You certainly don’t have to go far to find blatant criticism of many Yalies’ choices to work in finance. But this column is not about re-scrutinizing these career choices.
This column is about the Yale campus’s criticism of finance as an industry. Behind our criticisms of students’ decisions is skepticism of finance as a livelihood. It provides no societal good, is a waste of our Yale educations and is heartless, the critics say.
Even as someone who has worked at two major investment banks, I totally get it. Considering the negative press, enormous criminal investigations and immoral behavior that have plagued investment banks, this skepticism makes sense.
According to the Office of Career Strategy, 149 members, or 11 percent, of the class of 2014 went into finance.
Twelve of these 149 are at boutique investment banks; 73 are at the largest banks (Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Capital One, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley, UBS and Wells Fargo). Together, that means 85, or 57 percent, of Yalies in finance went into investment banking!
After the 57 percent, the group breaks up into much smaller segments of various types of firms — none of which comes close to the 57 percent in banking. In other words, no other type of finance work can claim nearly as big of a presence at Yale. This is both an outgrowth of, and reflected in, the on-campus recruiting that goes on at Yale: The majority of finance information sessions focus on banking.
The dominance of banking skews how Yalies think of finance as a whole. Banking is the sector of finance that has experienced the worst problems, doles out the kind of mind-numbing Excel and PowerPoint work that many consider a waste of a Yale education and that needs the most reform.
The problem is that we apply our criticisms of the sector of finance that’s most visible on campus — banking — to all of finance.
But finance doesn’t equal banking, and claiming that it does lacks nuance. There aren’t numbers, but it’s generally accepted knowledge in the industry that the vast majority of people working in finance in the U.S. work in some subset of investment management, not in banking.
Investment managers are in charge of managing money (for institutions or individuals) to, ideally, increase the money’s value. They decide what to invest in, and in what proportions.
Investment bankers provide banking services for large companies: They help them go public, buy or merge with other companies and issue stock or debt. Investment banks also contain divisions that trade and sell securities like stocks, bonds and foreign exchange rates.
So why does this distinction matter? Well, because in investment management — the other, huge slice of the finance industry that gets little attention at Yale — the criticisms don’t hold up. The bone-crushing 4 a.m. nights aren’t general practice. The hierarchy where junior employees do only the presentation and number work isn’t the norm.
Perhaps most importantly, investment management’s societal benefit is easier to see. It’s often hard to perceive how banking helps our economy or society. What good is there in helping two tech companies merge, selling interest rates or facilitating one oil company’s purchase of another?
On the other hand: How does a pharmaceutical company get money to manufacture a new drug? How does an industrial company get money to make greener engines for cars? How does a tech company have the money to make computers cheaper, allowing them to be more widely distributed? These are important questions for any society hoping to innovate and improve quality of life.
The short answer is the money comes when investment managers, and the general public, invest in the company’s stock or bonds. Investment managers decide which companies have the most compelling business plans and products, and back them by buying the company’s stock and bonds. The socially beneficial work of the innovative companies of our era — such as Apple, Facebook, GE, Merck and Pfizer — would be impossible without investment managers directing money into these companies.
Counter-examples abound — like hedge funds that profit by betting against companies — but the core of investment management, which is about backing strong companies, is alive and well.
When we criticize finance, we should focus on specific players for specific reasons, backed by facts. Inhumane hours, heedless risk and poor decisions at investment banks certainly deserve close scrutiny and denunciation.
But calling the entire industry of finance socially harmful and heartless ignores an important truth: People in financial services — and especially in investment management — allow the pioneering, and socially relevant, companies of the day (and their employees) to carry out their work.
Kirsten Schnackenberg is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.