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Occupying Wall Street

It’s Monday, July 10, 2006, and I’m wearing a dark suit and pantyhose, standing in a sea of dark suits, all nervous and fidgety.  It’s the first time I’ve worn something from the Misses section at TJ Maxx, and it feels like a personal milestone.  Goodbye, Juniors, with your bedazzled t-shirts and l.e.i. jeans with patches on them: I’m a suit n’ pantyhose woman now.  And why wouldn’t I be, here, in midtown Manhattan, standing in the marbled lobby of a $40 billion company on the first day of my summer internship, the first job to pay me more than minimum wage, the first place where I’ve spent a whopping $89 on a suit jacket to still look like a street urchin in a Brooks Brothers catalog.  I’ve made it, Ma, I’ve made it!

As our group of eighty-or-so interns is herded into the auditorium for orientation, we pass through sleek elevator banks hidden by translucent glass panels, the ultimate markers of lobby opulence.  I never thought I’d end up in this kind of fancy place; in fact, my almost-Marxist teenage self would’ve totally pooh-poohed it: “Ugh, so corporate.  Gross.”  But now, sitting in a plush leather chair, facing a gourmet spread, I’m thoroughly ready to drink the hoity corporate Kool-Aid: drink it, guzzle it, pour it into an IV bag and take it intravenously, whatever.  All I know is that I have just one goal now: do well this summer and get a full-time offer, ‘cause this is where I want to be.  Maybe, just maybe, I could work here for the rest of my life.

“Hello, summer analysts,” the HR rep says. “Welcome to Lehman Brothers.”

HILARITY ENSUES

My mom always says that you don’t know what you like until you try it.  This is her rationale for why “trying out” Wall Street would be a good idea (although this doesn’t seem to extend to drugs, skydiving, or black guys).  In truth, I’m totally up for it.  All my friends are working in banks, so Wall Street sort of becomes our white-collar pregnancy pact.  We get the chance to live in New York, make money, and piss it away like spoiled-rotten socialites–what could be better?  Plus, there’s a certain prestige that comes with working on the Street: If you manage to land an internship at one of the big investment banks, you earn 50 douche points for Gryffindor, and everyone at Harvard wants to be Head Douche.

So that’s how I end up at Lehman: eager, young, impressionable, and in search of shits and giggles.

After our week-long orientation, I’m placed in the Equity Research group, reporting to a man who is the spitting image of Mr. Bean (perhaps with less charm).  His second-in-command, and the guy who is in charge of dealing with me, is a big, rotund, former offensive lineman who I call Diabetes, but not to his face.  While they’re nice, well-mannered, aromatic men, I get the feeling that despite my best efforts, giggles will be hard to come by.

Once I start the job, Mr. Bean and Diabetes have this crazy notion that I’m actually interested in what they do.  So they regale me with stories about free cash flows and outsize valuations and setting appropriate price targets for the stocks they cover.  Diabetes gives me a stack of research reports to read, which I use to create a little fort in my cubicle to play Berlin Wall (“Left hand, tear down this wall of annual reports!” “Okay, right hand!” *Crash.* And that’s the end of the game).  I find ways to amuse myself, because while Lehman might have a lot of money (in 2006), it’s severely lacking in personality.  At one point I try to joke around with Mr. Bean: “You’re such a lucky guy, getting to play around with all these models.”  Blank stare.  “Like, financial models.”  Blank stare.  “It was a joke.”  Curt nod.  “Okay, if you need me, I’ll be at my desk, trying to draw a pterodactyl in Windows Paint.”

I have a feeling this will be a long summer.

DEPRESSION HITS

As the weeks go by, I start to understand why bankers have such a high suicide rate.  The job is a depressing combination of number crunching and Powerpoint presentations.  Sometimes the highlight of my day is doing extensive data entry.  Other times, I get the privilege of formatting a chart.  I’m beginning to think that my job can be filled by a seventh-grader with basic typing skills and a knack for bar graphs.

Soon I realize that I can get by with minimal effort as long as I present something that already confirms Mr. Bean’s hypothesis: “You were right again, the lagged NASDAQ index is a better indicator for revenue trades.”  This strategy seems to work well, especially when combined with my flowery new finance vocab.  Still, even though I’m barely working, often eating, and most likely napping in the handicapped stall with the bench in it, I’m in the office past 9 pm every night.  Because despite the Wall Street stranglehold on words like “optimization” and “efficiency”, the mantra of “face time” rules over them all.*

In my last week at Lehman, I’m given an offer to return full-time.  At the start of the summer, I would’ve been ecstatic.  Now, I’m not so sure.  Diabetes takes me out to lunch to discuss “my future at the company.”  His argument is a good one: it’s a great offer, at a prestigious company, in the best city in the world.  But I have spent the last eight weeks painstakingly manufacturing fun in a job I hate.  I know now that no gourmet spread will be able to sway me.

