Monday, July 7, 2014

You Go First

A busy analyst is a happy analyst
Don’t shit where you eat.

— Anonymous

Way back in the Dark Ages of Investment Banking, O Dearly Beloved—say in the 1970s or 1980s, before Your Humble Correspondent embedded himself in the front lines of global financial conflict—somebody or other decided in their infinite wisdom that new recruits to my industry out of college should, as a matter of policy, be hired for two-year stints only. After this period expired, they were thanked for their troubles, given a celebratory fruit basket or somesuch, and politely shown the door. A tiny minority of very strong promise were sometimes buttonholed by higher ups, slipped a tenner or two, and persuaded in whispered tones to stay on as regular employees, but virtually everyone else was gently or not so gently ushered out the door. Talented leavers were encouraged to reapply for admission after a stint at a recognized institution of higher networking obfuscation learning where they could bolster their professional credentials and familiarity with the latest corporate buzzwords. Talentless cannon fodder—as revealed ex post via mediocre or worse job performance—were graced with fixed grins and sotto voce imprecations muttered between gritted teeth. Almost everybody left.

The reasons for this odd system may be lost in the mists of time (or your Professionally Nonchalant Bloggist’s lack of interest in substantive historical research, which for all intents and purposes is the same thing), but it has obtained in my line of work for many a waxing and waning moon. As such, investment banks and college graduates—clueless children educated to within an inch of their lives in disciplines useful perhaps 300 years ago and no later—found a symbiotic relationship in which this program served each of their interests and predilections. College students found a well-organized, (then-)prestigious, (then-)well-paying industry with slick recruiting materials willing to take on their confused and ill-directed selves for a limited period of two years, in which the banks promised to provide very good money, an impressive notch on their virgin résumés, and all the Seamless food they could eat, with a free Get Out of Jail card tacked on at the end. In exchange, the investment banks got swarms of smart, eager young beavers willing to learn how to create and maintain 50 page spreadsheets and 100 page presentation books and generally make themselves available 24-7-365 for all manner of scut work while they figured out what they wanted to do with their lives. Lots of directionless college graduates got jobs which paid terrifically well and offered prestige far beyond their deserts, and investment banks got access to a much larger group of intelligent, ambitious youngsters than they deserved. It all worked out pretty well.

Back in these prelapsarian times, when majestic investment bank dinosaurs still trod the Earth, a cozy symbiosis developed between the much smaller private equity industry—small, nimble, clever mammals and clients of the dinosaurs, to boot—and big investment banks. Private equity firms were always looking for a few highly trained, intelligent, and motivated finance geeks to join their organizations at the bottom every year to both support the Schwarzmans, Blacks, and Kravises of the world and eventually succeed them. Naturally, they looked to the giant investment banks as farm teams for their junior recruits, and they cultivated a close relationship with promising young investment bankers they met on live transactions and found through industry gossip. They also pumped their counterparts and salespeople at the banks for information as to who was the best, fastest, and most ambitious among their large Financial Analyst classes in order to target their recruiting appropriately. Senior bankers were happy to cooperate, since 1) it made some of their best, highest paying clients happy, and 2) top junior bankers were likely to leave after their two year stint was up anyway. PE firms were free to recruit these tyro plutocrats and, since their recruiting tended to be focused near the end of the analysts’ two year terms and did not materially interfere with their duties, any minor inconveniences could be comfortably overlooked.

* * *

But now we live in much different times, Most Patient and Understanding of Readers, as many of you may indeed be aware. Banks face life-altering threats from Dodd-Frank lava flows and Volcker Rule asteroids, and the tiny, nimble private equity mammals of yore have evolved into lumbering colossi of hair, tooth, and tusk which are assuming the role of apex herbivores and predators in the global financial ecosystem. Financial Analyst positions at investment banks are nowhere near as numerous as they used to be, and those that still exist no longer carry the socioeconomic prestige or promise of outsize pay they used to. On the other hand, the largest of private equity firms have evolved into very large firms indeed, with a consequently magnified demand for cannon fodder of their own, and they have been joined by legions of small and mid-sized private equity firms with their own need for junior weenies. The tables, so to speak, have decisively turned.

