Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Investment Banker in Winter

I have a confession to make, Dear Readers.

Many of you may think of me as a devil-may-care, gimlet-eyed, barbéd-tongued man-about-town1 and raconteur, but I am not everything that I seem.

For one thing, while I am in truth an investment banker and have been so for nearly two decades, I do not come to this industry with the typical investment banking pedigree. Sure, I went to university at one of the usual institutional suspects of higher embezzlement education, one complete with leafy groves, an endowment bigger than the gross domestic product of Botswana, and other typical accoutrements. I also received my license to rape and pillage as a certified Master of Business Asphyxiation from another of the gleaming temples of capitalist culture, one of those places where business ethics and common sense go to die.

But I do not come from a long line of investment bankers. Neither am I the black sheep seed of an upstanding pillar of a small Midwestern community, one whose prospects in life, should he wish to avoid imprisonment in the local jail, are necessarily limited to the French Foreign Legion, investment banking, or some other of the slightly distasteful professions which society maintains to employ its otherwise unwanted miscreants.

Furthermore, I did not study finance or economics in college. Then, as now, I found the topic of standard economic theory staggeringly boring, and permeated throughout with unwarranted aspirations to scientific and mathematical rigor which even I, in my barely post-adolescent state of intellectual innocence, found presumptuous and laughable. As you might imagine, I satisfied my one economics requirement without distinction and never looked back.

My ministrations at the altar of Mammon in pursuit of my MBA were similarly limited and unenthusiastic. Sure, I absorbed the lessons of CAPM, option theory, and other required parts of the canon with suitably diligent attention, but I cannot say the experience formed a high point in my intellectual development. Not that MBA programs are designed to be such, mind you: Harvard imprimatur or not, business schools in the United States are little more than glorified trade schools for "knowledge workers." 2, 3

If a typical career path for investment banking is currently exemplified by a second-generation immigrant from the Indian subcontinent who graduated magna cum laude in Economics from Wharton undergrad, worked for two years as an Analyst in Financial Sponsors at Goldman Sachs, returned to earn an MBA from Harvard, and who currently works at Morgan Stanley—which is a fair précis of, oh, about 93.2% of everyone currently working in the industry—then you can safely assume I do not match the pattern. Why then, you may ask, did you ever join the industry?

Well, there's a story.

* * *

Without delving too deeply into the many years I spent wandering in the wilderness of the non-financial (i.e., "real") world between college and business school, be it known that this interlude was highly revelatory for me. I discovered, as I passed through a number of different jobs, that what I enjoyed most in all my disparate employments was the learning curve associated with each new position. While I was learning the ins and outs of new responsibilities and the variable intellectual content associated with a new profession, I found myself energized, happy, and fulfilled. But when, inevitably, the job became routine I quickly began to go quietly insane.

Eventually, I learned that which an observant companion could have told me years ago (but to whom I probably would not have listened, anyway): I have the attention span of a gnat. Give me variety, give me change, and give me shifting duties and responsibilities, and I rise to the challenge. Give me stasis, or curse me with routine, and I have to leave.

Now, as a young man even I had friends who worked in the investment banking industry, and while I was not masochistically attracted to the perpetual abuse they endured as footsoldiers in the front lines of finance, I did observe that their jobs were positively replete with splendiferous variety. Putting aside the putative glamor of overnight trips to Beijing or the burden of long, caffeine-soaked hours at the printer's, these friends were blessed—to my eyes—with unending variation in the types of deals, clients, and industries they worked on. That looked like the sort of life for me, given that my alternate plan of retiring to the South of France on the proceeds from the NY Lottery looked less certain than my monthly bills required. So, I applied to business school, in order to earn the double-secret handshake MBA certificate necessary to gain entry to Wall Street.

Almost 20 years later, I am still there.

* * *

Why the confessional now?, you may inquire.

Well, the truth is that for the first time in my career, which on the whole has been gratifyingly variable and interesting—frustrating, infuriating, and demeaning as well, of course, but never dull—I am bored out of my fucking skull.

M&A, with the exception of certain blessed industries like healthcare and financial institutions, in which I sadly do not participate, is flat on its back. In fact, M&A is so dead that the only reason the corpse hasn't been put into the morgue already is that the investment banks have fired all the orderlies who might otherwise take it there.

Corporate clients who are otherwise healthy remain firmly ensconced in their reinforced bunkers, refusing to even peek over the parapet for fear of getting their heads shot off by rampaging stockholders, government assassins without portfolio, or the ever-present and ever-intimidating vicissitudes of the ongoing recession. Clients with plenty of cash and the rare publicly-traded stock that smells better than three-week-old halibut refuse to even consider bold and aggressive corporate moves, no matter how cheap the sixteen properties they have been lusting after for decades become. Private equity, of course, is so underemployed that the majority of PE professionals have already become bored of masturbating to YouPorn during office hours. And distressed companies? Don't even get me started.

It got so bad last week that I floated around for days afterwards on the basis of a rare, lengthy intelligent conversation I had with a potential client. A client, by the way, who told me in no uncertain terms that they would reconsider buy-side M&A no earlier than six months after Hell freezes over, assuming the Geithner plan has not bombed us all back to the Stone Age. But shit! Someone actually talked with me. About M&A stuff. Damn, that felt good.

The mainstream media and the blogosphere are not improving my mood, either. Mainstream economics, economic policy, and economist and pseudo-economist wankers are dominating the airwaves, and I've already told you what I think about that. Periodically, I will rouse myself from my semi-slumber to consider a post I might make concerning these oh-so-weighty issues and arguments. But then I think: who the fuck cares? Certainly not me.

* * *

All I can say is it's a sorry state of affairs when someone with the attention span of a gnat cannot find stimulation or satisfaction. I blame all of you for this. If you don't pull your collective heads out of your collective assholes soon, I will be forced—out of sheer boredom and spite—to convert this site into a political and cultural opinion forum.

And trust me, you sure as hell don't want to see that.

1 Herewith, I am starting a blog-based competition on the most extensive use of hyphenated adjectives in a self-descriptive context. After due deliberation, I declare myself the winner and plan to award myself a modest but attractive honorarium. Thanks for playing.
2 Which is why I find it hilarious that HBS is currently undertaking formal navel-gazing in response to recent events. For chrissakes, Harvard Business School is capitalism's fucking shrine to conventional wisdom. Why in God's name should we expect its graduates to know any better?
3 It may offer you some insight into my mindset to reveal that the most interesting course I took there was a PhD seminar on the causes and origins of the Industrial Revolution. Fascinating history, economics, and culture, and not a damn equation in sight. Of course, it was a joint course offering with the Graduate History Department.

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