Thursday, October 16, 2008
I think what I’m going to miss most is the elitism.
Though I’ve never worked in finance, for the past three years, I have been exploring the culture of young investment bankers on this website. Through a mix of fake articles and first and third person stories, I’ve attempted to bring light to topics ranging from the “glamorous,” nightlife and fashion, to the geeky, obsessive attention to detail and technical wizardry in Excel. The responses I’ve received and the comments left here have often offered even deeper insight into the psyche of the young banker / wannabe banker, and they’ve illustrated that one sentiment resonated more than any other: elitism.
What others don’t realize is that at the junior levels, everyone in banking makes relatively the same amount of money, and as such, bankers cling to an intricate hierarchy devised to rank institutions, groups within institutions, and individuals within those groups.
This site has seen comments (taken verbatim), like:
“Hey Wachovia bankers, what are you guys going to spend your $600 economic stimulus checks on?”
Which would you rather be?
(A) An M&A MD at Jeffries
(B) A PWM VP at Bear
(C) A trade settlement analyst at Lehman
(D) A HR intern at GS
(E) A janitor at Citadel
For as long as I can remember, friends of mine used the names of boutique banks to refer to anything struggling or broken down—cars, clothes, electronics. I’ve seen a guy who himself worked at a boutique fail at picking up a girl and then bow his head in shame and say to himself: “Damn. That was so Piper Jaffray-ish of me.”
Then even lower down the totem pole came corporate lawyers, risk management, and the back office. But the ultimate insult—“retail banker”—was one that signified you had the horrific task of interacting with everyday, normal people. Absolutely disgusting.
I came to love this brand of humor. I relished the concept of people who found themselves to be elite being outdone by those who were widely recognized as being even more prestigious. And that’s what drove this website.
Throughout the credit crunch, elitism has been one of the last few fibers holding together the morale of the younger ranks of Wall Street. The fall of Bear Stearns could be attributed to their unrefined, “meathead” culture. Even if bonus outlooks were grim, you could look to your colleague and say “At least we don’t work in North Carolina,” and then make a Bank of America crack. Deal flow could literally be non-existent in private equity or your hedge fund could be down 20%, but hey—buy side, strong side. And as I’ve been trying to publicize my now more overtly ironic than intended book, Damn It Feels Good To Be A Banker, in the wake of this crisis, I, too, have been clutching dearly to elitism as a safe, time-tested comedic device.
For awhile, I’d known the situation was grim, but the sheer gravity of it all didn’t really hit until a recent dinner for a friend’s birthday at a midtown steakhouse. I had been following the news closely, but it was there, in the thick of it, that I realized just how messed up things had gotten.
It was a meal like any other, but when the check came to our table and we all pulled out our credit cards (to split, not roulette it, sadly), my friend Clay, a Lehman Brothers trader, was hesitant. For some reason, Clay insisted: “We should all just pay cash, guys.” Nervously, he added: “You know, it’ll just be easier and faster.”
My other friend at the table, Jeff, an ex-strategy consultant now working “in industry,” has always been the bottom rung of the totem pole, consistently berated for his impoverished, not hard-enough working ways. Jeff normally can’t even get a word in edgewise without his pathetic stories being trumped by the retelling of some grand act of financial deftness. But this week, he was confident. A smile of pure bliss crept across Jeff’s face as he motioned with his head towards Clay and whispered loudly: “looks like someone’s a little scared of leverage.”
Jeff’s insolence—a total disruption of the pecking order—was just one of a series of signs that the game had officially changed; the entire system had flipped. The Wall Street Journal reported that boutique banks, once laughed at for hiring only the most unqualified, were now well-positioned to succeed due to their lower capital requirements. Bank of America, the ungodly Middle America-serving beast in North Carolina, had established itself as a Wall Street powerhouse. And most devastating, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley could now take deposits as retail banks. When I heard the news that Sunday, something inside of me died.
Even on here, the non-finance people are perking up, posting cutting comments like:
“That’s great GS and MS will be adding some new ATMs around the world so I can withdraw my already fat Tech paycheck and not worry about the government.”
“Bottles & Models” says:
“Times are tough. I must drop the letter ‘S’ from appearing in my name until things rebound.”
Sure, I’ll join my friends in making a few, last-ditch efforts to revive that tingly feeling of superiority, swatting away the economic postulations of reporters, hipsters, and housewives deriding bankers as “clueless.” “It’s like celebrities talking about politics,” or “Blind people discussing art,” I’ll say, neglecting my own irony.
It’s half-hearted though, and ultimately, I’ve come to accept that the structure we’ve all loved for so long is now completely obsolete. I don’t exactly understand how certain institutions will change in the future, but I do know one thing—we must not let their great acts of the past be forgotten.
So as we move into this new era where everyone’s vying for a job at Raymond James and Goldman Sachs checks are bouncing at grocery stores in Idaho, I implore you to at least keep the memories of the good old days alive. In a couple years, when someone calls his brand new Ferrari “Piper Jaffray-ish,” or Charlotte, NC is the new epicenter of the financial world, I want you to recount the stories of our generation’s firms. Teach your children about the days when even uttering the name Morgan Stanley made college students faint. Read them the pre-2008 league tables, and make your sons and daughters memorize them alongside the ones for multiplication. Do whatever it takes to keep the legend of Wall Street as it was truly intended live on. When you think back on investment banking of the early 21st century, remember the heat—remember the passion. But mostly, remember the titans.