It's become a cliché to say that banking jobs aren't what they used to be. Anyone who worked in a bank before 2008 reminisces about when things were "different", when the job was "fun," when regulators weren't omnipresent and prop trading was permissible. Nonetheless, most people are happy to collect their salaries and sit it out. But maybe this is the wrong approach?
Roger Fournier (a pseudonym), worked in high yield trading for 15 years. He got in just before the financial crisis, rode out the turbulence and job losses, and got himself a job at one of the top U.S. banks in his area. Then, in March last year, he quit of his own accord. "I'd thought about leaving the job a couple of times," he says. "I wanted to take some time out and reflect about the bigger picture in life."
Fournier's professional grievances will sound familiar to most people on banks' trading floors. Risk-taking had been heavily curtailed. People all around him were losing their jobs. The bank was chasing share in markets requiring less capital commitment than his own, and the market itself was distorted by QE. "The job just wasn't very interesting and it seemed to me that the same story was being repeated everywhere," he says. In this context, the opportunity cost of taking time out was less than before, and as a trader Fournier decided the risk of quitting and not getting back in again was one worth taking: "I had some money put aside and I couldn't see how I could make substantially more in my current context, so it seemed worth having a break."
He's spent the past eleven months travelling in Asia, exercising, learning Mandarin, reflecting, and learning how to code. "I wanted to do more than visit a country for two weeks without really understanding how things there work. I wanted to see how it is to actually live somewhere else," he says.
Now, Fournier's back in London and wondering what he's going to do next. What with Brexit, his re-arrival doesn't seem like super-good timing, but he's unphased. "Everyone keeps asking me what I'm going to do - including my family," he says. "I'm open to a lot of things - whether it's getting another trading job, or doing something in technology."
Machine learning is the big thing in 2017. J.P. Morgan has just hired a new head of global machine learning from Microsoft, although no banks have yet evolved workable machine learning systems. Fournier says technology is something he felt obliged to familiarize himself with: "My job was always to have feelings about the market. To use the available information and recognize patterns and client sentiment. To be cleverer and quicker than the others and to have the guts to fight the market."
He says traders' jobs are changing. "We didn't have the computers to train before. We still don't have them really, but we're going to be able to get more and more help from these algorithms in future. There's going to be less need for traders with good gut instinct like me than there used to be." Some might say this is good reason not to leave a current position, but Fournier disagrees: only by taking time out has he achieved the perspective necessary to appreciate his predicament. Now, he just needs to find a new role...