolkata. 

I realised that I’m more interested in the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ of banking

Tanusree moved to the UK in 2003, three years before she started her part-time Master’s programme at LSE

Tanusree moved to the UK in 2003, three years before she started her part-time Master’s programme at LSE

Tanusree Guha

You completed your Bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Silchar before pursuing your Master’s in finance from LSE. What led to the switch in academic interests?

After my engineering degree, I started working as a software developer, mostly because that’s what a lot of people were doing at the time. I initially got a job at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), but I didn’t want to leave Kolkata. So I rejected that and started working at Usha Communications, before moving to Cognizant. In London, my first job was at Accenture. In all these jobs, I discovered that I had a lot of interest in banking projects, since we often worked with financial organisations as consultants. Gradually, I realised that I’m more interested in the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ of banking and that if I had to move from software development to a more banking-oriented role, I’d be much better off with a degree. So while I was working at Morgan Stanley in 2006, I took up a part-time Master’s programme in finance at LSE. In hindsight, that was the best possible decision because had I given up my job to pursue a full-time programme, I may not have got a job in the next two years, given what happened with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in 2008 (and the consequent financial crisis).

LSE really taught me how to deliver in a team with diverse personalities and qualifications

Industry expertise from visiting professors helped Tanusree a lot during her time at LSE

Industry expertise from visiting professors helped Tanusree a lot during her time at LSE

LSE

How do you look back on your time at LSE? How did it shape you as a professional and as a person?

The biggest takeaway from my time at LSE was how to deliver in a team with diverse personalities and qualifications. As part of my team projects, I had people from all across the world at different stages of their lives. We had classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 6.30pm to 9.30pm, and you couldn’t afford to miss a single class, since there was no time to catch up. LSE really taught me the value of time management. It was also early days for the finance course I was studying and LSE at the time was bringing in many lecturers from outside, both professors at other universities and industry experts. That exposure proved invaluable, as it allowed me to hone my focus. Even now, I can map things well in banking because I was privy to industry expertise during my time at LSE, which is an excellent place to study anything to do with economics or finance.

After 2008, bankers realised that nothing is too big to fail

According to Tanusree, the attitude towards profitability among bankers changed drastically after the 2008 crisis

According to Tanusree, the attitude towards profitability among bankers changed drastically after the 2008 crisis

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As someone who has been in the banking sector for more than one-and-a-half decades, how would you evaluate the evolution of banking during this time? With the rise of cryptocurrency and other unregulated forms of finance, are banks becoming more important or less important to society?

I always prefer looking at banking pre-2008 and post-2008. After the financial crisis of 2008, there was a sea change in the attitudes of bankers and regulators. A lot of the restlessness in certain pockets of banking had given way to restraint. The attitude towards profitability and money making had also changed drastically. At the time of the Wall Street crash in 1929, the biggest banking crisis before 2008, most of us weren’t alive. So we had no idea what that represented. But after 2008, we realised that nothing is too big to fail. No matter who you are, there’s always a possibility that you can collapse, go bankrupt and lose your job. The monitoring increased a lot, as did the regulations, which in some cases have even affected profitability. 

The other big evolution in banking in the last few years has been the rise of the digital and the emergence of the cloud and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Post-Covid-19, the way we store our data has also transformed for the better, with banks getting pushed to the limit in terms of stress-testing. March 2020, for instance, was one of the most volatile markets we had ever witnessed and that taught us to be more robust, to anticipate adversities better. Nowadays it’s far harder, if not impossible, to work around the rules in banking because a lot of the earlier openings have been sealed.

As for the importance of banking in the era of fintech, I don’t think banks are any less important than what they used to be. Banks are still fundamental to the way an economy or a society develops, and while things like crypto and blockchain are great innovations, they’re still unregulated. And as someone in risk management, I know the risks of unregulated commodities. 

By supporting bankers at the time, Obama did the right thing

Tanusree disagrees with the narrative that bankers, especially in the US under Barack Obama, got off lightly in the aftermath of the financial crisis

Tanusree disagrees with the narrative that bankers, especially in the US under Barack Obama, got off lightly in the aftermath of the financial crisis

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An enduring narrative seems to be that bankers got away lightly during a crisis that was largely triggered by them. How would you respond to that narrative?

Let me start responding to this with an analogy. Music is something that’s really close to my heart. If a singer sings really well and is hugely talented, they end up getting a lot of glamour and adulation. But the audience rarely, if ever, gets to see the hard work that the singer puts in through their riyaaz day in and day out. The moment the singer makes a mistake, the audience is quick to judge and chastise them. The situation is similar in banking, in that people think it’s a very glamorous job without realising the stresses and the challenges that come with it. Somehow, bankers always receive the limelight when they do something wrong and never when they get things right. 

