It wasn’t the best year to work in financial services. Historic institutions went under, thousands lost their jobs, thousands more are now obliged to live off basic salaries. However, the darkness was penetrated by a few shafts of light. And they were…
1. Equity trading
2008 was the year of the equities desk. High volumes and high volatility meant equity trading revenues increased throughout the year, while other revenue streams bombed. Equities commissions at Goldman Sachs rose more than 9.1% between the third and fourth quarters of 2008, for example.
“If anyone has had a good year in 2008 it’s flow traders,” says Bahadour Moussa, a consultant at search firm Pelham International. “Volatility traders did particularly well.”
Cash equities looks set to remain comparatively strong in 2009. Margins are under pressure, but Barclays Capital is building an equities business and Commerzbank, for example, has promised to focus on flow trading following its integration with Dresdner.
2. Boutiques and advisory houses
With ‘pay for play’ M&A models killed off by banks’ inability to lend, corporate finance boutiques and smaller advisory-focused banks boosted market share and seized floating staff.
When Qantas and B&A launched their (subsequently aborted) merger discussions in early December, independent bank Greenhill was among the chosen advisors. The US-based firm expanded its senior headcount by 40% in 2008 , largely thanks to cheap MDs coming out of Lehman in the US.
In Europe, Rothschild was also a beneficiary of the tide of Lehman refugees. US-based boutique Moelis & Co set up a London office.
“The M&A market is changing. Structurally, it is moving back to an advisory model where decent fees are charged,” says John Axworthy, a partner in the financial services practice at Odgers Ray & Berndtson.
3. Rates and FX
Plummeting interest rates, the oscillating dollar and the collapsing pound provided fodder for FX and rates desks. Bloomberg points out that the FX desks of Deutsche and UBS, the world’s two largest currency traders, posted three consecutive quarters of record FX revenues according to their quarterly reports. FX bonuses are expected to be respectable as a result.
Restructuring professionals began complaining of overwork in August, but the workload went from bad to worse as insolvencies soared. PricewaterhouseCoopers administrators picking over the Lehman carcass were handsomely remunerated for their efforts and the likes of Lazard shifted M&A bankers into restructuring to make the most of the rush of work.
Despite digesting the husks of both Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, JPMorgan had a good 2008. Its stock ended the year a mere 32% down (compared to 72% at Morgan Stanley) and according to Dealogic it ranked first globally for investment banking fees earned in the eleven months to the start of December. Despite this, Jamie Dimon cut 10% of JPM investment banking staff and told CNBC he’d made a lot of mistakes.
6. Risk and product control
With banks like Citigroup and Lehman reviled for risk management failures, it’s hardly surprising that risk achieved renewed prominence. SocGen embarked on a wholesale review of its risk and control apparatus following the Jérôme Kerviel debacle, and John Thain prioritized the reorganization of risk management at Merrill Lynch. In August 2008, the UK’s Financial Services Authority warned banks against cutting too many jobs in risk and product control teams. “Risk hiring held strong in 2008,” says Paula Maidens, director at recruitment firm Robert Walters. “Operational risk professionals were particularly in demand.”
7. Private banking and wealth management
While investment banking and markets businesses struggled, private banking and wealth management operations remained comparatively lively. At Morgan Stanley, for example, the global wealth management group reported pre-tax income of $1.2bn, on a par with 2007.
Credit Suisse added 370 wealth managers globally, even as it cut 5,300 people from its investment bank. Julius Baer hired 60 private bankers and avowed its intention to keep adding more, despite a cost cutting programme.
At the smaller end of the market, wealth management business Brewin Dolphin hired 21 new teams or 86 people over the year.
“We’ve had our best year ever,” says Simon Culliford, director of private banking search firm Culliford Edmonds. “A lot of smaller private banks in London still have the appetite to grow teams. Some of the bigger ones are more concerned with managing their costs down.”
8. Pensions solutions
As pension deficits ballooned, pension risk advisory businesses staffed up. Mercer and Ernst & Young were among those building at the start of the year. In December, private equity backed Partnership announced a quest for aggressive growth. Demand for pensions advisors contributed to the appetite for actuaries, whose services are likely to remain sought after in 2009.
As the British government’s budget deficit ballooned and the economy falterered, fiscal policy and taxation became pressing issues. Alistair Darling’s pre-budget report was occasion for short term tax reductions and longer term tax increases. “We’ve certain had plenty of change to contend with,” says John Whiting, a tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “Headcount in our tax business expanded in the first six months of the year and into the early autumn,” he adds.
10. Work life balance
Forget 12 hour days (unless you work in restructuring). 2008 was all about pretending to be busy if you had a job, or rewriting your CV and watching daytime TV if you didn’t.