Westchester 54

by Kevin Roose


IF YOU WANT to succeed as a young banker on Wall Street, there are some fairly strict preconditions. You have to be pleasant, polite, and attentive to detail. You have to be able to work three consecutive twenty-hour days without having a nervous breakdown or falling asleep on your keyboard. You have to know how to calculate the net present value of future cash flows, how to make small talk about the Yankees, and, ideally, how to write a coherent memo to your boss after your third Jäger Bomb. But most important, you have to be handy with an Excel spreadsheet. Not just handy, actually. You must be an Excel wizard—a grandmaster of the XLS file format. Which was why, on a weekday afternoon in 2010, I found myself sitting in a cramped conference room on Broad Street while a statuesque Russian woman named Valentina pitted me against thirty brand-new Wall Street recruits in a spreadsheet-formatting competition. “ On your mark, get set…go! ” she cried. All at once, the room filled with the machine-gun cli-cli-cli- click sound of fingers flying over laptop keys. I looked down at my unformatted spreadsheet—it was a mess. Rows 14 and 18 should have been bolded but weren’t. There was an empty row between row 11 and row 12, and the years in row 5 were formatted to the first decimal place, so instead of saying 2007, 2008, 2009, and so on, they said 2007.0, 2008.0, and 2009.0. In all, there were about fifteen errors standing between me and the kind of pristine, organized Excel spreadsheet that would make a se- nior banker swoon. The all-time record for total beautification was thirty- five seconds, set by a freakish junior analyst from an investment bank called Moelis and Company. I’d be lucky if I was done in ten minutes. I looked up at the other students in the room—a crew of eager young finance cadets who had been sent to a five-day boot camp, run by a com- pany called Training the Street, to learn elementary accounting, basic financial analysis, and other skills they’d need at their new jobs on Wall Street. Most of them were in their early twenties, the ink still drying on their college diplomas. Some were lifelong bankers-in-training. Others were liberal arts majors who didn’t know bonds from bananas. And in a matter of days, all of them would be let loose on the markets. Armed with Bloomberg terminals and can-do attitudes, they’d get to work sell- ing stocks, building models for billion-dollar mergers, and giving busi-

ness advice to corporate executives old enough to be their parents. They were just entry-level analysts—the lowest of the low in Wall Street’s pecking order—but the fact that they had managed to get hired by some of the world’s most powerful investment firms meant that they were on the rise. Soon, they would officially become card-carrying financiers, and they would be invited to take part in a giant, globe-spanning money- making operation that controls the fates of companies, governments, and millions of ordinary people around the world. I, too, was a twenty-something living in New York, but that was about where the similarities with my fellow Excel grunts ended. I studied Eng- lish in college, took a grand total of zero business or economics courses, and paid no mind to the corporate recruiting circus that came to campus every year. Neither my upbringing in small-town Ohio nor my schooling had helped me understand or sympathize with what went on inside Wall Street banks. And during the economic collapse of 2008, every story I read about the financial sector’s implosion seemed to be describing a car- toonish fictional universe—one that seemed as distant from my everyday life as reading about Scientology or the mob. But when I moved to New York after college, I started getting curious. The economy was still in shambles, and the world’s anger toward Wall Street banks was still burning blue-hot. Politicians and pundits fulmi- nated on the greed of bailed-out bankers, and many called for them to be prosecuted and jailed. HBO talk show host Bill Maher quipped about executing Wall Street higher-ups; one online clothing vendor sold “I Hate Investment Banking” T-shirts for $18.99 apiece; and a new arcade game called “Whack-a-Banker” was introduced in the United Kingdom, in which players used mallets to take their aggression out on pinstriped financiers. (The game became so popular in its first location, the BBC reported, that the worn-out mallets had to be replaced.) Watching Wall Street incur the world’s wrath, I often found myself wondering how the financial crisis was affecting young bankers and trad- ers—the people my age who started their jobs in 2009 and 2010. They had nothing to do with the crash, of course. They had been in college while banks like Bear Stearns were loading up their books with mort- gage-backed securities and increasing their leverage to dangerous levels.


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