Why I Had to Get Out: Confessions of a Wall Street Insider
Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Anton Prado PHOTO
When some people think about Wall Street, they conjure up images of traders shouting on the stock exchange, of bankers dining at five-star restaurants, of CEOs whispering in the ears of captured Congress members.
When I think about Wall Street, I think about its stunted rainbow of pale pastel shirts. I think about the vaulting, highly secured, and very cold lobbies. And I think about the art passed daily by the harried workers, virtually unseen.
Before I occupied Wall Street, Wall Street occupied me. What started as a summer internship led to a seven-year career. During my time on Wall Street, I changed from a curious college student full of hope for my future into a cynical, bitter, depressed, and exhausted "knowledge worker" who felt that everyone was out to screw me over.
The culture of Wall Street is pervasive and contagious. While there are Wall Street employees who are able to ignore or block it out, I was not one of them. I drank the Kool Aid. I'm out of it now. But I'd like to tell you what it was like.
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When you are wealthy and successful, you have a choice. You can believe your success stems from luck and privilege, or you can believe it stems from hard work. Very few people like to view their success as a matter of luck. And so, perhaps understandably, most people on Wall Street believe they have earned their jobs, and the money that follows.
While there are many on Wall Street who come from wealthy backgrounds, there are also many people from very humble backgrounds. In my experience, it is often those who do not come from privilege who are the system's fiercest defenders.
When I was a summer intern, we met with various executives who'd tell us about their careers and pitch us on the firm. The aim was to sell the firm to everyone, even though only a few of us would ultimately be offered full-time positions. There was an element of redundancy to it, since we were clearly already interested in the firm, or we wouldn't be there at all. The effect of these talks, then, was to make a competitive situation even more competitive. Welcome to Wall Street. One executive described the firm as a "Golden Springboard."
If we began our careers there, his reasoning went, there wasn't anywhere we couldn't go. The executive was right. Background becomes irrelevant once you have "made it" to Wall Street. Once you've gotten in the door, you're one of "us."
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Once hired, the cultural indoctrination begins in earnest, especially for those recent grads who begin their careers in "analyst training programs." These programs are exclusively for college and graduate students, are often several months long, and are custom-tailored to the department you'll ultimately join. The Sales & Trading analyst program is more competitive than, say, the Technology training program. And while most of the training is job-specific, there is also an air of finishing school. A trader friend of mine was instructed not only in the mathematics of the financial markets, but also in wine tasting and golf. You are trained, but you are also groomed.
The grooming is not all fun and games and country clubs. Most of the message revolves around how hard everyone works, and how hard you are expected to work in turn. Wall Street views its own work ethic as legendary. Sixty-hour weeks are standard. An ex-boss of mine used to brag that for one six-year stretch he never took a sick day or a vacation. The streak ended when he contracted strep throat, refused to go to the doctor, and eventually had to be hospitalized (at least so he claimed).
While not everyone was as manic as my boss (Wall Street has more than its fair share of laziness and incompetence), even those who feel less committed to the job still buy into a concept of "face time." It's not right to leave your desk before a certain time. An ex-colleague of mine used to ask anyone who'd pass by his cubicle before 7pm on their way out the door, "Oh, half day today?"
This dueling masochism/machismo brings with it a tremendous superiority complex. People on Wall Street truly believe they work harder than anyone else. When confronted with the stark reality of, for example, a single mom working two jobs, the response is usually some variant of, "Well, if they'd only worked as hard as I did in school...."
But the key to truly understanding superiority on Wall Street is by looking at how it's measured: with cold, hard numbers. Numbers can be amplified by honest work, but they can also be amplified by betrayal, manipulation and cheating. And when everything is a cold cost-benefit analysis, why wouldn't you break regulations--provided you knew the profits you stood to make would dwarf the fines you would pay should you get caught.
