Life on Wall Street not glamorous during tough times
By Meredith Bryan
On a recent drizzly Sunday afternoon, a 29-year-old New York banker was sitting in a West Village café, eating biscotti with a mocha cappuccino and a glass of grapefruit juice. “I want to retire early and maybe do something else,” he sighed.
“My premium years were spent working very, very hard because of the crisis, and not getting paid for it,” he said later. “I don’t feel like I’m rich.” To keep him from leaving last year, his bank said it would grant him a $650,000 bonus, though he was just told this month that whatever he gets will be given mostly as deferred stock that can’t be sold for ages.
The great parquet decades of investment banking are over—Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns are long gone, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have settled down as humdrum commercial banks. However the next era of Wall Street looks, whether it’s unbowed or humbled or distrusted or distrustful, Manhattan’s bankers are going to be something that they haven’t been in a very long time: conflicted.
“I had these big dreams when I was a kid to help people. But it’s much harder than one might think,” the young man said. “You have to do your job. You’re in the Army, and they send you to Vietnam. It’s not a good war, but they tell you to shoot. You shoot. It’s very complicated, but people don’t see that. I have a job. I tried to do that the best I could.”
The handsome young banker has olive skin and black hair, but slightly mean-looking eyes. He doesn’t like working out, though he has shirtless photos of himself on Facebook. He likes The Economist and house music.
He is the most extraordinarily typical banker on Wall Street, and he’s on the minds of preachers, schoolchildren, shoe salesmen, prosecutors, matchmakers, retirees, the unemployed and the president. He is loathed, relied on and wondered about. At the café and in conversations afterward, he was willing to talk about himself on the condition that his name and his bank’s name weren’t printed.
In the middle of the decade, he said, he got a master’s degree in mathematics. It was Ivy League but easy. “Ph.D.’s are great, but everything before is just crap.” Then he joined his bank to work with structured products—a young, lucrative and spectacularly murky corner of finance that pools together, slices up, repackages and makes bets on assets like mortgages or, in his case, corporate debt. “I have friends who are lawyers,” he said. “Their starting salary was $200,000. My starting salary was $85,000. But I’m not a lawyer. And I don’t want to be a lawyer. I’m good at math.”
Specifically, he’s good at handling an outstandingly strange kind of financial sausage called a synthetic collateralized debt obligation, which bundles up credit default swaps (basically insurance against the default of assets like, in this case, corporate bonds). When the crisis raged in October 2008, some corporate synthetic CDOs were trading below 10 cents on the dollar. In fact, they’re siblings to the mortgage-backed securities that helped beat the global economy into an unrecognizable pulp, though he pointed out that what he was working on wasn’t quite as toxic.
In early 2007, he was given a $275,000 bonus, mostly in cash. A year later, that number was $675,000, this time mostly in stock, although it was on top of a salary that had grown to six figures.
Early last year, after Wall Street had been brought to its knees, his bonus was only $45,000. “When you work really, really hard—my group was working from 7 to 9 every day, sometimes weekends—to be paid $150,000? I could have been making more.” Friends left his bank. “At hedge funds, if you make money, you get paid.”
The thing is that it’s hard to empathize. According to the New York State comptroller, the average bonus on Wall Street was less than $14,000 in 1985. That number didn’t get much higher until it doubled in 1991 to $31,000, which became $100,000 by the turn of the century. In 2008, even when the average bonus fell by more than a third, it fell to $112,000. How does one mull over or understand or argue about numbers like that?
“Most people, I think, they’re unhappy about things. I’m usually an optimistic person,” the young banker said this week. “Often I talk with my friends, they say, ‘Oh, you should have gone to an NGO, you should have done this, you should have done that.’ But the truth is, I have very good friends who left banking a few months ago and went to Africa or Haiti. You see these people. I talk to them regularly. And they can’t really help. So you help better by working and getting money and then helping others.”
But why is he making his money as a banker, the icon of villainy? “There have been lots of abuses on Wall Street, but Wall Street is a lot bigger than banks. There can’t be just one bouc émissaire,” he said. “The economy goes bad, and then you need someone to blame. And it’s the bankers. And I don’t think the bankers are the only people to blame.” There are the rating agencies, for one thing, and sleepy regulators, and voracious consumers. And bankers’ flaws, he said, are the flaws of man.
Over another cappuccino, he talked about leaving to travel and start up cafes. His father is an engineer who eventually started a farm, restaurants and an oil company. “I said to myself a long time ago that the day I have enough money to work for myself, I’ll stop working. I don’t like working for other people.”
Then he started thinking about Wall Street people who have to look at screens for 14 hours every day, and that got him wondering about people in general, especially mothers pushing each other on Black Friday to shop for Christmas presents. “It’s like, really?” he said. “That’s what mankind has created?”