The personal is political

I still remember quite vividly recruiting season in my first year of business school.  The herd of MBAs, now almost ready for market, being prodded stolidly from pen to pen, where people a few years out of Chicago themselves smugly asked us to walk them through our resumes, and examined our teeth quizzed us on our knowledge about securities.  Some inexplicably contrary instinct had led me to pursue summer positions in investment banking, a job whose extreme detail orientation, relentless focus on money, and status-obsessed culture was almost, but not quite, exactly wrong for me.

Nonetheless, I moved through the system with the rest of them.  First interviews on campus.  Second interviews in hotel rooms downtown, where I tried to chat gaily about asset backed securities while pretending that I was not perched uncomfortably on a king bed with two strange men staring at me.  If we were lucky, we were flown to New York for third rounds.  The prestige banks were the independents:  Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley at top, then Merrill Lynch, then CS First Boston, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Salomon Smith Barney.  JP Morgan after them.  Working for a commercial bank's investment banking arm was strictly the booby prize.

My worst interview was at CS First Boston, where an interviewer inexplicably asked me why I was not applying to Bear Stearns.  Flummoxed by the bizarre interest, I stammered and told the truth, which was that they had a bad reputation with women.  You may already have guessed that that interviewer had just moved to Bear Stearns from First Boston; he spent the rest of the interview grilling me about bridge (I had played, badly, in college) and asking me questions about the markets that would have been appropriate if I had been interviewing for a trading position, which I wasn't, but which weren't inside the domain of knowledge potential investment bankers were expected to know.  At one point he asked me where the long bond had closed the night before, which I happened to know from the news that morning.

"6.37*", I said.

He glared at me.  "Is that true, or did you just make that up?"

"I don't understand," I said.  "Are you asking me questions you don't know the answers to?"

Needless to say, I didn't get invited for a second round.  Late that night he called me to inform me, and as was customary, asked me if I wanted feedback.

"I don't think so," I told him.  "Do you?"

He hung up the phone.

Nonetheless, other banks liked me well enough.  I flew to New York with the other investment banking associates and now the herd was running through the canyons of Wall Street.  Lehman and Merrill Lynch both toured me through their cool, quiet offices in the World Financial Center.  I ultimately ended up at Merrill Lynch for the summer.  In the Technology Investment Banking group. In 2000.  Even without any actual work to do, it took little time to discover that I had no inner investment banker waiting to get out.

Now Bear is a fading memory, Lehman is filing for bankruptcy, and Merrill Lynch, who we barely had our eye on because we were so worried about Lehman, has sold itself to the Bank of America.  A mole at Morgan Stanley reports that half the office is working on the Lehman disaster, trying to figure out how to terminate swaps and other counterparty obligations.  The rumor mill is busy at work asking whether Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley can survive as independent institutions.  When JP Morgan was allowed to go into the investment banking business, much was made of the end of Glass-Steagall.  But this is the true end game:  investment banking houses are folding back into commercial operations in order to take advantage of the stability of their gigantic balance sheets.  In my 3 am moments, even I wonder if this is wise:  are we making the system more stable, or merely lashing the traders to ordinary depositors they can take down with them?

Remembering all this, I am struck by something a JP Morgan banker said to me when I turned down their offer in favor of Merrill Lynch.  "You know, ten years ago, no one wanted to work at Goldman," he said.  "Things change a lot in this business."  Now JP Morgan owns Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch is an arm of Bank of America.  I wonder if he remembers those words as well as I do.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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