And yet the private equity industry still chooses to recruit its junior personnel from the same place: the most talented among the junior ranks of investment banks. Except they are no longer following the old gentleman’s agreement of letting young bankers mature and learn in situ before they harvest them: they are recruiting them practically before the ink dries on the little buggers’ bank business cards. This, as you might imagine, is beginning to irritate investment banks, who spend a great deal of time and money recruiting, selecting, and training young bankers into useful employees. It is one thing to recruit and train a top Financial Analyst who will give you a solid two years of work and then depart, a friend of the firm, to an important client where he or she might eventually direct more business to you. It is another entirely for your new analysts to start receiving frantic recruiting efforts six months after they start their jobs and sign acceptance letters at new employers 18 months before they are supposed to leave. In addition to distracting them from time-sensitive duties for which we pay them ridiculously high wages and diminishing their incentive to work hard for the rest of their contracted stint (because they have guaranteed jobs waiting at the end), recruiting and hiring by private equity firms can introduce serious potential conflicts.

Notwithstanding their position at the very bottom of the investment banking totem pole—or in fact exactly because of it—Financial Analysts are privy to highly sensitive confidential information about many clients’ businesses and lots of live and potential transactions. This is especially true of those analysts who work in corporate transaction-intensive parts of investment banks like mergers & acquisitions, leveraged finance, and financial sponsor coverage. These are the very analysts which private equity firms are most interested in hiring, since their training, talents, and daily work resembles their own most closely (as opposed to, say, corporate financiers focused on capital raising, capital markets bankers, or sales and trading assistants). For one of these analysts to have divided loyalties, or an open information channel to a private equity firm which has already hired him effective 18 months from now, is a serious potential breach of confidentiality and maybe even a source of direct conflict. Even if one presumes there are no private equity professionals who would be tempted to pressure an investment bank analyst to share confidential deal or client information via friendly persuasion or even a threat of rescinding an outstanding future job offer—a towering assumption of dubious validity, I assure you—knowledge that a junior employee has a signed job offer from a particular client is going to make any investment bank compliance officer extremely uncomfortable. It is also going to cause more relaxed banks serious client management problems if KKR discovers the analyst working on their $10 billion proprietary buyout is going to work for Apollo in ten months.

* * *

And, if we’re being honest here, the suboptimal equilibrium falling out of this vicious prisoner’s dilemma is doing nobody any good. Because too many private equity firms are competing for too few analysts1, they have begun recruiting them earlier and earlier, and they are signing them to offers before they are even halfway done with their two-year apprenticeships. This is a problem for PE firms for two reasons. First, it really isn’t that easy to determine who are the best (most competent and adept) financial analysts after only six months, because such competence is developed not only through training but also through sheer bloody volume of experience. Private equity firms like to think they have the interviewing skills to figure this out in advance of actual proof, but in this, as in so many other things, the PE firms are massively overestimating their own knowledge and skill. The only thing they can determine with certainty this early in a novice investment banker’s career is whether he or she is a hardcore finance junkie (see footnote 1, below), but these do not always turn out to be the best analysts.

Second, and more importantly, if a bank discovers their first year analyst has an offer of employment 12 to 18 months hence at a private equity firm, they may do one or more things to seriously diminish the value of said analyst to his future employer. Harsher banks may simply fire such analysts, on the not-too-ridiculous theory that it’s just too much trouble to manage an employee with potentially serious conflicts of interest (q.v. supra) whose motivation to work insanely hard and try to become the best analyst she can be is seriously undermined by having a guaranteed exit to what she sees as a better job in the future. Other banks, suspicious about such shenanigans, may ask employees outright if they have accepted offers from other firms. If the analyst lies and the bank finds out (and Wall Street and the private equity industry are very small worlds indeed), the bank may fire said analyst for cause, thereby simultaneously cutting short the apprenticeship her future employer was counting on to train her appropriately as well as tarnishing her employment history.

