Where are the bankers of yesteryear?

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I had the great good fortune to spend a summer in Merrill Lynch's technology investment banking group.  That was 2000.  I had remarkably little talent for banking, but even if I had been more adept, there would have been nothing for me to do.  The primary activity in the group was looking busy--staying at your desk until at least 11 at night in order to give the false impression that you might actually be working on something.

It took Wall Street a while to catch on.  There was a long, haunting period when everyone tried to pretend that things might be just about to get better, rather like living with a terminal cancer patient who won't face their diagnosis.  Then, layoffs.  More false cheer.  More layoffs.

Eventually the patient went into remission, but this rather vivid piece from the Wall Street Journal makes it clear the disease is back, and worse than before:
 

"An entire generation has worked for 20 years, lifted up their heads, and it's all gone 'poof,' " says one Goldman Sachs banker. Indeed, last Friday J.P. Morgan quietly laid off a passel of Bear Stearns bankers. They thought they had found a safe harbor after Bear imploded early this year.

For now, the coping is taking the form of prolific meeting-taking. Ten of 11 people interviewed described, with unexpected eagerness, how now is a good time to "connect with clients" or "build relationships." One boasted of spending just two days a month in the office, while another ex-J.P. Morgan employee boasted of two breakthrough meetings -- just hours before he was fired.

The bankers say that the most substantive conversations are, surprise, those with companies in urgent need of cash. These companies will listen to anyone who may have a creative idea or two. With markets frozen, there is little work to actually complete. "What's your definition of business?" snapped one Merrill Lynch executive.

Often these conversations devolve into discussions about the fate of Wall Street itself, and whether the bankers' employers will survive or not. "You do that for a little while and you run out of things to talk about," says one Citigroup banker.

These conversations give some macabre cheer to another emerging group of Wall Streeters. These are the ones who have largely given up on their current positions, and feverishly chart layoff rumors and bonus chatter. These types are more likely found among a bank's younger ranks, where employees have less ability to win business or differentiate themselves. They are vainly hunting for new jobs.

"They watch CNBC all day and surf the Web," says the Citigroup banker. "Investment banking had this boisterous vibe. Now they're completely beaten down."

This would appear a moment of natural self-reflection. Perhaps the time to consider a career move out of New York, or pursue an abandoned passion. Oddly, few of the senior bankers seemed to be able to accept the basic reality of their own profession: that an overleveraged world created an excess of bankers, too.

I suspect that the patient isn't going to bounce back this time, at least not to the former robust good health.  Banking needs to be much smaller, which means a lot of overeducated people, many of them with crushing student loan bills, are going to have to radically downsize their expectations.  Having gone through it, I can testify that it's not fun.  But it's not the end of the world, either.  The denial, the need to play along, is the hardest time for everyone.

 

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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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