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On Wall Street, the best-paid employees actively seek out their "market value" by interviewing and cultivating job offers at competing firms. Once they've secured an offer, they go back to their boss and try to land what's called a "counter-offer." If the new firm is offering to pay $300,000, the old firm may counter that offer with $400,000.
But even in this game of betrayal, a little bit of lying will optimize your results. You can solicit a counter by handing in a resignation letter. But to resign and then accept a counter is to admit you're a mercenary. This will get you labeled a "high flight risk." No, playing the game correctly to maximize money means pretending the game is not about money at all. A more strategic route is to explain, "Well, this offer just fell into my lap, I really don't want to leave, is there anything you can do to help me out?"
Of course, manipulation isn't only for tricking your bosses--it extends to the clients as well. On Wall Street, it is not frowned upon to "rip the faces off" one's own clients. If the client is dumb enough to get hoodwinked, that means the client didn't work hard enough. He didn't do his "due diligence." In other words, if I screw you, you only have yourself to blame. That is the "zero-sum game" of trading.
But perhaps the zenith of Wall Street fitness is the unpunished cheat. Around the holiday season, inter-dealer brokers will send gifts to the traders, trying to curry favor with bottles of wine or champagne. Inter-dealer brokers are brokers who allow Wall Street banks to anonymously trade with one another, since the last thing you want to do if you're Morgan Stanley is let Goldman Sachs know your position, though you may still want to trade with them. But there is a catch to the gift-giving: according to FINRA, Wall Street's self-regulatory agency, the brokers are only allowed to spend a maximum of $100 per trader. On slow winter days, the traders would Google the bottles of wine, trying to determine which vendors had cheated. Often they would find that, yes, this vendor breached the limit. The response to the cheat was always the same: a smirk, and an approving nod. It's not about who cheated. It's about who cheated successfully.
This attitude extends to higher-stakes games as well. Take the case, SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc. According to the SEC, in 2007 Citigroup sold its clients a portfolio of assets (mortgage-backed securities, as it happens) that Citi was actively betting against. The SEC charged Citigroup with securities fraud; it's been reported that the fearsome regulatory agency won't settle for anything less than a $285 million fine. Looks bad, right? Well, yes, unless you consider that, according to Forbes, Citigroup allegedly made $160 million on this one deal (investors lost $700 million). Citigroup looks like it's going to lose $125 million! But how many similar deals have gone un-prosecuted? If the answer is one, Citigroup is back in the black; if the answer is more than one, then Citigroup is doing very well, thank you. This is why paying fines when you are caught breaking the rules is simply deemed the cost of doing business on Wall Street.
Poker is extremely popular across Wall Street, and provides an instructive lesson. The book Poker Winners Are Different by industrial psychologist and poker adviser Alan Schoonmaker presents a scenario where a player notices his best friend's "tell"--that is, the best friend has a habit of showing when he has a good or bad hand. The book then poses the following dilemma: should you a) tell your friend; b) win a bit of money from him and then tell him; or c) exploit your friend, never telling him. The correct answer: screw your friend. Schoonmaker, who used to do "management development" work at Merrill Lynch, writes that winners will "do whatever the rules and ethics allow to maximize their profits." This behavior is heralded in poker and it's heralded on Wall Street. Despite what may be emblazoned on plaques or in mission statements, the ethics of Wall Street are purely about winning at any cost.
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If they didn't know it going in, Wall Street employees quickly learn that even their company is an enemy. To the firm, employees are a cost to be minimized, or a producer to be exploited. You also learn that you must never show gratitude for your bonus. To appear satisfied with your compensation is to admit that they paid you more than they had to, so you must feign outrage no matter what. What happens to a culture that discourages gratitude?
But most people on Wall Street do not feel gratitude anyway. It does not matter that their compensation is enormous compared to the average American's--that is not who a Wall Street worker is comparing herself to. She is looking at the compensation of the top sales person, the top trader, or, at the very top, the CEO.
