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March 22, 2009

What the hell IS an investment banker, anyway?

Who are these greedy bastards that have destroyed our financial system and cost the taxpayers billions? What do these Wall Street guys (and girls) do to command such exorbitant bonuses? Well, I'll tell you.

First of all, you need to understand that there are four major functional areas in an investment bank, all with very different jobs and responsibilities:

  • Senior management: the top 15 or so executives who run the company and make strategic decisions (like how to allocate capital and resources),
  • Sales & Trading: the folks you see sitting in front of rows of screens, yelling into headsets, this group can also include retail brokers and research analysts,
  • Investment Bankers: the people in suits who get hired by other corporations to help them raise capital or advise them on acquisitions and other financial matters, and
  • Operations: the "back office" people who support the rest of the firm in clearing trades, IT, accounting, facilities management, etc.

Senior Management

When people rail against greedy investment bankers, these are generally the people they are thinking about. These are the CEOs that have been called in to testify before Congress and the heads of divisions who authorize major commitments of the firm's capital. They are also the recipients of big company perks like cars and drivers, use of the corporate aircraft, etc. In publicly held companies, the total compensation of the top five corporate officers is published in the annual proxy statement, which can be found on the SEC's Edgar site. If anyone is "responsible" for having caused this mess, it is these senior managers. However, many of the executives who were in charge during the bubble period have been fired or otherwise lost their jobs.

Sales & Trading

The guys on the trading floor who devised many of the financial products that have become "toxic" assets (CDOs, credit default swaps, etc.) also bear some of the responsibility for the mess we're in. But the number of people involved in these esoteric securities was fairly limited. Most traders, salesmen, and brokers spent most of their time on "plain vanilla" products like stocks, bonds, currencies, futures and options and commodities. And while many of these "Master of the Universe" types were paid multi-million dollar bonuses, they also worked very hard for their money; putting in long, stress-filled days on the trading floor, and hours of research and reading at home.

Investment Bankers

The banker's job is to call on corporate clients seeking to be retained for financings (debt or equity) or for financial advisory assignments like mergers and acquisitions or restructurings. They bear little responsibility for the current financial crisis. In fact, their job has remained largely the same for the last quarter century; 70 to 90 hour weeks spent building financial models and preparing presentations for senior management at client firms. These folks usually travel extensively (3 to 4 days a week on the road is not uncommon) and spent many (most?) nights and weekends in the office or on a never ending series of conference calls with clients and colleagues. While the level of activity among their clients is down, this business remains highly profitable since it makes only limited use of their firm's risk capital.


These employees had virtually nothing to do with the current problems. They perform jobs similar to their equivalents in non-financial firms, though their compensation levels (and hours worked) tend to be higher than in other large corporations.

*** Bonuses ***

Nothing is less well-understood than Wall Street's compensation system. In most American businesses, workers receive a salary based on hours or weeks worked. In some companies, at the end of the year, some or all employees may be paid a "bonus" based on their individual performance or the firm's level of profitability. In addition, people in sales related jobs are often paid on a commission basis, based on sales volumes. However, on Wall Street, things are completely different.

In virtually all investment banks, only senior management have large annual salaries (with large bonuses often contractually specified as well). Mid and lower-level professionals are paid standard, modest salaries based upon their titles; for example, all Managing Directors might have base salaries of $200k and all VPs might have base salaries of $125k. At the end of the year, based upon their individual performance, the profitability of their group and the profitability of the firm as a whole, they are awarded a bonus which comprises the bulk of their total compensation. These bonuses are typically paid in January or February of the following year. Managing Directors (a title awarded after 7 to 10+ years of increasing responsibility in an "up or out" hierarchy) typically receive total compensation of between $1 and $5mm per year, based upon the net revenues they were able to produce for their firm. MD level compensation in many firms is approximately 10 percent of the net revenue generated by each senior professional.

Of course, especially for senior bankers, a significant portion of their annual bonus is paid in restricted company stock. This stock typically vests over a three or four year period and is forfeit if you leave to join a competitor. For investment bankers who were unfortunate enough to have worked for firms receiving TARP funds, this stock is generally worth a small fraction of its original value.

Finally, most Americans don't understand the cost of living in the NYC area. In most parts of the country, if you are earning $250k per year, you are living in the best part of town in a big beautiful house. In Manhattan, it is hard to buy a 3 bedroom apartment for less than $2mm. In most of the country, the suburban public schools are considered excellent. In Manhattan, most middle class professionals try to send their kids to private schools where annual tuition is $30k. While there are a few excellent public schools, this is not a viable option for most people. Renting a parking space for your car in Manhattan costs $500 a month -- in many parts of the country you can rent an apartment for less. One could go on and on (but I won't.)

This is not to say that we should feel sorry for those poor, misunderstood investment bankers. Most of them are doing quite well. However, if you are an employee of a firm receiving TARP investments from the feds and you had nothing to do with the activities that caused these massive write-downs, you can be forgiven for not understanding why you should have to hand over to the government more than 100% of last year's bonus. (The House bill that passed last week called for taxing bonuses above $250k at big TARP firms at 90% (plus Medicare tax of 1.45% and NYC state and local income taxes of 10.5%), bringing the total for NYC residents to 101.95%.)

March 22, 2009 at 07:05 PM | Permalink


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