Park Place Station, New York City.
It was late in the evening and I was returning from work. As I rushed through the desolate station to catch my 3 train, I noticed a young man sitting near the steps. His briefcase lay a foot away from him, his tie hung loosely and his face was buried in his palms. He was audibly sobbing, shoulders heaving.
I stopped and briefly considered whether to speak to him. My Indian upbringing said I should offer a few words of comfort. But another part of me screamed inside that I was intruding, that I should ignore him and move on.
Maybe he has just lost his job, I thought, or maybe he just broke up with his girlfriend. Or did someone close to him die? What would make someone cry so bitterly and break down so completely in public?
I didn’t want to intrude on his sorrow. So I swallowed my words and ran down the stairs, just in time to catch the train that was just pulling in.
“He’s missing the train!”, I thought to myself in sudden alarm, but I doubt that he cared.
Three years later, I suddenly found myself thinking of that young man, all through the weekend and during the last few days.
Actually, I was also thinking of others like him, the tens of thousands of people in Wall Street who are going to be looking for jobs. With the economy being what it is, and with other Street firms fighting for themselves, not all of those laid off workers will find jobs.
I am especially worried about the Indians (and other international workers) among them. Whether on a H1-B visa or awaiting a green card, Indians tend to be especially vulnerable to layoffs. It’s bad enough losing one’s job, but it gets worse because you then become “out of status” – you have to return to India (or elsewhere). How does one sell the home, pull the kids out of school and upend one’s life at such short notice?
Immigration issues apart, I feel awful for everyone who will lose their job. Yes, even the investment bankers among them.
I have been reading a lot of comments in the Internet the last few days about how those bankers deserved what they got. People are envious, they are gloating, they are revelling in others’ misery.
It’s amazing how much joy they are able to find in others’ sorrow. I wonder if these people are plain malicious, or merely misinformed. I am hoping they are just misinformed.
I would like to start by pointing out that not all the employees of Lehman or Merill Lynch are investment bankers. There are the traders, sales people, the equity and fixed income research teams and then those in private equity and investment management. But no matter, let’s call all of them bankers.
Here are some of the sentiments I came across :
“Those bankers get paid a lot, and they don’t deserve it anyway. I am glad to see them let go.”
“All those guys who got placed on Day Zero and thought they were kings, now they are out on the Street! Ha!”
Pay is just one aspect of a job, and in fact high pay is often used to make an undesirable job more attractive. In the old days, automobile assembly line workers were paid very highly, for who wanted to spend their entire lifetime fitting one particular bolt on a car?
If you look at it, i-banking jobs are no less unattractive. Long hours spent doing endless tweaks on Powerpoint presentations or excel spreadsheets, face time… investment bankers work around 90 hours every week. Think about it, all you envious souls who work 40 hours and go home exactly at 6 pm to play with your dog. So if i-bankers get paid twice what you get paid, it’s still the same (or probably lower) on a per hour basis.
In my years at Columbia, living close to Harlem and even walking through Harlem several times, I rarely felt unsafe. But every summer, there were muggings, and invariably, these were the poor i-banking summer interns returning home at 3 am from work.
Think about the stress one goes through to be able to work 90+ hours a week. There is practically no social life outside work, unless you can sacrifice precious sleep to be able to socialize. If you can manage with four hours sleep every day, yes, you can have the semblance of a life.
If you live in New York City, then 50% of your pay goes in taxes anyway (yes, 50%). If you can spend long hours commuting from Jersey or Connecticut (and sleep on the train), you can probably shave off 4% on the tax rate. But when you work 90 hours a week, it’s best to live close to work. That means atrociously high rents that take away some more of your pay.
If you decide to have kids, then you would need a non-working spouse, or a live-in nanny. Compare with most families in the US, which have both spouses working.
Speaking of marriages, the long hours take their toll on many marriages too. The constant stress takes its toll on relationships and on health.
I could go on and on. I don’t expect you to feel sorry for investment bankers – they have chosen their lifestyle, just as you have chosen yours.
Why are you still envious of them? And if you really like the idea of being an investment banker, why don’t you try and become one of them?
“The guys who lost their jobs were responsible for the whole financial crisis anyway, so why feel sorry for them?”
If we are to start apportioning responsibility for the mortgage crisis, I wouldn’t know where to start. I would certainly not start with Wall Street.
Why not start with Main Street, and how people with $30,000 incomes thought they could buy homes worth $1 million? Why not start with the people who thought they could make a quick buck because housing prices would always appreciate?
Why not start with the financial irresponsibility of people who borrowed again and again against the “home equity” of their homes to buy jewellery, and designer clothing, and stuff on ebay?
Why not start with the banks who lent money to these people, knowing fully well that they (the banks) would not have to bear the risk for all these loans?
You can blame the lack of regulation and oversight, and many people blame Greenspan for presiding over the creation of an asset bubble.
Wall Street definitely shares some of the blame, and even there, why should the bankers in only a few institutions suffer?
Let me add a disclaimer – I am not an interested party, I have no vested interest in saying any of this. But my heart does go out to all those on Wall Street who face layoffs.
I feel especially sorry for the ones who have been working less than five years. They have endured the awful side of Wall Street, but most likely haven’t had much chance to reap much of the benefits.
I also feel bad for the Indians (and others on work visas). Being laid off carries a huge price for such people.
At some level, I also pity those misguided gloaters, including some who cannot look beyond the veil of envy and see the real suffering of their own classmates. But I admit, I don’t feel too sorry for them.