What this environment did to me is that I began to see everyone as a threat. From that idiot two cubicles down from me, to the moron on the other end of the phone (the client), to--more than anything--the faceless, imagined people on government assistance that I assumed (incorrectly) were causing such large percentages to disappear from my paycheck.
Many of the adverse reactions to OWS have been along the lines of, "They're just jealous." Of course the Wall Street critics think OWS is about envy. Envy is part and parcel of their daily lives. When you are living in a culture of envy, you see envy everywhere you go. Why wouldn't you think envy is at the core of our movement, too?
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The envy and hostility of Wall Street leads many to a common goal: to amass enough money so as to enact your revenge. This end goal is called fuck-you money.
At one point in my career, I was being recruited by a hedge fund. During the recruitment process, one of my interviewers frankly described the fund's founder--his boss's boss--as a "spoiled brat billionaire." My interviewer related a story about a meeting between the hedge fund and an executive at a company the fund wanted to work with. At one point, the visiting executive made statements the fund founder didn't like. The founder turned to the visitor and said, "So, you came here just to try and fuck me over?" The visitor quickly stormed out in a rage. But the founder wasn't satisfied just yet. He followed the man out of the room, into the elevator, shouted the entire ride down, and then yelled at him in the lobby until he finally left the building. When the founder came back upstairs to greet his shaken employees, he said, invigorated and beaming, "Wasn't that fun?!"
This is Wall Street's equivalent of the American Dream: to earn enough money so that you can behave in a way that makes the very existence of other people irrelevant.
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Despite the toxicity I've described, Wall Street is not a collection of 1 percenters maniacally laughing at the 99 percent they have crushed under their boots. No, Wall Street is far too self-absorbed to be concerned with the outside world unless it is forced to. But Wall Street is also, on the whole, a very unhappy place. While there is always the whisper that maybe you too can one day earn fuck-you money, at the end of a long day, sometimes all you take with you are your misguided feelings of self-righteousness. I am far from the only Wall Street employee ever to feel chewed up by the system, even as I worked to perpetuate it. Another ex-Wall Street employee described feeling like a "hyper-specialized pawn" who "worked all the time with little control" of her life, and "little personal satisfaction at the end of the day." I, too, felt manipulated, and why shouldn't I? That was the game, after all. I felt overworked, demotivated, and I was clearly doing nothing to help the world.
I was able to leave once I decided that my happiness was more valuable than money. This is no great revelation to anyone at Occupy, but to someone who lived and breathed the idea that money was everything for seven years, it was not so easy. The true key to getting out was taking off my blinders: meeting others who were outside Wall Street's bubble. This was a long process that involved a lot of psyching myself up in order to quit. Wall Street is not an easy place to walk away from. But after a year of planning, I finally submitted my resignation. I now teach computer programming at several venues, including Girl Develop It, which is a group that provides low-cost classes to women (men are welcome, too) in an environment that strives to be non-intimidating.
It is hard to contrast the joy of community I feel at Occupy Wall Street with the isolation I felt on Wall Street. It's hard because I cannot think of two more disparate cultures. Wall Street believes in, and practices, a culture of scarcity. This breeds hoarding, distrust and competition. As near as I can tell, Occupy Wall Street believes in plenty. This breeds sharing, trust and cooperation. On Wall Street, everyone was my competitor. They'd help me only if it helped them. At Occupy Wall Street, I am offered food, warmth and support because it's the right thing to do, and because joy breeds joy.
I was privileged enough to make it in the door on Wall Street, and to get bonuses during my time there. But I never felt as fortunate, or as joyful, as I did the night after the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Liberty Square, when we had our first post-raid general assembly; when the thousands of supporters who filled the park necessitated three waves of the people's mic; when our voices together echoed not just down the park, but up into the sky as the buildings caused the sound to ricochet off their glass walls.
And so I say to my friends who still dwell behind the Wall: come join us. The spoils of money can never match the joys of community. When you're ready, we'll be here.