A Glimpse Behind Wall Street’s Fratty Facade
originally published in USA Today College
June 28, 2012
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One day in February, during the peak of internship recruiting season, one Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BofAML) director sat at his desk and couldn’t help but laugh.
He was reading one unfortunate applicant’s cover letter. And after reading it, he couldn’t help himself — and forwarded the letter to the rest of his team members’ Outlook inboxes. In addition to the cover letter attachment, the email contained this message: “Drinks on me for the first analyst to concisely summarize everything that is wrong with this.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, the team members couldn’t help but forward the email on to current and former colleagues and friends.
The applicant’s cover letter became a hilarious hot potato, bouncing from bank to hedge fund to investment boutique. It wasn’t long before the letter was unofficially deemed the “laughing stock of Wall Street.”
It was the letter’s unabashed bravado that was its folly.
The unfortunate applicant, an NYU student named “Mark,” painted his assorted skill sets with silly hyperbole — like his ability to “perform basic office functions with terrifying efficiency.” He also made flat-out errors, like his reference to the employer first as “JPMorgan” and later as “Morgan Stanley,” revealing the cover letter’s stock essence.
But what comes through clearest is Mark’s cocky, meretricious claims of achievement, like his claim that last semester he “achieved a 3.93 [GPA], and in the same time managed to bench double [his] bodyweight and do 35 pull ups.”
Why is this story significant? Its existence, and the way it was handled by online media, perfectly captured the current zeitgeist of investment banking.
It was the fact that this random cover letter, sent to a prestigious investment bank, resembled more a plea for acceptance into a fraternity rather than a formal cover letter for employment at a big, public financial firm.
What sort of professional culture would inspire an aspiring intern to express himself in such a way?
Another example: Mark begins one paragraph with the boisterous claim that he is “unequivocally the most unflaggingly hard worker [he] knows, and [he] loves self-improvement.”
How do we interpret such a display of ambition?
Mark might be the only one to have captured this mentality in words (that we know about, anyway) and it’s undoubtedly a mindset shared by many in the flock of aspiring finance moguls. This, indeed, was part of the letter’s mass appeal – the vivid mirror it provided for these young aspirants.
The story of Mark’s cover letter reflects a public perception that investment banking — and maybe more broadly Wall Street — enjoys a sort of “frat culture.” It’s not a far stretch.
The way the cover letter was leaked from the BofAML director to the rest of his team – including the barter of alcohol and social embarrassment — has a distinctly fratty quality. It resembles the way a fraternity e-board might mull over and orchestrate a prank on one poor prospective pledge.
Still, it’s the broader recruitment process practiced by investment banks and Wall Street that echoes the world of American collegiate Greek life and the concept of “hazing.”
“Summer Analysts” — the label most investment banks use for their interns and the job that Mark was applying for — are subject to nine weeks of ungodly working hours.
This past March, after receiving word of his internship offer, one summer analyst at a top investment bank in Chicago was told he could expect to work from 8 a.m. until midnight, Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Later – after the nine weeks of working over 100 hours a week, 7 days a week – each analyst is given an answer: whether or not he has a full-time offer.
At a prestigious investment bank in Chicago, the previously-mentioned summer analyst has already heard stories trickled down from past interns and current employees.
The bank’s final offer decisions are typically given at a third-party location, from people you’ve never before met, and the conversations last less than 30 seconds. You either got the offer or you didn’t. What’s the need to talk about anything else?
Stories like this are not uncommon.
They contribute to the perception many still have of a cold and callous Wall Street. Ongoing news stories of epic financial missteps – like JPMorgan’s recent bad bet which cost the bank over $2 billion – have continued to foster the flame beneath this negative sentiment. Whether the major media are covering it or not, the Occupy Wall Street movement is still alive.
The group has already marched several times around Manhattan since spring.
As tattered as Wall Street’s image remains, early reports from this year’s batch of summer analysts aren’t so gloomy.
The previously-mentioned summer analyst in New York describes a friendly and healthily competitive office culture. His main takeaway — more than being overworked or aggravated — is that he’s learning a lot. One lesson he had already learned was the real reason for summer analysts’ ungodly working hours. It has less to do managerial abuse, and more to do with the fundamental nature of the business.
Investment banks act as agents in the world of finance. They service clients, often providing expertise in times of mergers and acquisitions.
A top investment bank attracts clients from around the world, all operating on difference time zones and cultural frequencies. The consequence is that summer analysts – as well as first- and second-year full-time analysts – are the ones left with the chore of smoothing out this logistical gulf and keeping business running smoothly.
Indeed, someone has to be at the office to compile a dealbook for the Chinese client to send out by 2 a.m. New York time.
It’s the kind of job that, ironically, seems like it would be a perfect fit for Mark.