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What the Goldman 13 show us about financial sweatshops

Sleep_Desk_Alamy_575_19Mar21
By Ralph Sinclair
19 Mar 2021

Last week’s horror slide deck from 13 first year analysts in Goldman Sachs’s investment banking division describing their working lives, or rather, their lives — they didn’t appear to have time for any other sort — caused a sensation. But other than satisfying the public lust for tales from the extreme end of Big Finance, what can the episode teach those in the industry, and those trying to enter it?

The Goldman Sachs 13 are a group of anonymous first year investment banking analysts who last week put out a presentation, dressed up as a banking-style pitchbook, detailing the dreadful statistics of their working lives.

The unlucky 13 had worked an average of 98 hours a week since January, and around 10 of them felt they had been victims of workplace abuse.

Three quarters, which is 9.75 people — perhaps demonstrating how tired they are — said they had considered seeking “counselling, therapy or any additional services for [their] mental health due to the stress of the job”.

They scored their mental health at an average of 2.8 out of 10 — down from an average of 8.8 in happier, pre-Goldman days. The decline in their physical health was even worse, they said. They marked it on average at 2.3 out of 10, from 9 before they signed up.

So is this a justifiable price to pay to do God’s work?

Until recently, this sort of life was accepted as part of paying one’s dues in investment banking. People went into it with their eyes wide open, even if they didn’t imagine quite how painful it would be in reality.

The system has its defenders. One veteran of the Goldman Sachs IBD junior ranks — early 2000s vintage — told GlobalCapital that putting in those kinds of hours turbo-charged his mastery of a vast array of transaction types and modelling skills, and gave him the sort of access to high profile clients that has since propelled his career to the giddy heights of the C-suite elsewhere. He toughed it out for seven years at Goldman, but tough it most certainly was.

Who let the grads out?

That things were more extreme in the olden days is almost certainly true. One thing the 13 do not seem to have suffered is physical violence. Pre-crisis, GlobalCapital has it on good authority, the head of debt capital markets at one bank punched a junior on the trading floor. It was the junior who left. 

Going back further to the 1990s, people even put up with this. A bond salesman — one of the most placid you could hope to meet — gleefully recalled the time he pinned a trader to the wall by the throat one day for pushing his buttons just once too often. That was as far as it went and both got back to work.

But just because things used to be worse does not mean this kind of thing is acceptable.

Only 17% of the Goldman group said they had been shouted or sworn at — probably a much lower ratio than would have been the case 20 years ago. But even without raising their voices, their bosses are managing to project psychological stress on to their staff to the extent of making them grossly overworked and unhappy.

We don't know whether the analysts were working from home because of coronavirus. But if they were, it is the more remarkable that managers can exert so much pressure.

Goldman has been embarrassed by the incident. Its CEO David Solomon sent a voice memo to staff, praising the group for their complaint and stating that the bank is taking steps to remedy matters — hiring more juniors to share the load and fast-tracking their recruitment; redeploying staff to the busiest desks; being choosier over what it takes on and speeding up automation.

The rule that junior bankers should not work after 9pm on a Friday or on a Saturday is also to be more strictly enforced.

The power and the glory

The question is, once the dust settles, will anything really change?

First of all, it would be unrealistic to assume that Goldman Sachs is the only firm that has this problem. Insane workloads go with the territory in investment banking, especially M&A. Any junior at any bank is likely to be having a fairly gruelling time, although conditions do vary significantly from bank to bank. 

As everyone who has ever held a job knows, the character of individual managers and colleagues also makes a huge difference.

As a general rule of thumb, the more prestigious banks make staff work harder. As one veteran of another bank, somewhat lower down the league tables, said of the Goldman document last week: “I should show this to our juniors to show them how good they’ve got it.” 

However, there are plenty of exceptions and in truth, there is no way to be sure from outside which banks or teams are more humanely run, except by asking people with first hand knowledge.

What the Goldman complaint betrays is who holds the power in investment banking, and therefore, just how little is likely to change.

Consider the following list of demands the 13 make:

“80 hours per week should be considered max capacity”

“[Client support] work should not be completed after an appropriate time of night (midnight) so that analysts can get sleep…”

"Teams should be required to meet ASAP when a [client] meeting is set to align on content, timing, and capacity"

"Often times, VPs create shells for decks that do not align with what senior team members want to show, which results in junior teams creating the wrong materials.Ultimately, senior team members see these materials and junior team members often have to start from scratch on incredibly short timelines (less than 24 hours)."

The remarkable thing is how tentative and unassuming the requests are.

These staff are so close to the ends of their tether that most are considering therapy. Yet here they are pleading for an 80 hour week — which, let's remember, equates to 12 hours a day, six days a week, plus eight hours on Sunday — as if that were somehow reasonable and healthy.

The analysts don’t want to work after midnight, but presumably anything up to then is fine.

Their complaints about disorganisation suggest that each level of managers show scant regard for those beneath them. Those suffering, even at mid-level, seem unable to influence those above them.

Even the phrasing of the complaint suggests cowering before power. I used the word “demands” to describe what followed. The deck uses the more euphemistic “Rectifying the Situation”.

This is not an exit

And there lies the rub. For all the hideousness of life in the junior ranks of investment banking, the best and brightest are still queueing up for a piece of it.

Even these 13 analysts, now reeling from the shock of what those first steps in the business are costing them, do not feel they have the power to walk away from Goldman.

Instead, they hope to appeal to the better nature of their seniors to make things just a little more bearable, so they can hang on for longer in what seems an awful job.

The money, the prestige, are just too hard to renounce.

One hopes that what the 13 analysts experienced is not universal across the Street and that the financial markets' working culture will become kinder.

As memories and tales of the '90s show, there is progress. But the pace of change is appallingly slow.

The grim fact is that for every analyst who walks away from the industry in disgust — perhaps to write one of the tell-all memoirs that surface every so often — a dozen other high-achieving hopefuls are desperate to take their place.

There is no real imperative to change and there never has been. The excesses of investment banking have lured participants and spectators since the late 1980s. Consider Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities or Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Films like Wall Street and Martin Scorsese’s lupine inhabitant of that address.

So what will the pleas of the Goldman 13 get them? A leisurely 80 hour week? The chance to skip blithely out of the door at 12.01am?

Alas, as Ellis’s notorious investment banker Patrick Bateman tells us: “This confession has meant nothing...”

By Ralph Sinclair
19 Mar 2021