Sold short: confessions of a young banker
I had to watch each episode of “Industry”, a tv drama about young bankers, in 15-minute doses. This is no fault of the show, which is joyously binge-worthy and thoroughly deserves the second series it has just been granted. It’s because it reminded me so powerfully of my previous life – as a 20-something on the trading floor – that I kept having to press pause before psyching myself up to carry on watching.
Sure, some of the details are a little off (how did Harper get away with that $140k loss? Would a hedge-fund manager really bet on Treasury yields going to 4%?). Yet most of it is jarringly familiar to anyone who, like me, was lured into a career in finance as a young person.
When a character spread his company-branded fleece on the floor of a toilet cubicle to take a nap instead of returning home to sleep, I sighed with recognition. I remembered that choice: should I waste over an hour travelling back and forth for two hours’ sleep in a real bed, or kip on the bathroom floor for three? I, too, picked the loos – mostly because I was afraid that going home would mean I would turn up late the next day.
How did I end up working in finance? Though I told people it was because I liked economics and maths, in large part it reflected my own insecurity. I reckoned I was pretty clever and reasonably numerate. But I was also worried that I lacked the wild talent and immense self-belief that you need to pursue a “dream career” in something like theatre or politics, where failure looms large. My passion was for being successful.
I found my home in an investment bank. I have always thought it curious that the public perception of those who work in finance is that they are essentially gamblers. In my experience, finance is a career for those with fierce ambition, ill-defined goals – and an aversion to risk. Working in a bank suits bright, hard-working people who can follow basic ethical rules. It is risky to follow your passion, to try to become an artist, an academic, an actor or an astronaut. It is not risky to become a banker. Show up, work hard and don’t break the law: this is all that is really required for you to become inordinately rich. Or at least rich enough to afford not to live in a house-share.
When I started my second year of university in the autumn of 2010, I fired off a slew of applications to all the top banks for internships the following summer. Almost no one is hired onto a bank’s graduate-training programme unless they have been a summer intern. Out of thousands who apply to be interns, 50 to 100 are hired at the London office of a typical investment bank.
“Finance is a career for people with fierce ambition, ill-defined goals and an aversion to risk”
In my interviews I trotted out the same nonsense that Harper and her soon-to-be colleagues say in theirs: “This is the purest meritocracy there is.” In banking, everything is a competition. You are constantly pitted against your peers, against rival firms. The prize is pretty irrelevant – all that matters is the winning itself.
The competition between summer interns for a full-time job is ferocious – as “Industry” shows so well. Only half the interns get offered a full-time contract at the end of the summer. Because only certain desks are hiring, you have to sniff out which ones are by meeting as many managers as possible, impressing them and shamelessly quizzing them about their openings. Rumours whip round intern chat channels: foreign-exchange sales trading is hiring, commodities trading is not, fixed-income research might be. One of the most important attributes you can have is a sharp-elbowed willingness to do whatever it takes.
“Whatever it takes” varies from role to role. In mergers and acquisitions, it involves working debilitatingly long hours, as one character finds out to his peril in the first episode. On the trading floor – where I worked, and where Harper does too – it tends to manifest itself in open aggression. My boss hired me partly because he’d enjoyed a spirited conversation we’d had about the European debt crisis, but mostly because I marched up to his desk when I saw him talking to another intern and, in front of her, took him to task for considering somebody else.
For sales and trading roles you need to prove you can play as hard as you work. After all, if you get the job you will be clocking in at the crack of dawn and wining and dining clients late into the evening. At the bank I worked for it was common for interns to go for drinks with graduate hires or potential line managers – first at a bar near the office, often winding up at Abacus, a nightclub (now mercifully closed down) which was widely known as the Square Mile’s most notorious meat market.
“In banking, everything is a competition. The prize is irrelevant – all that matters is the winning itself”
If these evenings stretched into the wee hours the decision became not when but whether to go home. My tiny flat was out in Hackney Wick, some 30 minutes by cab and 45 on public transport. Getting into work at 6.30am was non-negotiable – if interns were even 15 minutes late, they would ruin their chance of a job. If you got home at 2.30am, the risk of slumbering through your alarm was too great.
Instead, after leaving the nightclub, I would go to the 24-hour gym next to the office, have a shower, then go back to work. I’d clunk in my heels across the trading floor to fetch a change of clothes from my desk, then head over – you got it – to my favourite toilet cubicle and lay my black Zara coat down like a picnic blanket.
Occasionally I saw a stray hand poking out under a cubicle door and it was frankly impossible to walk into the loos in the morning without interrupting someone brushing their teeth or hair or applying mascara. The commitment to show up on time, regardless of fatigue, drunkenness or personal hygiene is the price of admission to the hallowed halls of an investment bank.
