OWS and Why Anyone Not at Their Desks by 7:30 is a Nobody.

I have worked closely with Institutional Equity Sales desks for the majority of my career and have been tempted to accept offers to work there. There are two reasons why I haven’t.  One, the politics surrounding the dispersal of client accounts is Machiavellian enough to make the backroom dealings of the medieval Vatican seem like a rural PTA meeting. The other reason is that, given my later start in the industry, I was too old. Unless you are firmly established on the Desk by your early 30s it is unlikely that your energy level will hold up long enough to realize the considerable compensation potential. Those fuckers work hard. The basic hours, at your desk at 7:00, meetings at 7:30, 12:05 and 4:10 with the intermittent time spent either generating or shepherding your clients’ trades, are not prohibitive. The bigger problem is that Wednesday through Thursday, it is more or less required that you entertain your clients according to their proclivities – dinners, strippers, shows, whatever – until late at night before arising again at 5:30 to head back in to the office. Not occasionally – this is every week.  Recent layoffs have only made this worse, to the point I would like to see an intrepid, well-connected reporter dig in to the insane growth of the illegal stimulant market which is reaching 80s levels again as aggregate job security wanes.

I am again just using Institutional Sales as an example. The workdays for traders and bankers, particularly during a big deal, can be even more onerous. As a whole, the level of effort expected leads to the generally-accepted belief within Capital Markets that anyone not at their desks by 7:30 is a nobody. The most common response to the experience of getting a coffee at 9:15 and seeing people rushing to the office in their coats,(and this is a topic of discussion on the floor), is a bemused “what exactly do you people do that you can get away with starting at 9:00?”.   By definition, it can’t be that important.

The anti-finance movement can, if they carefully ignore some of the more economically vital aspects of the industry, frame their argument in terms of “all you guys really do is shuffle paper around”.  What they under-estimate, however, is how hard industry participants work at “shuffling papers around”. It is extremely difficult for anyone, including me, to take someone seriously when they work less than 50 hours per week. Unless they’re semi-retired, no one we know who works 35 hours a week is even relevant, never mind qualified to re-regulate the industry.

The work ethic is clearly a function of simple economics. The monetary upside in finance is arguably higher than any other so the candidates to replace the more complacent employees are at least in the 100s, probably 1000s and everybody knows this. The means by which the less committed get jettisoned can get pretty nefarious – I’ve seen three or four women ousted during their maternity, albeit with big checks – but everyone understands, and largely accepts, the logic behind it. Not only that, we take a sort of black humor pride in it.

The psychological outgrowths of this type of environment are pervasive and powerful. When OWS is trying to comprehend the viciousness of pushback, they need to keep in mind that the level of personal investment for industry professionals, years upon years of 60 hours weeks and four hours of sleep a night, is not something you ever, ever want to see threatened by a Tobin Tax. And this is particularly true if the complainants’ primary motivations, and theological certainty, arise solely from one charismatic professor teaching Rawls during an “exhausting” 20 hour per week class load. You may have a point, nobody knows better than we do, but we’re not going to consider you credible unless you work for it.

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21 thoughts on “OWS and Why Anyone Not at Their Desks by 7:30 is a Nobody.

  1. rpseawright says:

    You make excellent points, but when I was being recruited *to* the Street (from being an attorney *for* the Street, among other things) the pitch was in part about a more reasonable work-life balance. And the Street life, as tough as it is and can be, *is* less taxing than the life of an up-and-coming attorney. Terrifying, no?

  2. Pacioli says:

    This is your BEST post in a while. Thanks!

  3. mike says:

    Is the Tobin Tax justified to slow the rise of the robots and their incredible influence upon the market and retail investors? Or are HFT’s OK in your perspective?

  4. Rohit says:

    So by that logic a thief who works hardest is allowed to feel indignation when he gets arrested? (I know I’m stretching to make an example :)). Wall St is not the only bastion of hard work, boo fing hoo. The rest of the world deals with regulation everyday, Wall St ain’t special. Deal with it :)

  5. tm says:

    I think the whole culture of working long hours, or at least being physically in the office for a lot of hours, comes from the need to make working on the Street an exclusive endeavor. I mean, many banks could hire more people and pay them less, and still be the highest paid sector by far.

