In which Bwog freelancer Zack Hoopes infiltrates the world of I-banking infosessions.
“THIS is where you need to be. This IS where you need to be. This is where YOU need to be.” The JP Morgan interns on the TV screen said this phrase to me, over and over again, in every conceivable form of emphasis. The jock, the foreign kid, and even the token hot chick wanted me to don a tasteful pantsuit and come with them on a magical journey of investing, trading, and general money-finagling. And why not? “Whatever got you into Columbia, that’s all the talent you’ll need for a career here at JP Morgan,” said the man at the podium. “JP Morgan and Columbia have had a long and valuable relationship.” Which is probably what his second wife said to him before she took half of his shit and moved to LA.
I have always wondered what being an i-banker (a term which I’ve been told is distasteful to those in the profession, but will be used here for convenience) would be like. There seem to be two general views on the subject: one, that i-banking is a golden opportunity to advance into the global economy of the future; and two, that it’s a loathsome and degenerate profession that profits from the injustice of capitalism. At Columbia, I’ve seen many preach the latter but act the former. In my more philosophical moments, it seems like our simultaneous appreciation and repulsion of Wall Street captures the disillusionment of a generation, born into a world where the idea of freedom has been commercialized and commodified.
But enough with the theory. I set out Wednesday night for the JP Morgan presentation/networking night at Faculty House, to find out first-hand what i-bankers are like. My initial dilemma was that the flyer for the event said “business casual at minimum.” My maximum business casual, as it turned out, was far less than their minimum. My only pants that aren’t jeans are a pair of cotton twills that I used for hiking in the boy scouts. I have a brown sport coat that hasn’t been ironed since Jerry Orbach was among the living (we miss you, Briscoe). Furthermore, I bear a distinct resemblance to Jeffery “the Dude” Lebowski. Blending in would be difficult.
There was a huge line outside faculty house to get in to the session. A guy walking out of EC stopped and approached me. “Hey, were you in my poli sci seminar this afternoon?” he asked.
“Maybe. I was in State Failure,” I replied.
“Yeah, I thought I recognized you. What’s all this for?”
“Some kind of Merrill Lynch internship thing.”
“Oh. Have fun with that.” He gave me that ‘you’re such a tool’ sneer and turned away.
The girl in front of me in the line turned. “Actually I think this is a JP Morgan session.”
“Really? Aren’t they sort of the same thing, though?”
She took out a black appointment book and thumbed through it. “Better be JP Morgan,” she mumbled. I had the info written down, too – scrawled on a cocktail napkin, wadded up in the back pocket of my other pants. Everyone around me was carrying a leather-bound folder; because apparently when you’re an i-banker, you need a folder that will see your resume unscathed through high-speed road rash.
Upon entering, I was given a sticky name tag and several fill-in-yourself business cards, for use in ‘networking’ with the JP Morgan employees and reps circulating through the room. Since I didn’t know anybody there, I decided to maintain my anonymity. Dubbing myself “Bill Johnston,” I roamed the crowd.
Networking at a bank session is eerily similar to picking up skanks at your local dive bar. The entire point is to schmooze with somebody to the point where you can exchange phone numbers in anticipation of some later benefit. While you’re canoodling with your target, others awkwardly hang around and try to act engaged, awaiting their turn to take a stab at making an impression good enough to reap the reward (presumably a blue-chip internship, or—in the bar scenario—a blow job).
The presentation itself consisted of a guy who spoke briefly from the front of the room, followed by a videos and slide shows on several LCD screens. After a while, I realized what seemed slightly off: no one ever really talked about what JP Morgan, as a company, actually does. Phrases like ‘financial solutions’ and ‘comprehensive investment’ were plastered all over the room, and statistics of dollar turnover flashed by on occasion. But there was no mention of a purpose to what was done, no time given to a role within the larger business world, no thought paid to how the employees actually approach their work. The topic was cunningly avoided, like a fart at the dinner table, or like how you say your brother is “away” when you really mean he’s serving a nickel for pederasty.
The entire slide show was filled with images of interns going out to dinner with one another, volunteering at a local school, running a 5k, saving the whales – doing everything but sitting in offices. Testimonials on the video praised the opportunities for advancement, the volume of money handled, and the great social atmosphere. “Your coworkers are not just your coworkers; they’re your friends and family,” a girl piped.
I honestly still don’t know what analysts at JP Morgan do. I suppose they analyze, in some capacity. All of the reps I talked to seemed turned off when I asked them about how they handled their everyday tasks, throwing out catchphrases about how “the company” functions. Maybe that’s stuff that people applying to investment banks already know.
In essence, JP Morgan told me that, in exchange for my labor, they would provide me with pre-packaged success. The job, the clothes, the social life – it was all there on the TV screen, beckoning for me to join in. But it must be exhausting. Living the i-banker life seemed to have sucked all the passion out of the employees, and replaced it with the bittersweet ‘charisma’ that the man at the podium said was the most important trait for success in business. No one seemed to identify their work with its significance; the appeal of the career came exclusively from the impressive figures the company provided and the social life surrounding it.
As I walked out of Faculty House, I had to ask myself; if presented with the opportunity to be an i-banker would I take it? I-bankers will undoubtedly own nicer cars than me, live in fancier apartments, and bang hotter women. But if I learned anything from the JP Morgan session, it’s that there’s a trade off. To live the life of luxury, you have to be able to stomach the looming presence of the company itself, able to endure the strictures of the financier’s lifestyle and attitude. For all the power that is associated with Wall Street, I felt powerless in that room.