Investment banking wasn’t all glamour, responsible tasks, business class flights, challenge, et al. Below are just a handful of outright mind-numbing tasks I performed to justify the fat bonus in my first year – and my equally fat redundancy package towards the end of the second.
Team league tables. This one is a classic. At some point of my employment I was unwise enough to volunteer for team credentials (“creds”). Creds are basically team description and achievements nicely compiled in a colourful presentation, including the so-called tombstones (brief deal overviews), embarrassingly non-cute bankers’ photos and their impressively contentful resumes (“expertise in all relevant competencies”), generously tagged maps (“our world-wide presence”) and – of course – the league tables (“our unrivalled sector leadership”).
Now, league tables are rankings of financial advisors by, typically, value of announced or closed deals, over a period of time. Basically, the only way for the creds to pass an eagle-eye examination of some born-leader senior banker was to drag UBS to number one. UBS somehow not quite always the number one in every single sector and over every single period of time, the league tables often required some serious “adjustments”.
Now, that’s where Anna came in. Imagine receiving raw statistics with UBS somewhere, say, at number five, trailing big time behind the usual suspects of Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan. Or whoever. How to proceed? There were a number of tricks. First, change the period of interest. 2007-2008 YTD (year-to-date) can easily become 2006-2008 YTD, 2005-2007 or even 2004-2008 YTD. Next, switch from announced to closed deals and back, with or without net debt. Those two failing, real monkey work began. My sector, utilities, can be defined broader or narrower, depending on the direction of the wind. If you really plan to stick your teeth into someone else’s dessert, you probably want to stretch that definition. In case of league tables, the opposite works. There are a whole range of subsectors which can purposefully or accidentally be classified under utilities. The monkey work here is to get deal lists for every single financial advisor, fine-comb them and exclude whatever seems to cross the line. Waste management, municipal water supply, occasional upstream (oil & gas) activities, TV cables, metering companies – out, out, out. Only pure utilities shall remain.
Now imagine doing the same over and over again, for every possible time period, and you get the idea. The moment of truth comes when everything is neatly summed, re-calculated and re-ranked. In case UBS is still not quite number one, two choices remain. One, cross yourself thrice and take a stab at convincing that senior banker about number two being justified. Admittedly, this has worked for me (but was preceded by a full day of draconic league table adjustments). Two, fudge the rankings. At the end of the day, you just may want to go home and get some sleep. Even if your conscience is not entirely clear.
Political correctness. As much of a “Russian analyst” as I was at UBS, some of you may know that I also covered the Nordic countries – and former Yugoslavia. Not the most eventful two regions when it comes to M&A, but labour-intense enough on marketing. Now, there is a small, unimportant little nation out there in the Balkans, which doesn’t really have a name. Or, actually, it has several, depending on the circumstances. I am talking about Macedonia, or FYROM, or even FYR Macedonia.
I will skip the entire name dispute between Macedonia and Greece, which can be the subject of my future notes. Basically, Greece does not recognise the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name, arguing that the latter expresses territorial claims on Greece, as ancient Macedonia once predominantly spanned what is now present-day Greece. I am not strong in politics, so let’s leave this aside and proceed in order. Everything started with Anna preparing an overview presentation for “Utilities sector in South-Eastern Europe” for, say a Spanish client. Spaniards aren’t really fussed about Alexander the Great and are generally unfamiliar with sophisticated name abbreviations. Hence the hapless country has to go as Macedonia. Easy.
A week would pass, and another client would want the same overview. Chances are, this time the client is Greek. Now that’s where things would get more interesting. First, a different group of people from country coverage would be involved in the presentation. The file would often undergo dramatic changes compared to the first version. Second, all Macedonias suddenly had to be replaced with FYROMs. A simple “replace” function in PowerPoint would only suffice for text. Unfortunately, in addition to text, presentations tended to include graphs, diagrams, pictures and pasted tables – all littered with Macedonias. Every item had to be checked out from UBS’s live document system, edited online, saved, pasted into the document and checked back in. Sometimes the system would crash. Even if it didn’t, the replacing process usually took forever. As an end result – bingo! – I would produce a new presentation, with little FYROMs jumping all over the place.
Another week would pass. The presentation was needed yet again, this time for, say, a Turkish client. Turks generally support whomever Greece doesn’t. We are hence back to Macedonia. There I was with a drastically different document, tables and charts often changed to no recognition. The monkey work began again. First, the document gets changed completely thanks to the country team input. Second, all FYROMs have to give way to Macedonias. Check out Table 1, edit online, save, paste, check back in. Same for Table 2. Same for Graph 3. Same for Figure 7. And oh, don’t forget to run the PowerPoint “replace” function. Before you blink, the clocks would be striking 3am.
My worst nightmare, however, was the flag episode. Once my senior banker felt inspired and instructed me to insert a circular flag of each ex-Yu country next to the name. That was all seemingly easy, as UBS had a sizeable database for outline maps and flags. I had nearly finished neatly pasting each, when I noticed something wrong with the Macedonian flag. I remembered from Eurovision that the rays of the sun there were touching the edges. Those ones shamelessly didn’t. They were emanating from a yellow sun hanging in the middle of a red field and stretching nowhere far, leave alone the edges. The time was approaching 2am. I panicked. Then I cried. Then I googled and realised that I was dealing with the controversial “Vergina flag”, amended by Macedonia in 1995 following an economic blockade by Greece (isn’t it amazing what one learns in investment banking!). Genuinely impressed at how that extinct little flag had survived over ten years in a UBS database, I didn’t feel like re-tracing the legitimate one that night. I pasted in the Vergina flag. The clients were a mere bunch of uninformed italianos, anyway. My sincere apologies to whoever has inherited my SEE presentation. You may wanna replace that flag there.
Project names. Despite the overflowing nonsense from my two secondary regions, it was mainly Russia where my real projects were. To comply with the legal confidentiality requirements, all UBS projects required code names. A project name could sometimes be imposed by a client, saving us the hassle of coming up with one. In most cases, unfortunately, the name was our responsibility. Now, if there was one detail the bankers found themselves least able to agree on, it was project names. Bitter conflicts arose right and left, and much blood was shed before a project was formally baptised.
Sometimes I was asked to provide project name suggestions for my senior colleagues to consider. The debates could last for days and take substantial time away from real work. For example, there was once a project in East Siberia. I was working with a senior non-Russian banker obsessed with Russian culture and anecdotes (how weird is that). The immediate names we discussed were: Stirlitz (a character of a popular Russian book and pun-based anecdote series), Stakhanov (a Soviet miner symbolic to the communist movement for increasing productivity), Kemerovo (an industrial city in Russian Siberia) and Belukha (the highest peak of Russia’s Altay mountain range). I personally liked Belukha, my own suggestion. The UBS Moscow office joined in the debate, suggesting a series of names with varying degrees of inappropriateness. I distinctly remember Miller as a suggestion aimed specifically to suck up to Gazprom’s Deputy Board Chairman Alexey Miller.
After a two-day debate, Belukha did win. Phew.
To be continued.