Editor's take: Watch where you work

eFC logo

With finance jobs looking wobblier than they used to, staying on your feet may soon depend upon who's employing you.

The wobbles are already in evidence. While all around quaffed champagne and munched canapés at last week's UBS press party, one banker confessed his queasiness at the prospect of redundancies at Citigroup and ABN AMRO: "We just haven't seen this thing for the past few years," he reflected.

In response to our poll of the past two weeks, 65% of you judged the chance of losing your job in the next 24 months as 'fair' to 'very high'. With bank mergers back on the table, where you fall on the 'fair' to 'high' gradient is increasingly dependent on where you work.

As a rule of thumb, established investment banks are best placed to ride out bumps in the road; smaller ones, or those without a strong franchise in particular business areas, aren't.

The split is already apparent. Dresdner Kleinwort, which has given up on its aim of being all things to all men and decided to focus on its core markets, announced redundancies shortly before Christmas. HSBC, which has already cut corporate finance teams after failing to get higher than 11th in Thomson Financial's European M&A league tables for 2006, is seen as a candidate for cuts in future. After a raft of post-bonus departures and the revelation that corporate and investment banking profits fell 5% in the first quarter, Bank of America's aspiration to become a major player in Europe is also starting to look fanciful.

Meanwhile, firms in the bulge bracket are still raking it in. Last week, both Merrill Lynch and JPMorgan announced bumper profits for the first quarter of this year. Citigroup, the biggest investment bank by fees in 2006 according to Bloomberg, saw a 36% increase in first-quarter profits at its banking and markets division.

So which bank should you work for right now? It's not just a question of size. Citigroup may be the biggest bank in the world, but its jobs aren't entirely secure - 5% are being cut, albeit mainly in over-staffed support functions inherited after a decade of mergers.

Likewise, pure investment banks are taking the knife to poor performers: "More and more banks are eliminating the bottom 10-15% each year," says Lee Thacker, partner at search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

In a consolidating market, the most secure roles will be in the best teams. Hence, Société Générale's French M&A bankers, who ranked above Unicredito's teams for French deals completed in 2006, should be sitting pretty if merger talks between the French and Italian banks come to fruition. But in Italy, where Unicredito's M&A bankers are more successful, Soc Gen's local bankers are liable to be edged out.

For this reason, ABN AMRO's bankers look particularly vulnerable, with 4,500 cuts at the investment bank on the cards if the Barclays deal goes ahead. "They're in the top 10 in everything and the top three in nothing," says one headhunter. "There'll be cuts no matter who buys them - they'll always be the subordinate partner."

As a rule of thumb, therefore, the best place to be right now is in a team ranked towards the top in your market. We're not in the gut-wrenchingly turbulent strap-yourself-to-the-seat stage of the cycle just yet, nor are there any indications that we'll launch into it any time in the next six months. But the tremors have definitely begun and now may be the time to find some steady ground.