layoffs on Wall Street: where do people go?

The weekend Financial Times has an interesting article about the decline in financial markets employment during the Great Recession.  It says that the industry lost over 200,000 workers, of whom more than 40,000 were relatively highly paid professionals.  The article relates a number of stories of transition to other kinds of work.

That’s basically what happens in investment-related businesses during downturns–people find other, unrelated industries to work in.

Looking at the situation a little more systematically,

finance has two main branches–three if you count the often bizarre area of financial “theory” that prospective finance teachers must master.

–commercial finance, commercial banking and corporate finance.  It deals with areas like lending, capital structure, budgeting, financial management controls, investing/raising cash for corporations, communicating with investors and regulators.  It’s generally insulated from the violent ups and downs of securities markets.

–investments, which deals with the structure and practices of securities markets.  People who focus on this branch of finance are generally much higher paid and much more highly specialized.

While it’s common for a commercial finance professional to move among different areas during a career, however, there’s virtually no carryover in skills, other than at the most basic level, from the investment specialty to the broader world of commercial finance.  In fact, other than early in one’s career, there’s very little movement possible among various areas–like stocks, bonds, trading, investment banking–within investments.  Career paths are that highly specialized.

This is a recipe for big career trouble for investment people if your sub-specialty suddenly has too many workers.

buy side vs sell side; professional investors vs. investment professionals

The industry commonly splits jobs into buy-side (investment management) and sell side (investment banking and brokerage).  There’s also typically very little movement between these two.  You can also distinguish between professional investors (the people who actually make investment decisions) and investment professionals (trading, sales/marketing and recordkeeping functions that provide services to portfolio managers).

professional investor issues.  The main industry problem over the past several years has been the decline in the value of assets under management.  This is the key problem for profits, since professional investors typically charge a percentage of assets under management as a fee.  Investment firms are also highly operationally leveraged–meaning they have roughly the same costs, no matter what the level of assets is–so the loss of assets under management results in a disproportionately large fall in operating income before compensation of portfolio managers.

The moves to index products and from equity to fixed income, both of which generate lower fees, haven’t helped, either.

What do investment management firms do?  They prune the least profitable products, eliminate staff and lower the level of compensation for almost everyone who survives.  There isn’t much else they can do.  Laid-off money managers either go into business for themselves (massive layoffs of value-oriented PMs in the late 1990s formed the basis for much of today’s hedge fund industry) or find smaller, often regional or local, firms to work at.

investment professional issues.  On the buy side, firms trim their trading and marketing staffs and lower compensation for those who remain.  The investment industry is mature, however, meaning there are few new customers.  So firms gain business mostly by taking it away from other firms.  So marketing is a vital function–more important than the investment management itself.

On the sell side, it’s important to distinguish between high-value employees, who are masters of their trading or investment banking trades, and low-value workers, whose main function is to act in a sense as “overflow” capacity.  That is, they answer the phone and process orders, or visit clients and make presentations, during cyclical peaks in business.  They may not add much value, but the firm avoids losing potential profits by being unable to respond, even badly, customers’ requests.

Such second-tier workers are paid a lot, both in absolute terms and relative to the value they add.  But when business slows down, they’re the first to be laid off.

First-tier investment professionals typically earn (much) less in lean times.  They also risk being laid off, as well.  Like their portfolio manager counterparts, they may end up at regional or local firms.  Boom times give second-tier workers an inflated sense of their own abilities.  Typically, though, they’re unable to remain employed in the investment industry during downturns and eventually end up working in other professions.

where are we now?

My sense is that the investment industry is at a cyclical bottom for employment.  But the industry still has enormous idle capacity available with the staff it now has.  We won’t see the boom times of 2004-2007 again soon.

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