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Forum Post: Leaving Wall Street by Alexis Goldstein

Posted 5 years ago on May 5, 2012, 10:48 p.m. EST by PeterKropotkin (1050) from Oakland, CA
This content is user submitted and not an official statement

When some people think about Wall Street, they conjure up images of traders shouting on the stock exchange, of bankers dining at five star restaurants, of CEOs whispering in the ears of captured Congress members.

When I think about Wall Street, I think about its stunted rainbow of pale pastel shirts. I think about the vaulting, highly secured, and very cold lobbies. And I think about the art passed daily by the harried workers, virtually unseen.

Before I occupied Wall Street, Wall Street occupied me. What started as a summer internship led to a seven-year career. During my time on Wall Street, I changed from a curious college student full of hope for my future, into a cynical, bitter, depressed, and exhausted “knowledge worker” who felt that everyone was out to screw me over. The culture of Wall Street is pervasive and contagious. While there are Wall Street employees who are able to ignore it, or block it out, I was not one of them. I drank the Kool Aid. I’m out of it now. But I’d like to tell you what it was like.

When you are wealthy and successful, you have a choice. You can believe your success stems from luck and privilege, or you can believe it stems from hard work. Very few people like to view their success as a matter of luck. And so, perhaps understandably, most people on Wall Street believe they have earned their jobs, and the money that follows. While there are many on Wall Street who come from wealthy backgrounds, there are also many people from very humble backgrounds. In my experience, it is often those who do not come from privilege who are the system’s fiercest defenders. When I was a summer intern, we met with various executives who’d tell us about their careers and pitch us on the firm. The aim was to sell the firm to everyone, even though only a few of us would ultimately be offered full-time positions at the firm. It had an element of redundancy to it, since we were clearly already interested in the firm, or we wouldn’t be there at all. The effect of these talks, then, was to make a competitive situation even more competitive. Welcome to Wall Street. One executive described the firm as a “Golden Springboard.” If we began our careers there, his reasoning went, there wasn’t anywhere we couldn’t go. The executive was right. Background becomes irrelevant once you have “made it” to Wall Street. Once you’ve gotten in the door, you’re one of “us.”

Once hired, the cultural indoctrination begins in earnest, especially for those recent grads who begin their careers in “analyst training programs.” These programs are exclusively for college and graduate students, are often several months long, and are custom-tailored to the department you’ll ultimately join. The Sales & Trading analyst program is more competitive than, say, the Technology training program. And while most of the training is job-specific, there is also an air of finishing school. A trader friend of mine was instructed not only in the mathematics of the financial markets, but also in wine tasting and golf. You are trained, but also you are groomed.

The grooming is not all fun and games and country clubs. Most of the message revolves around how hard everyone works, and how hard you are expected to work in turn. Wall Street views its own work ethic as legendary. Sixty-hour weeks are standard. An ex-boss of mine used to brag that for one six-year stretch he never took a sick day or a vacation. The streak ended when he contracted strep throat, refused to go to the doctor, and eventually had to be hospitalized (at least so he claimed).

While not everyone was as manic as my boss (Wall Street has more than its fair share of laziness and incompetence), even those who feel less committed to the job still buy into a concept of “face time.” It’s not right to leave your desk before a certain time. An ex-colleague of mine used to ask anyone who’d pass by his cubicle before 7pm on their way out the door, “Oh, half day today?”

This dueling masochism/machismo brings with it a tremendous superiority complex. People on Wall Street truly believe they work harder than anyone else. When confronted with the stark reality of, for example, a single mom working two jobs, the response is usually some variant of, “Well, if they’d only worked as hard as I did in school . . .” But the key to truly understanding superiority on Wall Street is by looking at how it’s measured: with cold, hard numbers. Numbers can be amplified by honest work, but they can also be amplified by betrayal, manipulation, and cheating. And when everything is a cold cost-benefit analysis, why wouldn’t you break regulations—provided you knew the profits you stood to make would dwarf the fines you would pay should you get caught?

On Wall Street, the best-paid employees actively seek out their “market value” by interviewing and cultivating job offers at competing firms. Once they’ve secured an offer, they go back to their boss and try to land what’s called a “counter-offer.” If the new firm is offering to pay $300,000, the old firm may counter that offer with $400,000. But even in this game of betrayal, a little bit of lying will optimize your results. You can solicit a counter by handing in a resignation letter. But to resign and then accept a counter is to admit you’re a mercenary. This will get you labeled a “high flight risk.” No, playing the game correctly to maximize money means pretending the game is not about money at all. A more strategic route is to explain, “Well, this offer just fell into my lap, I really don’t want to leave, so is there anything you can do to help me out?”

