‘Tis the season for that rich tradition, the office holiday party.
At the risk of coming off as a bit Scrooge-ish, I’ve always hated these things, with the forced socializing, insincere pleasantries, and petty political maneuverings. Nevertheless, I slap a smile on my face and dutifully attend.
Not that all these parties I’ve gone to over the years were bad. In fact, many of the venues have been amazing. When Wall Street is having a good year and the money is flowing, no better way to show it off than a huge party. One particularly memorable affair was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Upon entering this venerable institution, home to some of the world’s greatest works of art and antiquities, Wall Street’s Kings, Queens, and Princes were greeted by a robust fanfare from gleaming heralds trumpets played a cadre of men dressed head to toe in colorful renaissance garb. In the Sackler Wing, a live band covered pop hits such as the Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” on the steps of–what else–the 2,000-year-old Egyptian Temple of Dendur. You really can’t make this stuff up.
My favorite holiday party remains my first one.
It was at my first job on Wall Street, with Prudential-Bache Securities, or Pru-Bache as it was called. While others were coming out of graduate school with glamorous starting positions in investment banking and trading, I found myself relegated to interviewing for a job as a junior stockbroker—not my first choice, but everyone has to start somewhere.
I showed up for my interview in my best blue, pin-striped Brooks Brother’s suit and a silk tie. While this Pru-Bache office was in Rockefeller Center, the metaphorical heart of Manhattan, overlooking the iconic skating rink with the golden statue of Prometheus, the office shared none of the glamour of its environs. The dropped-tile ceiling held harsh fluorescent lights, giving everything that overly bright yet also washed-out and drab look. The carpet had some dull grey pattern to it where there weren’t bare spots. An old stock ticker ran across an entire wall. It was about 4 feet high and 10 feet long, a wide belt comprised of hundreds of small metal discs with two colors, black and white. The discs would flip as the belt spun around, creating the ticker symbols and recent trade numbers. It clacked noisily, sounding like a hundred roller derby skaters coming by. It was supposed to create an atmosphere of being where the action was, live trades of thousands of shares streaming by. In reality, it just created a headache-inducing racket.
Seated in a hard, molded plastic chair in what passed for the office lobby, I waited to be called in.
After a short while, I was ushered into the Branch Manager’s corner office. Walled with dark oak paneling and windows facing the rink, it oozed rank and privilege.
He looked like Marlon Brando a bit, the Godfather version, not the Street Car Named Desire version. He talked a bit like him too, like he had cotton balls stuffed into his cheeks. It kinda fit—he lived in an area of Staten Island known for having ‘connections’, as the euphemism goes. Looking out the window and barely acknowledging me, all the time gently patting the flat blade of his gold letter opener on the open palm of his hand, he sat asking the usual questions: why did I want this job and so forth. He made a few off-handed comments about his weight (“my top weight since my football days” which were obviously well behind him) and his gout (“It hurts but I like the sound of it; it makes me sound like I’m rich”).
The squawk box was on—a precursor to today’s incessant business-as-entertainment-as-news being puked out of the television every minute. The squawk amounted to an in-house broadcasting system: through a speaker on each desk, the firm’s economists or stock analysts would make announcements about the economy, the markets, or stock buys or sells. The commentary was nearly constant and always on—the squawk volume could be loud or soft, but it had no “off” switch—intended to imbue a sense of importance and urgency. Only later did I find out most of the stockbrokers ignored every word the economists or analysts said. There was open hostility about how overpaid these guys were to be consistently wrong while the stockbrokers, working on commission only, lived by eating what they killed. They weren’t totally wrong—the stockbrokers, that is. As I came to learn, the analysts and economists almost always were.
I have to admit, it was all a bit heady.
It was 1983, the Dow was at 1,200 and the yield on a 30-year U.S. Treasury Bond was around 11.00%. The recession was ending, interest rates were falling, and there was a sense in the air things were turning, although few if any realized just how much they were about to turn.
As the interview was wrapping up, I could see the manager was also wrapping his head around the idea of hiring me. He waved the letter opener about and said, “Went to Columbia huh? You must be pretty smart. That’s good, Ivy League. It’ll class the place up a bit”.
And, with that, I had my first job on Wall Street.
I was assigned a seat at one of the adjoining four-person desks. At the center of the pod of desks was a Quotron mounted on a rotating base. A terminal that tracked stock prices in real-time, the Quotron was then what Bloomberg is today, except this was not the age of sleek black flat-screen monitors and LCD displays. No, these were clunky beige-colored boxes roughly the size of a window air conditioner with a single screen emanating a greenish hue. We used to kid you could heat your lunch in front of one if you put it close enough.