So, I decline my offer.  Two years later, Lehman declares bankruptcy.  I guess it was a good decision.

SHITS AND GIGGLES

I never foresaw the economic crisis that would lead to Lehman’s demise.  As much as I like to think that I psychically predicted this, I simply left because I didn’t enjoy the work.  And since that summer, I’ve been detached from the turmoil that’s surrounded Wall Street.  I can sympathize with both the protestors and the good people I used to work for.  Ultimately, though, I hope that both sides can see that we’re in this slog together: We need our banks to efficiently allocate capital, and we need an informed public to keep it in check. We need enthusiastic young people to work hard and kick out those caught napping in the bathroom.

But no matter how much we compromise, everyone—people and institutions—must recognize the human fallacy that can be the source of our problems: it’s much harder to take a stand on your own, and it’s much easier to blindly follow the crowd.  That’s how I ended up shoveling shrimp cocktails into a TJ Maxx power suit, and that’s how our country got stuck in this current financial mess.

When I was at Lehman, our group published a 100-page research report in August 2006.  In the report, we predicted that one of the stocks we covered would be trading at $32 by next year, based on our sophisticated (financial) models.  Diabetes had wondered if we were being too bullish, so Mr. Bean asked me to compare our target to that of the other banks.  After a thorough Bloomberg inquiry, I found that we were right in line with the Street: all the other big firms (Fidelity, Moody’s, Merrill, etc.) were giving targets within spitting distance of $32.  So we went with it, confident that we were in the ballpark.  Make little ripples, not waves, they say.  All these smart people can’t be wrong, right?

A year later, the purported $32 stock was at $3.

Oops.

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*Also, in most big banks, if you work past 8 pm, you can order dinner. If you work past 9, you can get a black car to take you home. So if you’re already there at 7:30, why not stick it out for another half-hour and get some food out of it? Resourcefulness.

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Wall Street vs. Main Street? I’ll Take Main Street

It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the hype. There’s the wining, the dining, the company-sponsored boozing, the free meals, the car service home, and most alluring, the potential of making six-figures right out of college. Of course, there are also the 100+ hour weeks, the requisite face time, the Blackberry taking over your life, the tacit no-vacation clause, and the fact that your six figures all depends on your bonus (and thus, the volatile market).

Ah yes, the life of an investment banker on Wall Street is a charmed one indeed.

The opposite of investment banking.

Yet, even with the soul-sucking work and grueling hours, there are still thousands of recent college grads scratching and clawing for i-banking jobs every year. Some may want to put in their two years to land a cushy PE/corporate job. Others may want to prove to themselves that they can survive the torture. Still others may just want to hit on girls with the line, “I’m an investment banker”… which, oddly enough, seems to work just as well as “secret agent,” and much better than “consultant”.

But now, given the recent financial crisis, many of the remaining investment banks are cutting their recruiting budgets and giving out fewer full-time offers and coveted internships. Plus, with the plethora of ex-Lehmanites floating around in the pool of unemployed, getting that entry-level banking job will be much tougher than in previous years. Unless you’ve spent your summers running DCF models or honing your valuation skills, you may want to abandon your childhood dream of becoming an i-banker. So, here are some (mildy exaggerated) tidbits about the Street life that may help you cope:

  • Accounting for hours worked, an investment banker probably makes about the same hourly wage as the IT tech support guy in Mumbai. With an annual coup of $120,000 a year ($60K base salary + 100% bonus), 100-hr work weeks, for 52 weeks of the year = $23.08 average hourly rate.  And this is before taxes.
  • On a related note, Brooks Brothers suits start at $898, and you’ll still look cheap compared to your MD, your clients, and the club owner at Lace.
  • At most bulge-bracket firms, Big Brother will be keeping tabs on your email and web searches for signs of insider trading. Swearing is strictly prohibited through email messages (but strongly encouraged in everyday conversation). Most websites will be blocked as well, so not only will you never get to see your friends, but you won’t be able to keep up with their status updates on Facebook either.
  • If you are female, prepare to enter a world where men are vulgar and crude by default. If you are male, prepare to enter a world where there are no females.
  • Asking about work-life balance is akin to putting on a tutu and galloping through the office singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. That is, it’s frowned upon.
  • You will likely spend the majority of your 15-hour days sitting in a chair, sitting in a black car, or sitting on the toilet from scarfing down your latest SeamlessWeb order. So, if you don’t gain at least 20 lbs in your first year on the job, then la cocaina must be working wonders.

Finally, one last reason why i-banking on Wall Street may not be the best move? Two words: job security.

Isn’t Main Street starting to look more attractive?

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