It can also manifest itself in darker ways. The trading floor is rife with “banter”, which occasionally crosses the line to outright bullying. As “Industry” demonstrates, there can be something strangely equal-opportunities about this ribbing. If you are clever and bookish you are teased for being square or nerdy, as one character who descends from the “ivory tower” of the investment-banking division to the trading floor finds out. Yet Robert, the cheeky-chappie party boy from Essex, is scorned for his cluelessness.
“I’d like to hire you. Well, actually, I’d like to marry you – but failing that I would hire you”
For women, inevitably, the banter is often inappropriately sexual. When Harper is felt up by a client she pulls away but says nothing, realising that making a big deal of it wouldn’t be good for her career. This felt depressingly familiar. On my internship a commodity trader asked me to go for a drink to “discuss my options”. On our way to the bar he stopped and said: “I’d like to hire you. Well, actually, I’d like to marry you – but failing that I would hire you.” I remember feeling repulsed. I can’t have been the first intern he’d used that line on. It turned out that he had no power to offer me a job.
Another time I went for lunch with a senior equity researcher who was nearly 20 years older than me. When I told my colleagues where I’d been, they sniggered. “Oh, he is notorious,” said one. “He takes all the fit interns out to lunch every summer.” One intern found a book of intern headshots – distributed around the floor so staff could recognise us – with marks out of ten scribbled beside each female face. Another intern told me she had gone to a pop concert with clients and senior executives, one of whom offered her cocaine.
Things shift if you do get hired. You’re no longer competing against your peers, though the intense desire to show how keen you are remains. Senior colleagues take advantage of this, expecting young people to fetch them coffees and lunches, as Yasmin, a foreign-exchange seller in the show, discovers. Out of pure muscle memory I offered to get my editor lunch when I started my internship at The Economist. She looked politely baffled, before leading the charge to Pret-a-Manger, where we bought our own sandwiches.
“One intern found a book of intern headshots with marks out of ten scribbled beside each female face”
Finance can be exhilarating. I will never forget my first trade, “Cable, 20, mine” (the client was buying £20m and selling dollars), and the way my voice wavered and hands shook. Nor will I forget the military precision with which you are supposed to ask for prices. The currency pair first, to grab the attention of the trader; then the amount, so they know how much risk they have; then the direction: “mine”, if the client is buying the sterling and “yours” if they are selling it (this sounds clearer when bellowed across a trading floor than the “buy” and “sell” you often see in films). When Harper executed a trade for her client, the old mix of excitement and anxiety came back to me.
That kind of intensity fosters camaraderie between colleagues. But it is hard to endure. On tough days phones would be slammed down so hard that they smashed. One frustrated trader punched his Bloomberg keyboard with such force that plastic cubes scattered across my desk. It was common to go to the toilets for a quiet cry, only to hear someone else sniffling in the cubicle next to you.
A year and a half into my stint in foreign exchange, my boss pulled me aside after a particularly rough week to ask how I was doing and I broke down in his office – the kind of sobbing where you can hardly breathe. I was mortified, but once I had dried my eyes my boss told me he’d seen everyone on the foreign-exchange desk cry, most of them more than once. Given the intimidating sorts I worked with, the knowledge was both amusing and reassuring.
Many people manage to survive – or even thrive – in this high-octane environment for their whole career. I lasted only another six months before jumping at the chance to get off the floor and into a research role. Several years later, after discovering that I did indeed have a passion – for writing – I made the leap to journalism.
The creators of “Industry”, Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, also abandoned banking for a more uncertain career. That is why the details of the show are so spot-on. My only criticism would be that I didn’t care much about any of the characters. The best tv dramas tend to include at least one person you’d want to hang out with, that you’re rooting for. The characters in “Industry” are so ruthless and self-serving that you can’t imagine being their friend. Then again, that could just be another reflection of the show’s painful accuracy.
Source – The Economist
“A great insight and perhaps memoir of a young banker telling the honest truth, certainly a few stories to tell the grandchildren when they are older!
Sadly it’s a common theme but fortunately its getting less and less as companies are being held more accountable by either new technology, millennials coming of age, old school managers finally retiring and new laws protecting the rights of employees (thank goodness)
This used to be normal practice not so long ago! And not just in banking but in many corporate and reputable environments, just the investment bankers took it to the next level.
So gone are the days of liquid lunches, bullying, working your staff to an early grave or mental asylum and replacing that with a solid structure to help you develop and be respected in the workplace, well in most cases anyway.”