Only halfway through his first year as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, Jeremy Miller-Reed fell into a deep depression. The 100-hour work weeks and endless Excel spreadsheets he could handle. But his boss, Penelope, he could not. Penelope looked like Julia Roberts but had the personality of Genghis Khan. Junior analysts dreaded her wrath. After assigning a 20-page memo to Jeremy over her vacation, she returned to find a single page missing. "You had all week to get this right!" she screamed. That night, Jeremy went to the roof of his apartment, lit up a joint, and cried in the rain, thinking to himself I can't do this anymore.
In college, Jeremy, like most young financial analysts, was bright, motivated, and had high hopes. He graduated from Columbia University, and in the summer of 2010 was excited to begin a career at Goldman Sachs selling commodities—oil, gas, corn, wheat, precious metals. Lured by a starting salary of $70,000, plus bonuses of up to $50,000, he rationalized that a two-year stint as an investment banker would be good experience for a planned career in urban design or politics. It was a common decision among his peers. At Harvard in 2008, 28 percent of seniors headed into financial services, and at Princeton in 2006, it was a stunning 46 percent. But for Jeremy, it was a decision that would haunt him—as it would the sorry cast of Kevin Roose's new book Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street's Post-Crash Recruits.
From 2010-2013, Roose, a business writer for New York magazine, shadowed eight freshly minted investment bankers during their first two years on Wall Street, tracking their stories. From starry-eyed interns to disillusioned, exhausted, and depressed spreadsheet jockeys, Roose's Young Money reads like a handbook for everything and anything than can go wrong with work.
Moral Black Hole
The work of young analysts is often mind-numbing. Most investment bank rookies spend days (and nights) creating "pitch books"—hundreds of pages of financial data for companies considering buying other companies. After hours of formatting cells, creating graphs, and producing Excel models, often pitch books would be blasted by bosses, or, even worse, skimmed and tossed aside by clients. It wasn't long before these young Ivy League graduates realized they had become "Excel grunts whose work is often meaningless not just in the cosmic sense, but in the sense of being seen by nobody and utilized for no productive purpose."
Work weeks in excess of 100 hours were not uncommon. As bosses left the office at 8pm, they'd often drop assignments on young analyst's desks, expecting them to be finished by the morning. (The banker's 9-5 for these recruits often meant arriving at 9am and staying until 5am the next morning.) They gained weight, lost girlfriends (or boyfriends), lived at the beck and call of fickle bosses, and often didn't see the sun for months.
Many came to realize that the finance industry could be a moral black hole. For example, Derrick Havens worked in private equity. Ideally private equity firms would buy out a company, make it more efficient and profitable, and sell it to another company. But instead Derrick often saw his firm cut costs quickly or load a recently acquired company with debt in order to increase short-term profits, thus hastening its untimely death."It's a completely rigged system," Derrick says. "We buy these little companies, we put the best lawyers and consultants in the world on it, and if it goes bankrupt, we never lose." If the turn-around goes well, they make money. If not, thanks to up-front fees and legal loopholes, they still make money. It's practices like this that led Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone in 2009 to call one investment bank, "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
The after-hours culture isn't much better. One night, Roose visited Fashion Meets Finance, an after-hours singles mixer at New York City's Bar Basque that matches several hundred young male financiers with female fashion models. The evening consisted of drinking, bragging about private jets, and, if things went to plan, procreating with complete strangers. One stock trader commented, "It's a bunch of gold diggers looking to take advantage of guys who are looking to take advantage of gold diggers." He snickered, "It's sort of perfect, huh?"
Perhaps the most disturbing scene of Young Money was Roose's undercover infiltration of a black-tie gathering of Kappa Beta Phi, Wall Street's most secretive fraternity. Nearly all of Wall Street's most powerful executives, from private equity mega-firms to major hedge funds, gathered for an evening of comedy skits in drag, off-color jokes about politicians, and mock show tunes about getting bailed out by the Fed. Only years after the global economy had collapsed—and millions had lost their jobs and retirement savings—these CEOs joked about creating economic havoc over roasted lamb and cocktails.
But more often than not, most young analysts saw finance not as moral pit, but a moral vacuum. When asked about morality and ethics, young analysts consistently responded: "I don't know, I never really think about it." They were so overworked with day-to-day tasks, worried about losing their jobs, and focused on getting their boss's lunch order right, they rarely considered the morality of their work. "What Wall Street was, I heard over and over again," said Roose, "was completely amoral. It had no regard for whether a given deal represented a net good or a net loss for humanity. All that mattered was revenue."