Still other banks, unwilling to can employees they have sunk serious time and money into training and developing to be investment bank analysts, may decide out of reasonable caution to reassign such juniors to areas where their future employment status will not create the reality or appearance of potential conflicts. But this means these analysts will likely be rotated out of areas such as M&A, leveraged finance, or sponsor coverage where they would have otherwise received the intensive hands-on experience their future employers were counting on to make them valuable hires. Even less draconian measures along such lines, such as reassigning compromised analysts to only work with corporate clients or relocating them to overseas posts where geography can provide some measure of conflict insulation, will have the same effect of rendering these prize recruits that much less experienced and valuable to their future private equity overlords.

And in all such outcomes, the entity screwed the hardest is, of course, the financial analyst him- or herself. If he or she dodges the bullet of summary firing for cause (or not for cause), they may still limp along in another position within the bank they have less interest in, have their training and experience gathering significantly curtailed or redirected, and/or work under a cloud of suspicion as to their motivation and team spirit (with consequent negative implications for performance reviews and pay) for the remainder of their employment in banking. Plus, it would be the rare and lucky analyst indeed who suffered any one or more of these fates who did not see his magical “guaranteed” offer of employment at Private Equity Megabucks, LLC evaporate like a fetid mist over the Bayonne Marshes once PEM, LLC finds out. Trust me here: private equity firms are not charitable organizations. They don’t give a shit about you.

* * *

The solution to this dilemma, of course, is simple. Private equity firms have become large and rich enough that they should do their own damn recruiting at colleges to hire junior personnel, rather than relying on investment banks to provide a pre-screened, pre-qualified employee pool to poach from. Given their focus on hiring the elite of the elite and hardcore finance junkies, this should not be too much of a burden, since PE firms almost uniformly insist on hiring recruits from the Wharton School and maybe five or six other top-name universities anyway. It’s not like they’re going to have to visit 100 colleges around the country. Of course, they would have to train these new graduates themselves, which will involve time, money, and effort they are normally loath to expend. But the time has come for private equity firms to realize they are too big individually and in aggregate to slipstream off the shoulders of investment banks anymore. The parasite-host burden has become too large.

The other solution, of course, is to chill the fuck out and go back to the old system of waiting to recruit IB analysts later. This would be better for private equity, better for investment banks, and better for junior professionals. It is a difficult collective action problem, which would require discipline on the part of PE firms and potential recruits, as well as support from investment banks, but it is not impossible to foresee.2

Private equity takes extreme pride in being disciplined investors, and they broadcast this message loud and long to anyone who will listen. The time has come for them to demonstrate they can be disciplined recruiters and employers, too.

And to stop taking dumps in the community watering hole.

Related reading:
William Alden, A Mad Scramble for Young Bankers: Wall Street Banks and Private Equity Firms Compete for Young Talent (The New York Times, July 5, 2014)
Curriculum Vitae (March 10, 2013)

1 Private equity firms like to style themselves as even more selective than investment banks. At least in the past, when their relative numbers could support it, they preferred to hire only the top five or ten percent of IB analysts (as so ranked and paid by their bank employers) into their firms. The notion is that they are the elite of the elite, and they want 24-year-olds who can program 50-page LBO models in their sleep using Visicalc and chewing gum, as well as pure hardcore finance junkies whose every waking dream since kindergarten has been to have a bigger 60th birthday party than Steve Schwarzman. These are the kids who tape stock tables from The Wall Street Journal and glossy pictures of Warren Buffett on their bedroom walls in high school, enroll in the Wharton School as double finance and econ majors, and who viciously haze any coworker who cannot navigate a spreadsheet without a mouse. These are the kids who have summer jobs in college teaching Training the Street classes in basic accounting and financial modeling to liberal arts majors who want to apply to Goldman Sachs too. They have always wanted to be private equity professionals. In the past, they only applied to investment banks out of college because that was the only way to get into PE.
2 Surprisingly enough, the junior recruits might be the best positioned of anyone to enforce such a return to sanity. If they were courageous enough to forgo immediate recruiting by private equity as soon as they get their sea legs, they could build their skills and experience at their bank employers for the full two years of their employment. I find it hard to believe such candidates, battle tested and thoroughly trained, would not find an eager audience of potential employers among the best private equity firms once they’re ready. They are certainly superior candidates to wet-behind-the-ears tyros six months out of college. But this, of course, requires wisdom and courage from 22-year-olds in a fevered and desperate job environment. That may be too much to expect from the poor lambs.

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