Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is I-Banking Still Hot?

Does investment banking still have the same attraction? Do MBA students still swarm toward investment-banking roles? Do many have dreams of joining a top firm, hitting the ground running doing deals and anticipating big year-end bonuses?

After the industry turmoil and a series of setbacks and embarrassments, is investment banking still a hot area?

There have been upheaval, backlash and calls for reform since Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns disappeared from the scene. Yet since 2008, trends suggest (a) i-banking is still attractive to many MBA students in finance at top schools and (b) the industry has evolved, but not yet gone through the major overhaul and transformation many predicted or hoped for.

Despite public pleas for changes in how banks conduct business and pay bankers and despite sluggish economic recovery and stomach-churning markets, deals are getting done. Companies are going public, issuing long-term debt, or acquiring other companies. Not necessarily at levels from 2006-07, but there is activity, enough so for banks to continue recruiting and for MBAs to pursue careers.

In this year's entering class of Consortium MBAs, at least 90 new students (about a third) have indicated an interest in finance--a number that is about the same or slightly higher from previous years. Of the 90, as many as 30 (about 10 percent of all Consortium students) have expressed a specific interest in investment banking, corporate banking or corporate finance. The actual number interested in i-banking could be higher, as many students will indicate a general interest in financial services, but have not yet acknowledged an interest in banking.

(Ten students say they are interested in investment managent, and a handful express specific interests in media finance, private equity, venture capital or real estate.)

Most students understand they will probably revise plans as they proceed through a grinding recruiting process. Banks, as they did before, put prospects through rounds of interviews, including tough technical sessions. Some students don't survive the process. Some change their minds, while others switch to other industries. Some become even more charged with enthusiasm about i-banking.

Interest in i-banking, therefore, has not disappeared. The actual number that will be recruited and hired in 2012 has yet to be determined, especially as banks struggle to make sense of this summer of volatility and uncertainty. Those who are committed and will pursue banking will encounter an evolving industry, but one that reflects familiar traditions and practices.

Over the past three years, the players and leading firms have changed.  The sudden departure of Lehman and Bear Stearns and the absoprtion of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America left gaping holes in the "bulge bracket" lists. Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley continue to jockey for the top spots in equity and bond finance and merger activity.  However, foreign banks, especially international banks with large investment-banking operations, have shoved themselves into the big picture:  UBS, Deutsche, RBC, and of course Barclays, which bought the U.S. operations of Lehman.

Firms like Jefferies and Lazard Freres, once comfortable in their own mid-tier niches, took advantage of industry shake-out and expanded their reach and business. Jefferies is a more diversified, comprehensive bank than it was a decade ago. Some regionals--mostly the i-banking units of commercial banks--have also stepped up where they could.

Smaller "boutique" firms have picked up pieces and grabbed business that bulge-bracket firms once kept among themselves.  Bulge brackets are now "bank holding companies," subject to banking oversight by the Federal Reserve an often weighed down--in their eyes--by onerous capital requirements and ominous regulation.

As with all banks, bulge brackets must address a laundry list of issues since TARP rolled out in 2008.  Dodd-Frank regulation will force them re-engineer their businesses. They can no longer rely on surges in trading revenues to offset the cyclicality of i-banking. While big banks tend to internal restructuring and worry about declining returns, boutiques have slipped in and swiped a few lucrative deals away from them.

Boutiques absorbed experienced bankers who were dismissed by bulge brackets let go or were demoralized by the crisis. The new bankers brought clients, deals, relationships and junior staff with them. Boutiques, meanwhile, have remained steadfast in being experts in special areas (M&A, media finance, technology finance, restructuring, capital-raising, or strategic advisory).

They didn't venture to foreign lands or create hard-to-manage bureaucracies and processes. And they seldom need to scratch their heads managing conflicts of interests, "tail" risks, or burdensome capital requirements. They just do deals.

And they've done more than their share over the past year. Centerview and Qatalyst, boutique banks, had primary advisory roles in the recently announced Google-Motorola merger. Sandler O'Neill, adamant about remaining small, is one of the top banks for financial institutions. Moelis, Evercore, Allen & Co., Greenhill, Keefe Bruyette, and Perella Weingberg are all respected, if not envied, players.

Some challenges and issues continue to stifle firms these days, big and small--enough to frustrate senior managers and deal-doers who wish they could focus on clients and deals and enough to discourage some MBAs from pursuing a career.

The turtle-crawl economic recovery has a direct bearing on i-banking activity. Corporations are reluctant to grow their busineses or consider acquisitions. They hesitate to issue new capital (debt or equity) to invest in new business or innovative products.  They let cash reserves sit around because they are engulfed in uncertainty. In the end, investment banks can't convince corporate CFOs or CEOs to take their advice or proceed with financings that at least make sense in Excel spreadsheets. Deals ready to go to market are suddenly shelved.

Thus, fees and revenues from mergers, acquisitions, underwritings, lending, and new products fluctuate unpredictably, while senior bankers figure out how to endure uncertainty and MBAs ponder whether they should pursue a dream.

Pending regulation and reform are looming challenges. Banks try to interpret new rules and anticipate what they will be once regulators write them up more formally. Then they huddle in backrooms to reorganize their business to make them operate profitably with the new restrictions. The 25% return on equity some bulge brackets could count on in the glory days of the mid-2000s or late 1990s might become an unreasonable target. Disgruntled shareholders may need to become accustomed to, at best, 15% returns under new models.

Risk management at all banks has gotten much attention. Banks have increased risk staff and force deal-doers to assess, probe, analyze, and measure the worst-case risks in doing a deal or bring in a new client. Risk-vs.-reward exercises are more prominent than ever.

Derivatives once attracted Ph.d. graduates and quant jocks and spawned floods of profits over the past decade or so. Going forward, regulation will force most of them to be traded on exchanges and through designated dealers. Investment banks aren't sure what the new profit dynamics will be or whether it will be worth the effort to encourage quant jocks to create new forms of them. Quant jocks aren't sure they will be welcome or will flee to hedge funds. I-bankers haven't yet figured out what they should say to clients on a consistent basis.

Work-life balance in the industry was supposed to have improved, if only to attract graduates who fear that lower bonus payouts in the future won't make it worth spending 12-14-hour days in the office, six days a week. Anecdotes suggest work-life balance is often discussed and mulled over, but when deals must be done, it's back to back-breaking, suffocating hours in the office.

The current environment with uncertainfy, regulation, and dwindling profitability will add more pressure to bankers to find new clients, win more mandates and get more deals done.  Expectations by management and the public have risen the past three years. Competition from other banks is just as fierce, and clients are demanding more from banks. The pressure has not waned.

Yet the attraction to i-banking is still apparent. Despite the nervous environment, Consortium numbers suggest new students still want a shot at doing deals, helping clients borrow money or go public, or advising them on how to expand and grow.

The adrenaline from participating in a headline-grabbing transaction or a billion-dollar bond issue still exists. The satisfaction of deriving and negotiating the fair value of a targeted firm is still there. The thrill in traveling all over the country or globe to meet new clients in new industries continues.  Of course, compensation--even if it has become as volatile as markets--is generally still attractive.

One tradition has not changed. I-bank recruiting and the campaign to win a spot on a bank's interview list start the first week MBAs get to campus. Those who have ambitions of securing a spot in 2012 must get going now.

Tracy Williams

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