People are worried about investment banker liquidity 

This was told to me by an investment banker I met a few days back, who obviously doesn’t want to be named. But like Matt Levine writes about people being worried about bond market liquidity, there is also a similar worry about the liquidity of the market for investment bankers as well. 

And once again it has to do with regulations introduced in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. It has to do with the European requirement that bankers’ bonuses are not all paid immediately, and that they be deferred and amortised over a few years. 

While good in spirit what the regulation has led to is that bankers don’t look to move banks any more. This is because each successful (and thus well paid) banker has a stock of deferred compensation that will be lost in case of a job change. 

This means that any bank looking to hire one such banker will have to compensate for all the deferred compensation in terms of a really fat joining bonus. And banks are seldom willing to pay such a high price. 

And so the rather vibrant and liquid market for investment bankers in Europe has suddenly gone quiet. Interbank moves are few and far in between – with the deferred compensation meaning that banks look to hire internally instead. 

And lesser bankers moving out has had an effect on the number of openings for banker jobs. Which has led to even fewer bankers looking to move. Basically it’s a vicious cycle of falling liquidity! 

Which is not good news for someone like me who’s just moved into London and looking for a banking job!

PS: speaking of liquidity I have a book on market design and liquidity coming out next month or next next month. It’s in the publication process right now. More on that soon! 

Matt Levine describes my business idea

When I was leaving the big bank I was working for (I keep forgetting whether this blog is anonymous or not, but considering that I’ve now mentioned it on my LinkedIn profile (and had people congratulate me “on the new job”), I suppose it’s not anonymous any more) in 2011, I didn’t bother looking for a new job.

I was going into business, I declared. The philosophy (that’s a word I’ve learnt to use in this context by talking to Venture Capitalists) was that while Quant in investment banking was already fairly saturated, there was virgin territory in other industries, and I’d use my bank-honed quant skills to improve the level of reasoning in these other industries.

Since then things have more or less gone well. I’ve worked in several sectors, and done a lot of interesting work. While a lot of it has been fairly challenging, very little of it has technically been of a level that would be considered challenging by an investment banking quant. And all this is by design.

I’ve long admired Matt Levine for the way in which he clearly explains fairly complicated finance stuff in his daily newsletter (that you can get delivered to your inbox for free),  and more or less talking about finance in an entertaining model. I’ve sometimes mentioned that I’ve wanted to grow up to be like him, to write like him, to analyse like him and all that.

And I find that in yesterday’s newsletter he clearly encapsulates the idea with which I started off when I quit banking in 2011. He writes:

A good trick is, find an industry where the words “Monte Carlo model” make you sound brilliant and mysterious, then go to town.

This is exactly what I set out to do in 2011, and have continued to do since then. And you’d be amazed to find the number of industries where “Monte Carlo model” makes you sound brilliant and mysterious.

Considering the difficulties I’ve occasionally had in communicating to people what exactly I do, I think I should adopt Levine’s line to describe my work. I clearly can’t go wrong that way.


Darwin Awards in Investment Banking

Some 20 analysts from Goldman Sachs and 10 from JP Morgan have been dismissed after it emerged that they were cheating during some mandatory tests during their analyst training program.

As the article says, it is not unusual for bankers to assist each other when it comes to tests in mandatory training and compliance, since they are seen as being time consuming and repetitive.

In that sense, that these guys copied or helped each other is not news. What matters, though, is that they got caught in the process. And that is unacceptable for a banker.

If you look at how investment banking has been shaped over the last decade or so, there have apparently been several people who have fudged stuff – from financial results to key rates to benchmarks, and gotten away with it because they haven’t got caught. And they continue to remain successful bankers.

So in the banking culture, fudging is okay, but getting caught isn’t. By getting caught fudging in tests during their training program, these analysts have betrayed the one skill that is necessary for being a successful banker, and for this reason they have been rightly weeded out.

It’s like the Darwin awards, except that for these guys it is only the end of their careers in banking.

Analysts, competition and Wall Street deaths

Yet another investment banking analyst has died. Sarvshreshth Gupta, a first year Analyst at Goldman Sachs’s San Francisco office reportedly killed himself after not being able to handle the workload. Reporting and commenting on this, Andrew Ross Sorkin writes:

Some banks, like Goldman, are also taking new steps, like introducing more efficient software and technology to help young analysts do their work more quickly. And investment banks say they are hiring more analysts to help balance the workload.