    But making the time commitment an imperative can give workers a false sense of accomplishment, following from the quaint baby-boomeresque belief that if one puts on enough of a pose, aka “working hard,” that it must mean that they’re doing something valuable. Then, next thing you know, you have Goldman execs declaring that they do “God’s work” etc, etc.

  6. Your post is well taken. Having moved out to the west coast after being on desks in New York and Chicago it’s an even more stark contrast to those around us. It is a strong common bond between anyone in finance out here, because until you’ve set your alarm with a 4-handle on it I just don’t think you work that hard. At this point in my still young career I feel like I’ve struck a great “work life balance” now that I “only” work 12-13 hour days. I can’t imagine putting in 8 hours and taking a pay-check. Don’t even get me started on people who look cross-eyed at me when they realize I’ve been in the office for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday. Sometimes the work just has to get done. I think how easily accepted that is, how little anyone complains about it, is somewhat unique to finance.

    The other tangential point I’d make to your post is the industry norm for vacation. I have had a number of friends who have been totally incapable of understanding that I have never taken more than two consecutive days off. The idea of taking a two week vacation is absolutely terrifying to me. I have no concept how I would be out of the loop for that long.

  7. [...] Say what you will the guys in capital markets work hard.  (Interloper) [...]

  8. JMac says:

    No one on their death bed ever has a revelation that they should have spent more time in the office. If you are terrified by a two week vacation, you need to lighten up buddy. All finance and no play makes Brian a dull boy.

    • My career and what I do is a huge component of how I define myself and what makes me content. I feel like a have a very full life and that my willingness to essentially sleep less than the average bear affords me the opportunity to experience things that 99% of people could never access no matter how badly they wanted to. A life of pure leisure is just as wasted as one of pure work, no?

      Part of this was growing up in a household with a father who drew a large part of his identity from his work. I’m clearly emulating that in part. He essentially died at his desk as a revered expert in a very specialized professional field. Seeing the outpouring of adoration from hundreds of people after the fact (most of which only came to know him via his work) had a big impression on me.

      I’m a scratch golfer but you’ll never find me retiring. To each their own right?

  9. Guest says:

    Brian,
    What about the guys who leave the office shortly before you are waking up? They usually don’t get to their desk before 9 am because a) they have only had a few hours of sleep, and b) their senior bankers aren’t in yet and haven’t had enough time to review the work that was produced all night. Working 9 am – 3 / 4 am is nothing to sneeze at.

    All of the jobs in finance (capital markets and investment banking, particularly) are taxing in their own ways.

  10. Uphins says:

    First I want to say I’ve read all your posts and I love the blog, please keep up the fantastic work. Here’s my take on this post: What I don’t understand, as an engineer who works hours that barely places me in your “relevant” column and as someone who feels like they’re actually producing ideas and designing goods that directly benefit everyone in the society and world around me is how all these illegal stimulants (the market for which is incredibly detrimental to societies other than yours I might add), paper shuffling, strippers, shows and millions of hours put in by “100s, probably 1000s” of “complacent” i.e. low-value financial industry employees are a good use of resources or beneficial to anyone besides a vanishingly small minority of the world’s inhabitants. That’s not something you touch on at all in a post explicitly directed at OWS, but it’s something that would actually address OWS’s concerns, rather than details about how hard Wall-Street works. Which is something only a fool would doubt, and why bother writing to fools on such an intelligent insightful blog?

  11. Mike M says:

    Put your dick back in your pants, I’m not impressed.

    Have you ever read Charles Dickens? Try it sometime. You’re just trying to impress me by telling me you’re just like one of those serfs, but you get to eat better and have access to prostitutes. Big whoop. You probably still cry yourself to sleep every night clutching your teddy.

  12. Investor says:

    You people work all these hours and you and your clients still can’t beat the markets.

