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Banker at the Top: Q&A with J.P. Morgan’s David Sayer, head of Asia equities trading and execution

Q: What made you want to become a trader as opposed to another banking position?

A: I got my start in banking when I was just 18, heading straight to the City of London in 1995 after completing college.
I was an A-level trainee at a J.P. Morgan heritage firm Robert Fleming & Co. I worked in the operations department with the settling and clearing of trades, working closely with the people on the trading floor. So at an early age I wanted to work on the trading floor. There’s a real dynamic pulse to it – executing trades, engaging with clients and working within a strong team environment.

Q: How has the job function of a trader changed since you started your career?

A: Looking back to the 90’s, during the early stages of my career, the working environment was a lot more face-to-face and relationship driven due to the lack of technology. Trading was done via phones. There was no access to markets through electronic trading platforms and traders were the market makers , the engine room where people asked us to set prices. Both the market and technology have since evolved .

The role of a trader has become much more encompassing today. It’s not just about liquidity, pricing and dealing with clients , but understanding the settlement of business, trade flows and more importantly now than ever before a strong understanding of regulations and the bank’s internal controls, which have become more stringent. Trading roles are now a lot broader than 10 to 15 years ago.

Q: What have been the most memorable and challenging aspects of your career so far?

A: This was probably during my transition from a trader to the head of the trading desk in 2006 [Sayer moved from being an equity trader at Deutsche Bank to his current role at J.P. Morgan, where he managers a team of 31 globally].

I was not just responsible for my day-to-day job but for the entire equity trading platform. I had to ensure that the goals I set out to achieve on the trading desk were in line with the broader objectives of the business. So that was an adjustment. I was also just 29 at the time, having some of my senior traders who were my mentors report to me felt strange to begin with but the re-structuring of the desks and the help of a strong year in 2007 helped drive the business forward. Our year-on-year results were up substantially which was extremely satisfying.

Q: What types of personal qualities and skills are needed to make a good junior trader?

A: If you’re working in trading, strong analytic ability across a range of equities, bonds and derivative products is essential, even at a junior level.

The number one quality I look for in a candidate, apart from technical skills, is someone who is broad-minded and has the ability to stay cool under pressure because trading in the markets can be very emotional. Traders need to be communicative and confident, since you are interacting with hundreds of people every week.

Q: What are your favourite interview questions to ask junior traders and what sort of responses are you looking for?

A: My favourite interview questions have the same underlying theme: I look at how candidates analyse problems. For instance, if I gave you US$100m, how would you construct a portfolio? There isn’t one standard answer; I’m just looking at how candidates think of investments and the market place.

Another question I’d ask is how what is happening in one region could affect other countries. This helps me see how broadly the candidate reads in the financial press and what he/she knows of global financial markets outside of their comfort zone.

The third question is more personable. I would ask them about situations where they display leadership qualities and their ability to work within teams, whether it’s in social activities or charity work.

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