The brokers in that office were nearly all older, white men. These were hardened sales guys in the Glenn Garry Glen Ross mold, market toughened, one hundred cold-calls a day making, revenue-generating producers. I thought they were a bunch of characters. Of course, in 20 years or so, I’d be one of those characters in someone else’s story, but that wasn’t on my mind just then. Since I couldn’t make them money, they mostly viewed me more as a curiosity than a real asset and largely left me alone.
After dutifully clearing the requisite regulatory exams permitting me to sell stocks and bonds to the unsuspecting public, I started making cold-calls myself to prospective investors who had been in the market longer than I had been alive. As you might imagine, it was a long slog. I was terrible at it, either because I had no sales skills or too much of an ethical core. Or both. Either way, after seemingly one unending month after another of this, I had exactly one client and done one trade to show for my efforts. Hardly a rousing success.
As Christmas came, I wasn’t exactly in the holiday spirit and was even less enthused by having to attend the obligatory Christmas office party.
To add to my dour mood, the party was being held in our glum offices. However, the night of the party corresponded with what many New Yorkers consider to be the real start of the holiday season – the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Our offices overlooked this whole affair, so I was going to have a front-row seat. That was pretty cool.
Arriving fashionably late and already planning my early escape before I even walked through the door, I found the party well underway. I was introduced to wives and girlfriends, had a few hors d’oeuvres and generally mingled about pretending to be interested in making the perfunctory, banal office chit chat that neither of the people in the conversation really gave a rat’s ass about.
The whole thing gave me a headache, but at least the open bar provided some comfort.
Retail brokers didn’t get bonuses, so I knew that in my underling role as a nearly non-producing junior broker, I sure as hell wasn’t getting anything either. Better fill up on the free booze and grub.
As the evening wore on, the lights on the tree at Rockefeller Center were lit, we all applauded and I executed on my exit plan.
It was then that the Branch Manager came over and introduced me to an attractive woman with short-cut hair with a few strands of grey. She seemed to be in her early 30s and he suggested that we’d likely hit it off and left us to be.
I chatted with her briefly, long enough to make sure I’d shown the boss I did my part, and I politely went to excuse myself so I could leave.
She looked at me as if someone had told a joke I didn’t get. “You’re going?” she said. I said, well, yes, it had been a long day and it was getting a little late. I mean, the truth was, my chit-chat tolerance level was running on empty and, while she seemed nice enough, I really just wanted to make a clean escape, go back to my apartment and conk out.
“But,” she insisted, “I’m here for you.”
As those who know me well will readily acknowledge, sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake on social cues. This wasn’t one of those times. This was my Christmas bonus.
Welcome to Wall Street.
Today, Wall Street is a far more professional, diverse place, staffed with MBA degreed investment advisors, many with Chartered Financial Analyst certifications. There are few if any full-commission brokers anymore; now compensation for advisors is based on assets under management, not volume of trades.
Additionally, with nearly every financial institution from banks to mutual funds to insurance companies offering their own investment options, individuals are no longer limited to seeking investment advice from a traditional stock brokerage firm, if any of those still actually exist. Moreover, the plethora of financial advice and information readily available to individuals today allows them to be more self-directed in their investments. Yes, the volume of financial information can be overwhelming and often conflicting, pushing them to seek out professional advice. But no longer are financial advisors viewed as oracles of investment counsel, existing on a higher plane than mere mortals. And the days of the hard-charging, hard-selling stockbroker? Long gone. Mercifully.
Many years later, now a portfolio manager of a multi-billion-dollar bond portfolio, I walked onto the Goldman Sachs fixed income trading floor in downtown Manhattan. A large open space with warm diffuse light, high ceilings, and walls painted a calming eggshell cream color, it was generally quiet, the sound more a hushed murmur, surprising given the sea of people on the trading desks. I was introduced to the senior traders and department heads. We exchanged ideas about the market and the direction of interest rates for about an hour. As the meeting drew to a close, they graciously invited me to join them as a guest at their holiday party later that week. It was being held at a five-star restaurant, a lovely classic Christmas dinner would be served, and fine wines poured.
I politely declined.
Barnet Sherman has advised on successful fixed income strategies in the capital markets to mutual funds, insurance companies, hedge funds, and family offices. Now managing his own firm focused on environmental, governance, and social impact investing, he is also an Adjunct Professor at Boston University and is published in his field.
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