We are meeting one stone-cold February morning for a coffee.
He works as a Vice-President in corporate finance for a bulge-bracket firm. In his early 30s, a tall man with a modest demeanour and a suit that looks expensive without being flashy, he orders a double espresso.
Joris Luyendijk talks to a bank vice-president about job insecurity, salary competition and the importance of relationships
This monologue is part of a series in which people across the financial sector speak about their working lives.
"There's clearly something structurally wrong in our economy and system. Twenty years ago the CEO would make something like 40 times as much as the lowest employee. Now it's 400 times. That can't be right. But sometimes I feel bankers take all the flack for a broader phenomenon. Most, if not all FTSE-100 companies have some serious pay discrepancies, yet public indignation seems cornered on the banks. Because we were bailed out ? Well, my bank wasn't. Banks have a lot to answer for, but they are far from being the sole reason for the current crisis.
"So many people seem to automatically assume all bankers earn a million a year. We do not. There's a lot of confusion.
"This is a well-paid profession, absolutely. But times are tough, and pay is much lower than it was. Bonuses lead to endless gossiping, of course. 'I heard so and so got so much', 'How much do you think so and so got?' What happens is they rank people across the departments in the bank, from top to middle to bottom, and in theory then pay according to the rankings. Beyond that it becomes a bit more murky, you never know exactly how things get calculated. By the way, they don't call it a bonus. It's, let me see, 'performance-related pay'.
"The job security is not great, to put it mildly. This is high-risk, high-reward work. You can just get a phone call and be told to clean out your desk.
"I think you could argue that investment banks are not always very well managed. What makes a good banker is not what makes a good manager. As soon as things are going well, they start hiring like crazy. Then there's a bit of a downturn and they make all these people redundant again, paying large severance packages. You end up with organisations that are slightly short-sighted, with little continuity or institutional memory.
"In my department, the corporate finance teams are the interface between a corporation (the client) and the bank. When the client needs any of the financial services the bank offers, they come through our team and we will manage the relationship. Banks tend to divide up their clients by sector; pharmaceuticals, utilities, consumer, telecoms and so on. I am in one of these teams.
"Clients may need to restructure their debt, to issue shares, they may want to buy or sell a company. They may need a derivative, for protection against currency or interest rate swings. People talk about the large fees charged by banks, but we may advise and produce work for a client for years without making any money. It is only when actual deals are done that we charge a fee and recoup all those costs. The world of investment banking is very competitive, and there are a large number banks aggressively pitching for deals.
"League tables are very important when pitching for business. These rank banks for their market share in, say, M&A or issuing equity. If a bank wants to climb up the league tables, it might pitch very low fees simply to increase market share.
"Clients attach enormous importance to track record. They might ask: 'So tell me about the last IPO you did in country X?'. When we close a big deal, we have trophies called 'tombstones'. It might read 'Sainsbury's plc GBP5bn rights issue'.
"Corporate finance is a great area. You work on big deals all the time and meet lots of interesting people. It's also great for keeping doors open for later steps in a career, for example you could then move into private equity, or work for a corporate, or set up your own business … You can leave your options open. Then again, in the current climate everyone is primarily scared for their jobs.
"Yes, you could say that in my career I have now entered puberty, with the rank of vice-president. Director is like adulthood. In the major banks you start as an analyst for three years, then you become associate for another three. Next is vice-president. As you climb your work independence goes up. I get more control over the work I do, and I delegate much more. It gets more interesting as you move up.
"I don't work till 3am every night, only occasionally. But there's little room for social life during the week. Even senior people have a pretty antisocial lifestyle. They may not sit in the office till midnight but they may have to get up at 4am to catch a flight to somewhere in Europe, fly back on the same day and sometimes on to another flight. You have heard of the 'red-eye'? That's the flight out of New York that arrives in the morning.
"Another thing about bankers: they are always on call. When the client wants something, the bank has to deliver, even if that means sacrificing whatever previous plans the bankers had. I am sitting here now, but when I return to the office I may find an email from a senior asking for a presentation by next week. Your whole week can change like that. Seniors just drop that on you. It may be 23 December and we get a call from a client asking for a presentation by 2 January. Well, that client knows that he has just destroyed three bankers' Christmas holidays as they will have to stay in the office to work.
"The cost reductions these days go deep. No business class obviously, other than for long-haul flights, and if there's a cheap flight at 6am and a more expensive one at 7am, you're told to take the 6am one, even if it means waking up at 4am.
