Thursday, June 30, 2011

Finance Rumblings: Here We Go Again?

Just when we thought all had turned around and we sensed the corner had been turned, we hear banter about financial institutions pondering lay-offs and staff reductions. Haven't we heard these rumblings before?

As big banks and other financial institutions stumble toward the end of the second quarter, 2011, published reports say lay-offs are looming. Senior managers have begun to panic over whether they will be able to generate returns that will match those of 2010, especially with deal flow, trading activity, and the economy sputtering.  Historically, the first response of financial institutions (from trading desks and deal teams to operations groups and compliance functions) is to reduce personnel numbers to brace for rougher waters.  And always, the method that comes to mind to reduce is "LIFO" outplacement--the last in are the first out. Critics say the first reaction is to protect compensation among the elders when the industry must weather a brief storm.

This time around, some financial institutions say they will manage a hint of a slow-down in intelligent, efficient ways.  Banks, funds, dealers and other financial institutions in the past often reduced staff too quickly. Once markets signaled a decline, institutions marshaled out the door the young, ambitious talent it had just hired with effusive enthusiasm.  When markets turned bright months later, firms with swiveled heads rushed to replace the talent it just let flee.

Financial institutions promise they will manage staff numbers better the next time. So at midyear, 2011, when banks and firms sense turbulence heading into the second half (not a crash, not a collapse, not a double-dip recession, but a pause or a correction of some kind), they must restrain themselves to avoid rampant lay-offs in areas where they will be desperate for analysts, team leaders, MBAs and finance experts once markets and activity surge again.

Still, the professionals in these roles must be prepared--from managing director, senior vice president to analyst intern. In fact, this could be an opportune time for self-assessment, the time to ask introspective questions about what's next or the time to make sure you are in sturdy spot if there is commotion around and about:

1.  Are you in a group, unit or business area that could be vulnerable?

2.  How would you expect business-unit leaders to respond, behave or react if there is a prolonged slow-down in the business? How have they reacted or behaved in the past?

3.  Do you understand the positioning, the strategy or the vulnerabilities of your group or area?  Are you aware of the profits and losses (or expense burdens) of your group?

4.  Have you performed as best as possible, given the circumstances? Have you done something recently (managed a project, done a deal, generated new business, or developed staff) that can separate you from the rest?

5.  Are there other opportunities worth exploring? Could this be the right time to move to a new area, new role or a position with greater responsibility and visibility?

Often finance professionals, from those at entry-level to those in privileged perches at the top, will say they are too mired in current problems, deadlines, and group turmoil to address career-related questions.  "We are just trying to survive," everybody says. 

Pausing and assessing what's going, nevertheless, might be worth the time and attention--even if you are exhausted from trying to develop new business in shaky markets, taking on extra projects to prove you can still contribute, or existing in an environment of uncertainty and worry.

Whether they are Consortium MBAs or others with extensive experience, there are many stories of how people thrived when the ground was shaking beneath them, when they took advantage of tenuous circumstances or when they used them to springboard to a better position. This is the time when equity analysts might decide to transition into private banking, when a derivatives expert might consider being a foreign-currency risk-manager, when a top client-relationship executive moves into corporate staff management. Or when a senior manager agrees to take on more responsibility--more groups or more clients reporting into her. Or when the 10-year corporate citizen decides to pursue an opening at a smaller boutique.

It could be the right time, too, to reach out to networks, peers, and colleagues to share ideas, perspectives and concerns.  Not gossip, not hot leads to a new job, but information or insight about what's going on and where the industry is headed. Ideas about next steps and appropriate ways to manage uncertainty. What better time, say, than for Consortium MBAs in finance to reach out to share thoughts about where markets are headed from here, what the hiring trends are in certain areas of the U.S., what opportunities exist in foreign locations, and what the best ways are to confront uncertainty.

Tracy Williams

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