Business | My Career

'Why banking attracts me'

it offers an unbeatable opportunity if you are young and ambitious — intern

  • By Joris Luyendijk
  • Published: 00:00 October 15, 2011
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Gulf News archive

We meet at a coffee shop in St Pancras station one September morning. He is a 21-year-old student intern in the equity sales division at a bulge bracket (huge international) bank. He is wearing a checked blue shirt and looks sleepy, possibly because he went to bed at 5.30am — a birthday party. Orange juice and then eggs aid his recovery. He volunteered for an interview after reading the Voices of finance blogpost with a former intern at a major bank, who described the life of interns as "pretty boring."

"I have just finished a three-month analyst internship at a prestigious US investment bank. Fifteen-hour work days, for ten weeks of your summer break, incredible nights out, working with other interns who will go back to work in offices in Africa, the Americas, Asia, continental Europe and the Middle East. An eye-opening but gruelling experience for any 21-year-old.

"Why go into banking? I was sitting on the tube on my way here thinking you'd probably ask that and it started, I actually remember, when I was watching this Evan Davis documentary about the financial crisis. He was telling this story about how Nasa rocket scientists, who sent men into space, started to flood into Wall Street working for investment banks where they were dubbed quants [mathematical geniuses]. I have always been motivated, and I remember thinking to myself, what are these investment banks doing that is so difficult? Could I do it?

Money

"There's the money, too, clearly. I have just completed my internship and I will hear in a week if I get a job offer. If so, I am going to be making around £45,000 [Dh260,147] per year. That's a lot of money for someone my age, but that will just allow me to move out of my parents' home to rent where I grew up in central London. Why do banks pay so much? I guess they want to attract talent from around the world and to lure students away from things like corporate law. Extremely motivated 20-somethings had come from all over the world to London specifically for this internship, from places like the Americas, Middle East, south Asia and the far east. A really incredible mix of backgrounds.

"As an intern I was slightly unusual in two ways: I didn't study a quantitative degree in finance, and I didn't come from Oxbridge or the Ivy League. Investment banks pay interns the same as a first-year graduate, which is a really admirable thing because it ensures that the internship is accessible to anyone, regardless of your financial background.

"I wouldn't have been able to do this otherwise. As you might expect, the hours are horrendous; I worked out that this summer I earned less per hour on a graduate banker salary than I did on my summer job last year teaching Spanish to students.

"The work is very cyclical, sometimes you wouldn't have any work to do and you would be doing what we call ‘facetime', which is essentially looking like you're working hard until the last member of your team leaves, when in reality you're chatting to other interns on the internal messenger system. Most of the time though, interns on my floor were rushed off their feet.

"As an intern it's really important to be seen as willing to get tea, but not to actually be seen getting tea. You see the difference? If you are seen getting tea for people, they are not going to take you seriously. But if you are seen as not willing to get tea, they are going to think you're arrogant.

"Being late twice … that's death for an intern. Quite often in the morning, I'd spend £15 [Dh86] on a taxi, simply to make sure I wouldn't be late. Particularly on Wednesdays and Fridays the tube can be unreliable. As a student, I'd never spent £15 on a taxi, but now I was thinking: look, you're doing everything you can to get into a job that pays over £45,000 a year — that's worth the £15 investment.

"As an intern at my bank you have to be your own harshest critic. Unless you have a good relationship with a colleague, you will never be told if you are underperforming, nobody will say anything if you're a minute late, but everyone will have noted it. Culture varies from bank to bank but, at least once a week, I would see an employee get absolutely trashed by their boss in front of the entire trading floor; the floor can get extremely tense when the markets are volatile. These are incredibly awkward moments for an intern, you do everything possible to avoid eye contact with anyone who isn't having a good day, you try to look like you're as busy as everyone else and you keep a low profile to avoid anyone taking out their frustration on you.

"So what was my job? I worked in emerging markets equity sales. Investment banks have research analysts who study publicly-listed companies [on the stock market] in defined industrial sectors. These analysts independently recreate a company's financial accounts from the ground-up to make sure that they are completely accurate, and with their financial models they calculate the impact on the company if X, Y or Z changes in the future, and so predict what the accounts of the firm will look like. My team takes this research and our own market knowledge, and sells investment [buying] or divestment [selling] ideas to our long-term clients, like pension funds. If they like an idea we pitched, they will place the trade with us, earning my firm commission.

"This summer was an extraordinary time to be an intern at an investment bank; it was a bit of a bloodbath, one of the most financially volatile periods in history. Profits were down, lots of banks were making huge redundancies, and banks are generally on an austerity drive. I came into this with some of the same ideas that I suspect many of you have, but there were no lavish company nights out…

Challenging

"In return, I guess that you invest some of the best years of your life, and almost all of your waking hours to work. Personally, I absolutely enjoyed the work, as did most of my intern friends. Of course there are low points, but they come with any career. I enjoy meeting new people, I like the challenge of presenting investment ideas, I am very comfortable with numbers, so a sales role at an investment bank just makes sense.

"In the long run, I want to work myself into a position where I can make my own small positive difference to the world. Ideally, before I'm 35 [if I last that long the job security isn't great] I would have left banking to work in the emerging new breed of entrepreneurial NGOs, or perhaps even politics.

"Right now, banking seems like the most challenging place to be. There are even league tables of the most promising young financiers, ‘The 30 best traders under 30', that sort of thing. I don't see myself on any of those at all; just breaking into investment banking is challenging enough for me."

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

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