Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Invention of Leisure

Yes, that's right, children: It's all downhill after sophomore year.
“Get a job.”

Famous chorus from a popular song

O Dearest and Most Beloved of All Indiscriminate Internet Content Consumers (that’s you), I fear Your Humble and Most Retiring of All Econoblogosophists (that’s me) has some terrible news to impart:

Goldman Sachs has finally and irrevocably jumped the shark.

And no, I reluctantly interrupt your quiet enjoyment of reality television this sad evening not because the favorite whipping boy of every published journalist and his or her small dog has decided to stop ripping the faces off muppets, repackaging toxic waste for sale to blind widows and orphans on life support, or kicking German Landesbanken in the testicles for the sheer joy of listening to them shriek in agony. No, in each of these respects I believe the Ur-Squid of the Western Capitalist World is still now as it ever was: unrestrained, unrepentant, and not just a little bit naughty.

No, whereof I speak (although Lloyd would rather I were silent) is the horrible, earth-shattering, mind-boggling reality that Goldman Sachs—evil poster cephalopod of tendentious, horse-semen-throwing pseudo-Marxist demagogues pontificating from the decaying soap boxes of musico-cultural mouthpieces long past their prime, relevance, and peak circulation levels1—has apparently decided to treat its junior professional employees like human beings.

I know, I know. I will pause here a moment to let you collect your dentures from the floor.

* * *

The sad and shocking truth is that Goldman Sachs has apparently decided to require its cannon fodder (excuse me) valued junior professionals2 to do something so shocking, so transgressive to the norms of civilized society in the concrete canyons of Wall Street and the City of London that I am loath to describe it here without due warning: take Friday nights and Saturdays off. There is other nonsense associated with this new policy, which admits of few or no exceptions, like uninterrupted week-long vacations for Analysts and Associates and a prohibition against gaming artificial weekend idleness by telecommuting via Blackberry, smartphone, or laptop, but I will not sport with your intelligence by elaborating upon it. The material point is these clowns seem hell-bent upon preventing their junior investment bankers from engaging in one of the few, hallowed activities which has differentiated them from their slacker cousins and co-graduates of elite universities who have traditionally enjoyed their weekends fresh out of school by trying not to contract virulent STDs or end up on a slab in the county morgue deceased of alcohol poisoning. Namely, work.3

I can only say: Lloyd. Gary. WTF?

There has been some attempt from certain quarters of the blogosphere to understand the rationale behind this ludicrous pandering to all that is unholy in Human Resources political correctness, and the consensus seems to be that Goldman is taking this ill-advised step reluctantly, in order to compete for its fresh meat valued junior resources with other, currently more glamorous employers like social media companies and other purveyors of popular masturbatory aids. As part and parcel of this facile narrative there is copious pointing toward the alleged demand for and attraction to the “best and brightest” of our youth by said employers. Since Goldman Sachs is purportedly in direct competition with such archetypes of socioeconomic desirability as Google, Facebook, and Twitter for the most intelligent, ambitious, and driven of the flower of our culture’s young people, of course (the argument goes) they must relax the traditional salt mine labor characteristics of entry level investment banking jobs in favor of “work-life balance” and uninterrupted cocaine benders on Friday and Saturday nights.

But this is stupid on many levels.

* * *

For one, as I have stated unequivocally before, investment banking neither seeks out nor requires the allegedly “best and brightest”—whoever the fuck they are supposed to be—for its employees. All we seek are aggressive, ambitious, smart enough young kids to process our ridiculous pitch books, update our standardized models, and generally take our shit while we senior bankers do whatever is necessary to bring in enough revenues to ensure our continued employment and the consequent support of our dependent wives, children, mistresses, and bartenders. For another, the majority of youngsters who are attracted to investment banking are, contrary to the general prejudice of investment banking critics everywhere, surprisingly risk averse and non-entrepreneurial in nature. The tender young shoot who aspires to Lloyd Blankfein’s beard and pay package is almost never the same sort of soul who wishes he or she were staging a Lord of the Rings-themed wedding in the Pacific Northwest woods on the back of technology company stock options. They hold completely different life ambitions. This can be seen by the perhaps surprising absence of former investment bankers among the massively rich and successful entrepreneurs of the world.4

Finally, the implicit coddling and tender concern for the delicate sensibilities of young investment bankers’ boy- and girlfriends which are encoded in Goldman’s new policy are completely and irrevocably at odds with the core premise of my industry, which is uncompromising customer service. The entire fucking point of working 24 hours a day, for days on end, and canceling weeknight dates with Kate Upton, Las Vegas bachelor parties with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, and Christmas holidays with the Pope of all Christendom at the last possible minute is that the entire investment bank works at the pleasure and whim of clients who pay us a small fortune to do so. That is why successful senior bankers never tell the client no. That is why we agree to impossible deadlines for ridiculous requests at the last minute. Why we therefore ruin our junior bankers’ lives with all-night and all-weekend work on a regular basis. Because that is the fucking job.

