A bunch of financial writers have been sharing how they got their start in the finance industry. Check out these recent pieces by Patrick O'Shaughnessy, Ben Carlson, Cullen Roche, and James Osborne. They're all great articles you can learn from.
Here's my story.
When I was 18 I cobbled together $2,000. I remember feeling like I should do something productive with it.
I knew nothing about investing. So I went to a Bank of America branch and asked to transfer the money into a certificate of deposit. There is no way I had any idea what this was, either. I probably heard my dad mention CDs and figured it was smart.
The banker laughed when I asked to put $250 into a one-month CD. She said the minimum was $1,000. I said fine. It was my first investment.
I must have known what interest was, theoretically at least. But a month later I was shocked -- totally blown away -- when I logged into my account and saw my balance at $1,000.83. I vividly remember this experience. I made $0.83 for doing nothing. I thought this was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I was hooked on finance after that.
I didn't start college until I was 20, but I spent the next two years devouring books about finance and economics. I loved it. I majored in economics and knew that I wanted to work in the investing industry. There was no Plan B.
I was a young idiot and thought I knew everything about life, so I was attracted to investment banking -- the business of raising capital for and advising companies -- because you could make a lot of money. At the time I didn't think anything else mattered. This was the mid-2000s, when investment banking was in its heyday and incompetent cavemen were earning millions. You could expect to earn six figures right out of school. Everyone I went to school with who was interested in finance wanted to be an investment banker.
Looking back, I don't think I knew anything about investment banking, even though I had never considered any other career. I felt like I won the lottery when I got an internship at an investment bank in Los Angeles during my junior year.
The thrill lasted about an hour into my first day. The reason you can make a lot of money in investment banking is because it's one of the most sadistic industries that exists. The high pay is to compensate you for what amounts to a career of mental waterboarding.
Everyone who gets into the business knows you will work long hours. I was fine with that. What killed my spirit was that, more often than not, the reason you're working so hard under so much pressure isn't because there's that much work to get done. Rather, it's because the senior bankers put in long hours early in their career and feel like you should do the same to prove yourself.
Part of me gets this. You need a way to weed out the weak. But it got ridiculous, like a fraternity hazing. Projects that should take a reasonable person a week were expected to be completed in hours. Tasks that could have been done during the day were postponed until the late evening just to keep you around. Rarely would you go home before midnight, even if there was seemingly nothing to do. There was a saying: "If you don't come to work on Saturday, don't bother coming back on Sunday." It was taken seriously. The guy I reported to hadn't taken a day off in more than a year and was freakishly proud of it. It is hard to get excited about a career when the people you're looking up to have what appear to be miserable lives.
The work itself put me off. So much of what we did when advising companies on mergers was basically making stuff up with jargon and complicated models to convince management that a deal was wise and we were worth our fee. A lot of financial advising comes down to projecting future cash flows, but this exercise is far more art than science, even if it's sold otherwise.
One of the strangest things about the inaccuracy of long-term financial modeling is that no one seems to care. Management mostly cares about the next four quarters, because that's what its compensation is tied to, and the banker just cares about his fee, which will be paid long before anyone sees if his or her model was accurate. Never ask a barber whether you need a haircut, and never ask an investment banker whether a deal makes sense. The answer is totally predictable.
I learned a tremendous amount about finance from this internship: how to rip apart financial statements, how to model cash flows, how to size up competing firms, how to interact with management. It was great. I value that part tremendously.
But I saw the writing on the wall that I would be miserable in this environment. I left.
A few months later I got a job at a private equity firm. Private equity is the business of buying whole companies, holding them for a period of time while you fix them up, nourish them, strip out the inefficiencies, and then sell them. I loved it. I learned so much about business -- not just finance, but business. And since the firm was investing actual money that we'd be held accountable for, we really wanted to get things right, rather than selling inflated promises.
Two things bothered me about the industry.
One, it was hard to rationalize the astronomical fees. Some portfolio companies pay consulting fees to the private equity company that owns them -- not the investors of the private equity fund, but the managers and analysts. In exchange, the private equity firm is supposed to help the companies with legal issues, strategy, whatever comes up. In reality, the firm just wants the fees and please leave us alone, thank you very much.
One portfolio company was having an issue with a customer database program, and asked us to help. A vice president I worked with said, "They're not going to dump their back-office problems on us." I remember thinking, "Isn't that what they pay us millions of dollars a year to do?" It gave the impression that heads, the private equity firm won, tails, the companies and fund investors lost.
The other issue was leverage. Private equity firms use a lot of it. This is great during boom years, but leaves you beholden to banks and bond markets during recessions.
What ends up happening is this terrible pro-cyclical cycle: When companies are cheap and investments are enticing, no one will lend you money to buy them. When companies are expensive and you're doomed to lose money, banks will line up to lend you as much as you want. It's viciously hard to earn good long-term profits in this environment.
When I started in late 2006, we could buy pretty much any company we pleased. Financing was everywhere and bankers didn't ask many questions. The flip side was that we were paying a huge multiple for anything we bought.
By mid-2007 -- the beginning of the financial crisis -- things changed overnight. Companies became cheaper and private business owners were eager to sell, which is great. But financing came to a halt.
We spent months analyzing a company that we fell in love with -- a great business with great management in a growing industry. Then one day we got a call from the bankers: forget about it. They weren't going to lend us money for reasons they couldn't quite articulate. I remember my boss slamming the phone down and saying, "This is a freakin' clownshow," but with more colorful language. Within 16 months it was obvious why the lending stopped: most of those banks would be bankrupt or wards of the state.
I was given the politest "You're not fired and we're not laying you off but you should probably go find another job" speech I've ever heard. I was bummed, because I loved it there.
A friend of mine was a serious value investor I respected. One day I was browsing Yahoo! Finance and saw that he was writing articles for The Motley Fool. I thought that was amazing: you can share your thoughts for the world to see? That's so cool.
I emailed him asking about the gig. He said I should apply.
I had never once thought about writing, and figured it was a waste of time to apply. But I did, in October 2007.
This is article number 3,059.
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