    Is it because of sleep deprivation and stress or what?

    Can sleep deprived caffeine etc. junkies sitting at a desk with other such people really make sensible decisions about capital allocation?

    And what is the point, the vast majority of people can’t maintain good health with 4 hours of sleep pr night, and what are your’e compensation really worth then?

    And the interesting thing is that most of these people will not end up particulary wealthy either, because of the moronic “status systems” in finance which very often leads to perverse spending habits..

  13. Octavio Richetta says:

    You are confusing logging in long hours with producing anything of value. Sales jobs are usually mainly tactical (as opposed to strategic) and don’t require much brains just doing the work. That is why the IB kids make a lot more. From the stuff you write I doubt you were/would be happy in such an environment.

  14. Kris says:

    Interloper,
    Thx a lot for the post. Please remain anonymous and keep writing.
    As to working vs productivity I recommend Michael Mauboussin who validated what I was doing before I heard about his writings.
    I’ve trained myself to do NOTHING after work is done at 5pm. I’m an engineer and rejected a couple of promotions. I’ve become a specialist of doing NOTHING.
    Gents, it’s very tough to get used to doing nothing, way more difficult than being workidiotaholic.

  15. AgnosticTrader says:

    and then… you die … all I am saying is just make sure you love it, because you’re not curing cancer or solving world hunger… and by the way, living in a park 24×7 for something you believe in might be perceived as vagrancy … or possibly sacrifice and commitment… I guess it hinges on your perspective. Great blog, ignore me, please continue. ;-)

  16. MrV says:

    Isn’t it a complete falsehood to equate hours at a desk with productivity? Let alone measurable outcomes for society. How did all the hours of churning CDOs, MBS’s and ‘financial modelling’ work out for society?
    Mmm destroyed sufficent wealth there …

    In fact the biggest laugh was immediately following the financial crisis when said finance people still had to go to work and pretend to be working the long-hours, for fear if they didn’t ‘look’ busy they would be ushered out the door.

    You know who you are!

  17. PD says:

    A few early visits to emerging markets led me to conclude I am vastly overpaid. For example, in India, one can hire a driver for a couple hundred dollars a week plus gas and he’s available to his passengers 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will drive you around the subcontinent if you ask, all while he’s away from his family.

    One may say that’s because these are low-skilled jobs and unused labor is so plentiful in these countries. Yet, I don’t have to go so far for other examples. I’ve been to the Bronx fruit and vegetables market at 6am, and boy it’s packed like canned fruit.

    After a night of partying in the Village, I used to regularly buy fresh bread and pastries from bakers at 4am to prepare for weekend breakfast. Strangely, if we had guests and ran out later in the day I’d go back to the bakery and find some of the same bakers.

    Very few recognize that regulations actually help Wall Street by keeping the field limited and cartels, like that of the IPO underwriters clique, in effect (cf. banks’ lobby against Wal-Mart’s entering the banking field; see http://www.forbes.com/2010/09/07/walmart-banking-small-business-entrepreneurs-finance-wharton-growth-lessons-10.html; for all the criticism thrown at it, we know what happens to employees pay when Wal-Mart enters an industry).

    I’ve been fortunate for receiving some small fruits from that lobbying and keep aware that I would not be so lucky without it in the future. Because the lucre flowed easily in the past does not mean that it will in the future as newspapers, amongst others in broad media, have come to recognize lately after centuries of easy money.

  18. orvil_tootenbacher says:

    here again in this article, the smug self-importance of the financial industry nauseates any decent human being who has the misfortune of encountering it.

    there are tons in jobs and industries that do far more important work than the wall street douches. and they work long and harder.

    looking for a 2-week vacation and a paycheck? try coal mining, nancy

  19. slycapital says:

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but anyone with any actual capital is laughing at you.

    Thinking about the issues and maintaining capital over decades requires almost the exact opposite qualities of the ones you are praising here. Hard work is important but not taking time off and getting to work very early every day on little sleep is guaranteed to blind you to the larger waves of history.

    If you have to work this ferociously you are a pawn.

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