Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where Do We Go From Here?

The times are peculiar. Here we are, two years beyond the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the near collapse of the financial system of the fall of 2008. The system--thanks in part to bailouts and quick marriages of top firms--picked itself up, and a slow recovery ensued.

Yet we haven't returned to the euphoria of pre-2007, where deals proliferated, trading indices surged steadily and bankers could be choosy about what they wanted to work on and which clients they wanted to work with. Two years after the tumultuous fall, 2008, everybody acknowledges the end of the crisis. But few will admit times are booming in finance (or in certain sectors of the economy). And if there are faint signs of a sharp upturn or a flurry of new deals, transactions, and upward-moving markets, everybody treads carefully, as if to always prepare for the worst.

MBA recruiters in finance continue to knock on the doors of business schools, make elaborate, impressive presentations to first-year students. They try to lure students and impress them. But they recruit and hire with caution--with a steady peek at markets and business in the year ahead to assure themselves they won't stockpile their banking teams with associates only to be forced to downsize shortly afterward.

Still, post-crisis, there are deals to be done, investments to be analyzed, portfolios to managed, clients to be wooed, and business objectives to be met. New bankers, associates, and analysts are necessary to get it all done. Nonetheless, in the back of the minds of senior management at banks, insurance companies, investment firms, and funds is a lingering question: Has the tide turned for sure? The dark memories of 2008 continue to haunt.

Because of financial reform (including recent legislation and Basel III guidance), banks are treading most carefully. They must restructure vast parts of their businesses and are deeply entrenched in strategy sessions figuring out how to do it--how to conduct business, do trades, and make investments with a constrained balance sheet, with increased capital requirements and with rules that don't permit them to trade for their own accounts.

They must respond to questions: What do we do with our proprietary-trading desks? What do we with businesses that invest in new ventures and hedge funds? How do we make loans, underwrite securities, or trade derivatives when new rules that limit how much we can do or what we can do? And who will do it? How many are necessary to do it? For new MBA graduates or more junior finance professionals, what career paths will there be? And how do we attract top talent into a profession besieged by much uncertainty?

Meanwhile, financial institutions are pressured to show stable profits, revenue growth and business expansion. They ask: In the new environment, where will revenue growth come from? From a renewed focus on retail activities? From international expansion? From new products? From investing in businesses and products to boost market share?
Some have begun to take those first steps. JPMorgan announced expansion in international sectors earlier this year. Other big banks (including BoA-Merrill, JPMorgan and Credit Suisse) have begun to emphasize corporate banking more. Just about everybody wants to grow their private-banking and investment-management groups.

Because they must graple with these tough, strategic questions, financial institutions become hesitant about hiring too swiftly and too much. They are careful about making lateral hires, adding experienced talent or opening their doors to large numbers of new MBA graduates until they are sure the business opportunity is there or the returns on capital are sufficiently achievable. And until some of them figure out how to weave through the regulatory requirements.

Some are being forced to shed parts of their businesses (proprietary trading, hedge-fund-like activities, etc.). But even that's not easy, as they tenderly extract the parts (assets, people, systems, software, etc.) and then sell them or spin them off. That will take time, while they figure how to do it and to whom to sell. Some must decide what they want to be and do (Be a regulated bank? Be a pure brokerage outfit? Be a prop-trading fund?). That, too, will take time, as they weigh input from various stakeholders (shareholders, employees, the board, senior managers, etc.).

And some have decided that the best strategy is to become what they once were: a commercial bank with basic deposit and lending businesses, a brokerage firm without trading or banking units, an investment bank with no brokerage and lending units, an insurance company with no ties to banking and brokerage, etc.

Many, too, must patch up their reputations post-crisis and determine how to present themselves to the mass market--to consumers, to corporate clients, to trading counterparties, to regulators, and to the media and politicians. That hasn't been easy, because 2008's near collapse can is tied to--among many factors--behavior and activities from some financial institutions.

Financial institutions, too, continue to try to figure out the compensation puzzle--how to pay people handsomely, how to attract smart people to the profession, but how to do it in a way that will not irk shareholders and the public or draw gnawing attention from the media. How do they assure themselves they can show up at top business schools and attract eager, motivated students to join their institutions? What can they do to ensure that top mid-level talent (the deal-doers, the traders, the investors, the salespeople, the researchers, the operations experts) will not flee for other options?

With so much to figure out, so much soul-searching and so much trying to visualize what they want, can and need to be, they proceed or plod with caution. So instead of hiring 100 new MBA associates as they might have done in 2005, they settle for 50 or 75. Instead of bring aboard 20 new experts or professionals to take on a new product, new venture or new client base, they show restraint and start out with just 5 or 10--just in case the new business doesn't take off or regulation and balance-sheet constraints force them to grow slowly.

Most will contend current times are better than crisis times--that financial institutions are hiring, not reducing staff significantly; that they are doing business, not tending to emergencies or trying to save themselves, and that they are generating profits and satisfactory returns, not hunkered down to pare down losses. Nevertheless, there is still a feeling we're on the hump, just not yet far over it.
Tracy Williams

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