"I don't think the next few years will be much better. The glory days are over. Banking has become a dirty word, and it has all become so political. Just look at Hester at RBS. These days I am quite cagey about where I work, saying 'finance' in the hope that people will think 'boring' and leave it alone.
"If you are an internet start-up you have very low barriers to entry. A couple of smart people and a computer. Banking is very different. You need a big balance sheet to do a lot of the business we do for clients, and a huge amount of back-office staff, systems, and so on. For example, with equity raising – issuing new shares in a company – you of course need the expertise and the experience to advise the company on the markets, but there is also a huge network of people and systems required to do the deal: sales teams to interest investors in the new shares, traders to trade them, huge IT operations.
"I'd say the only area in finance with low barriers to entry is advisory, such as mergers and acquisitions. This is why you see so-called boutiques being set up by bankers striking out on their own. They bring the experience and expertise, then all they need is a team of analysts to crunch the numbers plus a few computers in an office, and there is no real need for capital or a balance sheet.
"When looking at a transaction, banks have lots of committees, like risk committees, to approve the deal. When we are working on a lending deal with a client, the committee will look at two things: first, if we lend money to this corporation, what will be our rate of return on the money we are lending them? As some people in the industry say: 'What's the wallet?' I hate that expression, frankly. Second, what is the risk or the probability of us not getting our money back ?
"When we really believe in the deal we will try to push it as best as we can. Sit down and do extensive risk analyses, run scenarios. The committee will ask lots of tough questions, they may say: in their financial model your client assumes a growth of revenues of 1%, based on a view that the UK economy as a whole will grow. How do things look if economic growth is flat? Then we need to prove that even in that negative scenario, the company will still pay its debts.
"I am simplifying here of course, to give you an idea. It's all about risk, that's what banking is: creating risk, and protecting against that risk. The margin a bank charges on a deal is a function of the risk that the bank thinks it runs.
"There are banks that sell all the loans they make to a client on to other investors. That's called 'de-risking' or syndication. Other banks keep some loans on their books, as an investment. These days companies and corporations increasingly expect us to keep some loans we write for them on our books. As an expression of commitment.
"Beginners' mistakes in corporate finance … You need to be aware of your internal network. Your success in the bank is determined in great measure by the views other people in the bank have of you. You need juniors to say positive things such as 'he always takes time to teach me things'. And seniors need to talk about you as someone they can rely on.
"Banks are huge organisations. It really helps when you know who to call for what, and if this person is inclined to help you. You need to invest in relationships internally.
"Perception is so important. People say that in presentations or speeches over 70% or so of an audience's focus is on how speakers look, not on what they say. So I must stand there looking confident, with good hand movements and the right body language. The other guy from a different bank pitching for business may have something better to say but if he looks all shaky and unimpressive, the chances are clients will go with me. That's just human nature.
"'Who you know' is no longer so important to get into in finance. In the old days your parents' connections would get you a job in the City. Today, connections might get you a job interview at best. Still very nice but if you don't do well, there's no job. It's become very meritocratic; skills and talent trump background.
"My income? Well, here's a cultural sensitivity for you. English people are enormously uncomfortable talking about money. On my way here I caught myself going over all the ways I could formulate it. Do you phrase it as 'close to' or as 'a little higher or lower than … ' Well, let's say I have a six-figure salary and a six-figure bonus. Relative to my peers in some other banks I am possibly underpaid, actually.
"Still, it is a lot of money, I am totally cognisant of that. I do pay eye-watering amounts of taxes, I might add. When I look back at my early days in my career, I wonder how the hell did I survive on the starting salary I did, it was a lot lower than new graduates get today, maybe around £25k. I had no car back then. A cheap apartment, basic holidays.
"It would definitely be hard to drop down in income. I do think about switching jobs, and if the money in banking were severely curtailed, a lot of others might too. Were I to have kids, that would be a moment to step back and think about the sacrifices you have to make for the job.
"The thing is, money is not the biggest motivator for me. It's the pleasure and excitement of the job. Yes, on bonus day I may get excited what the number in the envelope is going to be, although not so much these days. But after a day or two, I will have kind of forgotten all about it. The biggest motivator is praise. Praise from someone senior who has seen I've done a good job. That's such a strong boost.
"I am probably on the right-hand-side of the political spectrum, especially relative to most of your readers. My sense is that the west has become lazy. Many people here seem to have to believe that the state owes them something. If you look at people in India and China, they have this hunger to succeed. That is lost in the west."
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