So telling some pissant college graduate or wet-behind-the-ears MBA she can futz off and take in a Broadway show, art gallery opening, or all-night drinking session in the East Village or West End from Friday night through Sunday morning does that person absolutely no good whatsoever. Because it is telling her, incorrectly, that she should expect clients and bosses to respect the life-work boundaries of normal human beings in her life too. But none of these ever will, and if she wants and expects to make a success of herself in my industry, she better reconcile herself to that fact as soon as fucking possible.

* * *

I am old enough, O Dearly Beloved, to remember the last time big investment banks tried to pander to junior professionals, during the first dot com boom of the late 1990s. Then we tried fruit baskets, casual Fridays every day, and in-house concierges to pick up and deliver dry cleaning, Broadway tickets, and other bullshit in a desperate and ultimately fruitless attempt to prevent our most ambitious young Turks from joining such guaranteed future world beaters as Webvan or Pets.com. None of it worked, since the true entrepreneurs (or reckless idiots) among our ranks lit out for the coast anyway, and the risk-averse remnants who stayed behind got utterly ruined by our coddling. For believe you me, when the dot com boom imploded, the work-life balance perks and privileges disappeared on Wall Street faster than you can say “Bernie Ebbers.” And the poor young knuckleheads who had embraced the kinder, gentler Wall Street as their birthright could not adjust to the harsh light of workaday reality. It is no exaggeration to say an entire generation of potential investment bankers was ruined by such nonsense.

But that is the nature of large scale corporate investment banking nowadays. Human Resources weasels rule the roost in times of weakened revenue generation and secular decline, and the Executive Committee is more than happy to throw a sop to the political correctness police who claim such nonsense is the only way Goldman Sachs will ever hire another person from Princeton University or Harvard Business School ever again. It doesn’t really cost anything, and it is an easy way to separate the oh-I’m-only-here-for-the-resume-building chaff from the yes-I-really-want-to-be-an-investment-banker wheat.

I’d suggest the junior bankers of Goldman Sachs and elsewhere keep that in mind as they adjust to this brave new world of investment banking with a human face. For in my industry, it is wise to remember that it is always the human beings who are taken out behind the woodshed and shot first.

Related reading:
Molon Labe (September 1, 2008)
If the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know It’s Me (October 1, 2011)
In the Nation’s Service (December 29, 2011)

1 Yeah, he’s a dick. A talented dick, but a dick nonetheless.
2By which corporate bureaucratese is meant the wet-behind-the-ears tyros who join investment banks straight out of college (known, grandiloquently, as “Financial Analysts”) or business school (known, similarly, as “Associates”) to provide the blood, lymphatic fluid, and gristle which lubricate the grindstones of a large, multinational investment bank such as Goldman Sachs. Note that the moniker “professionals” is applied only to those naïfs who join an investment bank with some pretense or ambition of making widow and orphan cheating their long-term career, rather than the far more numerous, better-treated, and far less dispensable folks known as “support staff” who actually make the world go around.
3 I speak throughout, by the way, as is my wont, of the junior professionals who work in the corporate finance and M&A arms of investment banks, not the knuckle-dragging denizens of the sales and trading floors. For only the former tend to be on call at the whim of the clients of their investment bank 24/7, whereas the latter knock off at reasonable hours on Friday evenings and only return, bleary eyed and hungover, early Monday morning, to devour onion cheeseburgers and rip off hapless portfolio managers of Landesbanken. Perhaps it is revealing that Lloyd Blankfein and Gary Cohn come from the sales and trading side of Goldman Sachs and hence have little understanding, respect, or appreciation for the traditional work hours of their corporate finance colleagues which they have so unwisely attempted to curtail.
4 Counterexamples, like Mike Bloomberg and Jeff Bezos, prove my point. They worked at investment banks, but they were not investment bankers. They were technology geeks. Staffers. Q.E.D.

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