When the 2008 crisis happened, there was a lot of bloodbath in banking, hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. Many bankers were so fed up with the stress that they had to change their industries altogether. Were there bad apples? Yes, of course, but that’s not limited to banking. It happens in every industry. But I don’t agree with the narrative that bankers, especially in the US, got off lightly. I think that by supporting bankers at the time, [Barack] Obama (the then US president) did the right thing. If you don’t support banks during a crisis, how will people get loans, how will your GDP targets be met? Banking will never go back to pre-2008, but for everything that’s happened, banks today are in a much better position because we’re more aware of what can go wrong.

A lot of the differences in banking between India and the West are because of cultural differences

There are a lot more hoops to pass in Indian banks, as compared to ones in the West, feels Tanusree

There are a lot more hoops to pass in Indian banks, as compared to ones in the West, feels Tanusree

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What would you say are the biggest differences in how banking works in India as compared to how it works in the UK or the US? 

I haven’t worked for an Indian bank, so I have no working experience. But from what I’ve observed, trading is very difficult and much more regulated in India, as is the case in many emerging economies. If you want to set up a banking unit or launch a product in India, there are a lot more hoops to pass, a lot more bureaucracy to deal with, as compared to the UK or the US. Checks and balances are more stringent, even in retail banking, where you have an OTP for everything. That’s not the case here in the West. If I’m in India today and am interacting with my relationship manager at a bank, then the documentation and security checks I have to wade through are far higher, which can be frustrating. But I’m also getting a personal touch in how my problems are solved, which doesn’t happen in the West. In many ways, a lot of the differences in banking between India and the West are because of cultural differences.

Be prepared to put in more hours in banking than in other professions

To all the young Tanusrees reading this, what advice would you give on becoming an ace banker?

First, before you enter banking, if you can learn about it through formal education, take that chance because it certainly helps. When your foundation is very clear, other things fall into place very quickly. Second, there are no shortcuts, and you have to, at least initially, make a base that’s really wide. Learn as many things in as many different areas — trading, floor, risk management, compliance, currencies — as you can and try and get a taste of everything. Then you can pick your best area to contribute. Third, be prepared to put in more hours than in other professions. Hours are a problem for bankers because banking today is very international. So you have to be good at time management. Last but not the least, it’s not mandatory to have a mathematics degree to work in banking. Of course, certain workstreams in banking absolutely require that but banking is a wide place to work, with multiple disciplines. It’s certainly possible to be a core part of this industry if one has an interest in banking with analytical thinking even without having a mathematics degree.

Even if he wasn’t Indian, I would’ve voted for Sunak as PM

Tanusree during her performance at a special Durga Puja event in London organised by Bengal Heritage Foundation

Tanusree during her performance at a special Durga Puja event in London organised by Bengal Heritage Foundation

Tanusree Guha

Shifting gears, tell us about your passion for music and how often you get to practice. 

I started learning music when I was four, mainly because of my mother. I was also trained as a Kathak dancer in my childhood alongside classical music. I began with learning classical music at Bhatkhande University under the tutelage of Madhobi Goswami in Silchar, before taking up Rabindrasangeet with Maitrayee Dam. I continued with my classical music pursuits under Guruma Sunanda Patnaik in Kolkata. I’ve been very fortunate to be taught by very gifted musicians such as Pramita Mallick, Arati Bhattacharya, Chandrima Misra, Riddhi Banerjee and many others. Back in India, most of my performances used to be for television and radio. I remember collecting my first ever cheque of Rs 15 as a seven or eight-year-old after performing on All India Radio, which made my dad so proud! However, once I started working in Kolkata, I found that time and space for music to be much more limited. 

In 2003, after I had moved to the UK, I rediscovered time and space for music, joining a group called Diganta under Arati Bhattacharya. Presently, I perform frequently in the UK, with a few highlights being performances for BBC Radio and those at The Royal Festival Hall and the Cadogan Hall. I’m associated with Bengal Heritage Foundation (BHF), which allows me to stay connected to my roots. In the UK, I’ve also started taking a more keen interest in Indian folk and heritage music, which is also something that a lot of the locals follow and learn very keenly.

What are your other hobbies and interests? 

I love travelling and spending time with animals. So I enjoyed my visit to the safari in Africa. It’s one of my goals to be able to look at a globe and point to a place in every continent that I’ve been to. Besides travelling, I like watching suspense thrillers. Munich is one of my all-time favourites. I’m currently enjoying the Danish political thriller Borgen and waiting to watch A Holy Conspiracy (starring Soumitra Chatterjee and Naseeruddin Shah).

Tanusree picks Rishi Sunak over Liz Truss as her choice for the next British prime minister

Tanusree picks Rishi Sunak over Liz Truss as her choice for the next British prime minister

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Finally, would you rather have Rishi Sunak or Lizz Truss as the next PM?

Sunak for me, and not just because of his Indian ancestry. The way he’s handled the finances, especially during Covid, and his agenda on reducing bills and helping small businesses, merit praise. Even if he wasn’t Indian, I would’ve voted for him.

Last updated on 03.09.22, 01:00 PM
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