Or as Graham Campbell, a Goldman Sachs executive, said to an already-depressed Jeremy, "Just so you know what you're getting into: We're not here to save the world. We exist to make money."
Wall Street's 'Religion'
If we were making a laundry list of everything that can be depraved about human work, Young Money would hit nearly all the highlights:
Boring, Repetitive Labor. "Many entry level bankers conceive of themselves as lumps of body mass who perform uncreative and menial work, and whose time can be exchanged for labor at any moment."
Measuring the Worth of Employees with Dollars. "In Jeremy's little corner of the trading world, all that mattered was a person's P&L and a related number, called 'gross credits' (or just 'GCs'), which measured revenue generated by a single employee."
Isolating Your Morals from Your Work. "Many of the Wall Street analysts I'd met were thoughtful, robust ethical thinkers in their private lives. But professionally, they were foot soldiers."
Loss of Freedom. "'It's not the hours that kill you—it's the lack of control of the hours,' one analyst told me. 'My life doesn't belong to me anymore.'"
Choosing a Job for Money, not Gifting, Personal Interest or Serving Others. "Chelsea didn't mind working hard. She had come to Wall Street for the money, and she knew that long weeks and grueling projects were part of the deal."
Toss in oppressive hours, work-imposed illness, crushed relationships, and a dash of despair drowned out by drug use and one-night stands, and Roose's portrayal of Wall Street is like a handbook for everything work shouldn't be.
Yet Roose's narrative tells a deeper story. It's the story of how an industry can shape a soul. Ricardo Hernandez, for instance, studied biology at Cornell in hopes of becoming a doctor. Five months into his first year at J. P. Morgan, he gained 15 pounds, cut out dinners and movies with his girlfriend, and complained about "only" getting a $20,000 bonus. "That's an insulting number." The culture of finance, Roose shows, often draws young, unsuspecting graduates into a spiritual abyss.
"In some ways, Ricardo's Wall Street education reminded me of the kinds of transitions I'd seen while writing about evangelical Christianity," Roose remembers, referencing his 2009 book The Unlikely Disciple, a surprisingly fair portrayal of conservative, evangelical Liberty University written while Roose was attending Brown University. "Wall Street, like a religion, had its own rules, regulations, and enforced cultural norms. And being new, you were expected to blend in as quickly as possible." This "religion" did indeed shape the thoughts, minds, spirits, and even bodies of its unsuspecting adherents.
Roose, however, can sometimes give a misleading portrayal of finance. There are actually good people in the industry—"impact investors," for example, who invest in socially responsible businesses. In Young Money there are precious few laudable financiers, other than the young analysts who dream of leaving Wall Street for a tech startup.
But in Roose's defense, his original project was not to find heroes. His intent was to ask how the 2008 crash had affected the culture of Wall Street. So what changed? The answer: not much. The Occupy Wall Street movement did grab headlines for several months, and going into finance became less attractive to young Ivy League students soon afterwards. But arguably the culture of Wall Street has changed little. The recent publication Michael Lewis's book Flash Boys, a polarizing work on the practice of "high frequency trading," shows what's been true for years: If finance can figure out a way to make a quick dollar, they will alter the universe to do so. It's no surprise, then, that ethical giants are tough to find.
A Moral Outcry
Of course, there is an upside. The book is a resounding moral outcry. (As fair warning to readers, Young Money is peppered with coarse language, sexual references, drug use, and even more worrisome, greed.) And the twisted state of finance should lead Christians, secularists, and everybody in between to ask better questions: What would real rhythms of work and rest look like for Wall Street? Where are the good examples of firms that actually embrace the good purpose of finance, which is to provide capital for businesses to grow? What are reasonable limits on salaries for investment bankers? Where are the finance models that are both profitable and committed to investing in good businesses that serve communities with good products and services?
It can be easy to read Young Money and sit on a moral perch, condemning a godless, money-obsessed industry. But, of course, this does no good, either for young analysts like Jeremy or for capital markets. At a time when more Ivy League graduates are leaving Wall Street, perhaps it's time for more Christians to head straight into finance and help patch up the torn vocational fabric of the world's most powerful sector.
Jeff Haanen is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work.
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