I simply fail to understand how these measures help balance the workload. I mean having more analysts is good in that the same work now gets split between a larger number of analysts. However, that there are more analysts doesn’t mean that the demand for Associates or Vice Presidents has actually gone up – that might go up only with deal flow.

In other words, what the above measure has done is to actually make the organisational structure “more pyramidal” (i.e. reduced the slope of the “pyramid’s walls”). So now you have a larger number of analysts competing for the same number of associate and VP positions. I don’t see how it makes things better at all!

On another note, I wonder if the number of deaths among Wall Street analysts has actually gone up, or if they have only started being reported more in recent times, after Wall Street got into trouble. Based on my limited understanding, I think it is the case of the former, and I attribute it to the lack of choice.

Back in 2004, I attended a talk by a Goldman Sachs MD (who worked in the Investment Banking Division, which does Mergers and Acquisitions, IPOs, etc.) in IIMB where he told me about the lifestyle in his division. That was the day I swore never to apply to that kind of a role. Given that the sales and trading side was doing rather well then, however, I had a choice to take up another equally lucrative, but less stressful-on-lifestyle career. That I chose not to (in 2006) is another matter.

The way I see it, following the crash of 2008, sales and trading have never recovered and don’t recruit as many as they used to. That takes care of one “competitor” of investment banking division. The other “competitor” is consulting, but they don’t pay just as well. In fact, with banking on the downswing, the supply of quality candidates to consulting firms has improved to the extent that they haven’t had to raise salaries as much. For example, starting salaries of IIM graduates at top-tier consulting firms in India have only grown at a CAGR of 6.5% since the time I graduated in 2006.

What this means is that few jobs can match the pay of investment banking, and that reduces the number of exit options. A few years back, anyone who found it too stressful had the option to move out to another job that was less demanding in terms of number of hours (though still stressful) without a cut in pay. This option has expired now, with the effect that people soldier on in investment banking jobs even if they’re not completely cut out for them.

And then some don’t make it. And so they go..

The things we talk about

Following a conversation with Harbhajan last night, I was reminded of one of our earlier conversations, three years back. Mansoor had also been present at that conversation, and somehow for me that represented some sort of a landmark. Barring the odd stray conversation, that was the first time I had been involved in a deep conversation with other guys about the theory of relationships. I don’t know why but before that I somehow used to reserve such conversations only for women.

Back when we were getting to know each other, the only thing that Harbhajan and I would talk about was about JEE mugging, about problem number 487 in “Problems in General Physics” by I E Irodov, and occasionally mimicing the accent of one or the other profs in our JEE coaching factory. Going forward, we had talked about CGPA, very occasionally about careers, and of late (leading up to that day in April 2006) about investment banking interviews.

It was similar fare with Mansoor also, and also with most of the other guys I was good friends with. We would talk about the usual “conversation-makers” – cricket, football, politics and cinema. During my brief stay in England, weather also got added to the list of topics we talked about. And of course, there was bitching, which was something we all loved to do, and which I had taken a special liking for.

Conversations with women, however, used to be different. The bitching was definitely there – in fact I managed to impress quite a few women with my bitching skills (and I used the same skills to depress quite a few women also) – but the “usual stuff” was absent. What also got added, though, was stuff like theory of relationships. Stuff like cribbing about “life issues” (regarding “normal issues” i was an equal opportunity cribber – didn’t distinguish between various classes of cribbees). Trying to analyze relationships while leaving out the bitching aspect of it.

Because of this distinction of topic of conversation, the bar for a woman to become my friend was set extremely high, because of which I had few female friends. Using orkut classification, most of the women I knew were either acquaintances (most) or good friends (very few); there were few friends. Also, my refusal to discuss “life issues” with other guys (among whom I had a large number of both friends and “good friends”) meant that my options for conversation were limited when I wanted to discuss life issues.

What I don’t understand is how I got into that kind of a distinction in the first place. I fail to figure out why I used to make this distinction about topic of conversation between men and women. Moreover, I fail to figure out what happened to me that pleasant April night in Jayanagar when I opened up to Mansoor and Harbhajan. Since then, I’ve been treating women I have no romantic interest in on par with men, and I think that is the way things should be. Also, maybe things were the same over ten years back in higher secondary – no distinction.

I don’t know what had happened to me then, because of which I turned out the way I did. And I don’t know what happened to make me change back. All I know is that in the intervening period, I had some strange policies because of which I suffered. Oh, and I must mention that most of that “intervening period” was spent in IIT Madras, whose gender ratio is well-known.