Of course, manipulation isn’t only for tricking your bosses—it extends to the clients as well. On Wall Street, it is not frowned upon to “rip the faces off” one’s own clients. If the client is dumb enough to get hoodwinked, that means the client didn’t work hard enough. He didn’t do his “due diligence.” In other words, if I screw you, you only have yourself to blame. That is the “zero-sum game” of trading. But perhaps the zenith of Wall Street fitness is the unpunished cheat. Around the holiday season, inter-dealer brokers will send gifts to the traders, trying to curry favor with bottles of wine or champagne. Inter-dealer brokers are brokers who allow Wall Street banks to anonymously trade with one another, since the last thing you want to do if you’re Morgan Stanley is let Goldman Sachs know your position, though you may still want to trade with them. But there is a catch to the gift-giving: according to FINRA, Wall Street’s self-regulatory agency, the brokers are only allowed to spend a maximum of $100 per trader. On slow winter days, the traders would Google the bottles of wine, trying to determine which vendors had cheated. Often they would find that, yes, this vendor breached the limit. The response to the cheat was always the same: a smirk, and an approving nod. It’s not about who cheated. It’s about who cheated successfully.

This attitude extends to higher stakes games as well. Take the case SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc. According to the SEC, in 2007 Citigroup sold their clients a portfolio of assets (mortgage-backed securities, as it happens) that Citi was actively betting against. The SEC therefore charged Citigroup with securities fraud; it’s been reported that the fearsome regulatory agency won’t settle for anything less than a $285 million fine. Looks bad, right? Well, yes, unless you consider that, according to Forbes, Citigroup allegedly made $160 million on this one deal (investors lost $700 million). Citigroup looks like it’s going to lose $125 million! But how many similar deals have gone un-prosecuted? If the answer is one, Citigroup is back in the black; if the answer is, as surely it must be, more than one, then Citigroup is doing very well, thank you.

This is why paying fines when you are caught breaking the rules is simply deemed “the cost of doing business” on Wall Street. Poker is extremely popular across Wall Street, and provides an instructive lesson. The book Poker Winners Are Different by industrial psychologist and poker adviser Alan Schoonmaker presents a scenario where a player notices his best friend’s “tell”—that is, the best friend has a habit of showing when he has a good or bad hand. The book then poses the following dilemma: should you (a) tell your friend, (b) win a bit of money from him, and then tell him, or (c) exploit your friend, never telling him. The correct answer: screw your friend. Schoonmaker, who used to do “management development” work at Merrill Lynch, writes that winners will “do whatever the rules and ethics allow to maximize their profits.” This behavior is heralded in poker and it’s heralded on Wall Street. Despite what may be emblazoned on plaques or in mission statements, the ethics of Wall Street are purely about winning at any cost.

If they didn’t know it going in, Wall Street employees quickly learn that even their company is an enemy. To the firm, employees are a cost to be minimized, or a producer to be exploited. You also learn that you must never show gratitude for your bonus. To appear satisfied with your compensation is to admit that they paid you more than they had to, so you must feign outrage no matter what. What happens to a culture that discourages gratitude?

But most people on Wall Street do not feel gratitude anyway. It does not matter that their compensation is enormous compared to the average American—that is not who a Wall Street worker is comparing themselves to. They are looking at the compensation of the top sales person, the top trader, or, at the very top, the CEO. What this environment did to me is that I began to see everyone as a threat. From that idiot two cubicles down from me, to the moron on the other end of the phone (the client), to—more than anything—the faceless, imagined people on government assistance who I assumed (incorrectly) were what was causing such large percentages to disappear from my paycheck.

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[-] 1 points by BoycottCoke (275) 5 years ago

Outstanding. This "culture" spreads across the body of Corporate América.

A little digging can yield amazing results when one decides to stop drinking the cool aid of the so called "American Dream", once you do that, you realize what it is, just a dream, and what we live in, is a nightmare.

But don't let your heart be troubled for long, change, real change is coming soon.

That's the beauty if it, they can't put this cat back in the hat.

[-] 1 points by DKAtoday (33475) from Coon Rapids, MN 5 years ago

Nice. Story from a cult survivor. A look inside of the Cult of money by one who did not become totally addicted/converted.

[-] 1 points by XenuLives (1645) from Charlotte, NC 5 years ago

Wow... This thread deserves way more than 0 comments. What a good read!