Sep 26, 2014

    Wall Street newbies, be warned...

    SILICON Valley is once again bubbling and, in response, big Wall Street banks are raising starting salaries and reducing the work hours of new recruits.

    But entrepreneurship doesn't offer the sort of people who wind up at elite universities what a lot of them crave: status certainty.

    "I'm going to Goldman" is still about as close as it gets in the real world to "I'm going to Harvard", at least for the fiercely ambitious young person.

    The question I've always had about this army of young people with seemingly endless career options who wind up in finance is: What happens next to them?

    People like to think they have a "character", and that this character of theirs will endure, no matter the situation.

    It's not really so. People are vulnerable to the incentives of their environment and, often, the best a person can do - if he wants to behave in a certain manner - is to choose carefully the environment that will go to work on his character.

    Some of the occupational hazards of Wall Street are obvious - for instance, the temptation, when deciding how to behave, to place too much weight on the very short term and not enough on the long term.

    But some of the occupational hazards on Wall Street are less obvious.

    Here are a few that seem particularly relevant now:

    Anyone who works in finance will sense, at least at first, the pressure to pretend to know more than he does.

    It's not just that people who pick stocks, predict the future prices of oil and gold, select targets for corporate acquisitions, or persuade happy, well-run private companies to go public don't know what they are talking about - what they pretend to know is unknowable.

    Much of what Wall Street sells is less like engineering than like a forecasting service for a coin-flipping contest - except that no one mistakes a coin-flipping contest for a game of skill.

    I'm not sure it's any easier to be a total fraud on Wall Street than in any other occupation. But on Wall Street, you will be paid a lot more to forget your uneasy feelings.

    Anyone who works in big finance will also find it surprisingly hard to form deep attachments to anything much greater than himself.

    You may think you are going to work for Credit Suisse or Barclays, and will join a team of professionals committed to the success of your bank.

    But you will soon realise your employer is mostly just a shell for the individual ambitions of the people who inhabit it.

    People who work in the big Wall Street firms have no serious stake in the long-term fates of their firms.

    If the place blows up, they can always do what they are doing at some other firm - so long as they have maintained their stature in their market.

    More generally, anyone who works in big finance will feel enormous pressure to not challenge or question existing arrangements.

    One of our financial sector's most striking traits is how fiercely it resists useful, disruptive entrepreneurship that routinely upends other sectors of our economy.

    There's a big role for Silicon Valley-style scorched-earth entrepreneurship on Wall Street right now, and the people most likely to innovate are newcomers to the industry, who have no real stake in the parts of it that need scorching.

    As a new employee on Wall Street, you might think this has nothing to do with you.

    You would be wrong. Your new environment's resistance to market forces, and to the possibility of doing things differently and more efficiently, will soon become your own.

    When you start your career, you might think that you are setting out to change the world, but the world is far more likely to change you.

    So watch yourself, because no one else will.