No longer do I arrive at my desk at the crack of dawn to mindlessly enter bond yields into a convoluted spreadsheet. No one tells me that my Banana Republic cardigan is too fashion-forward for the office. No longer does a superior tell me that I leave the desk to pee too many times during the day.
When I left Bay Street, I left something else behind: a sense that I was living in denial. Back then, I had to pretend that I didn’t hear or see certain things. While working on the Street, I heard people say that even if clever institutional investors like pension funds realize that a new deal isn’t worth buying, unsophisticated retail investors won’t know any better. I saw investment banks get paid millions of dollars to offer fairness opinions on proposed takeovers, while rarely raising an objection to any deal. And I saw research analysts getting paid enormous money, even though their predictions are so often wrong.
Having said goodbye to all that, I now get a certain pleasure out of hearing bankers, traders and corporate lawyers grumble about their bonuses, even though the annual cheques are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unlike them, I no longer have to use that number as my main measure of self-worth.
My friends on the Street know I’ve got it good now, too. Last year I watched the Super Bowl with a few of them, and during our post-game chit-chat one turned to me and said matter-of-factly: “You literally put a price on happiness.”
This doesn’t mean that investment banks or corporate law firms are the root of all evil. A number of my best friends still work on Bay Street, and some people I truly respect have been in the game for 30 years.
Most people in shiny office towers mean well. They really do. They love their kids, and they give loads of money to charity. The way they see it, every now and then they do something that is just a little offside, but it can’t be that bad.
What they don’t realize is that when everybody does just a little something wrong, it creates one hell of a mess. Rating agencies who bear some of the blame for the financial crisis relied on mathematical models that assumed widespread defaults weren’t possible. The analysts who trusted those models didn’t mean to nearly crash capitalism as we know it – they just took a shortcut.
In all fairness, no industry is perfect. (Have you ever met a car salesperson willing to offer you their wholesale price?) Journalists, too, deserve some blame for not raising more red flags about the excesses of the financial business, before the crisis reared its ugly head.
The big difference, though, is that bankers and traders make millions, and their poor due diligence can bring down financial markets.
Will Bay Street or Wall Street ever change? Probably not. Michael Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker to demonstrate just how crazy the 1980s were, and he’s since acknowledged that things only got worse.
Financial professionals who are as fed up as Greg Smith have two choices. They can try to stay the course, or they can opt for a less demanding, more fulfilling life. The latter is a real option: I’m proof of it.
A few weeks ago the Globe sent out a new job posting for our finance department, so I re-posted it on Facebook. Someone from Bay Street inquired about it and I initially laughed it off, telling him we could never match his current salary. But he was serious.
“You starting to feel like your soul is dying?” I texted to him.
“Starting?” he replied. “Dead my friend.”