People often ask me how I became a municipal bond analyst, as if to say how did you contract this terrible disease? Since no one asks doctors, lawyers or business tycoons how they became what they are, I sometimes feel resentment at this question. Imagine people asking, "Mr. Trump, how did you decide to become a real estate magnate?" I could imagine the Donald reflecting for a moment. "Well, first I considered being a muni bond analyst," he replies. "But I decided that the potential for philosophical gratification and self-realization in that, ah... profession, was not, well, what I had come to expect."
Usually I'm bored with this topic, so when someone asks that question (I stopped years ago trying to explain what I do to someone outside the financial community), I simply state that I was born a muni analyst. That cuts the conversation short, with the questioner nodding in apparent understanding. I can see the thoughts flickering across the faces of these people. "Of course," they are thinking. "What a terrible burden to carry through life. Amazing that he turned out so well - considering."
In one of my responsibilities at work, I occasionally have the task of introducing municipal officials and academicians as speakers at conferences and seminars. I am always given an official biography to present, and they all seem the same to me. (I suppose that municipal analysts' biographies all look the same to public officials and university professors.) Something that caught my eye, though, was that these biographies often began with "Professor Whatshisname was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan." The concept of being born a professor amused me. I would imagine the family and friends gathered around the baby's crib in Ann Arbor. "Why just look at the little professor" they would exclaim. There would probably be a cap and gown embroidered on the baby's diaper.
But instead, imagine the family that has just had a baby municipal bond analyst bestowed upon them. As the expectant father paces nervously in the waiting room of the maternity ward, the swinging door opens and the doctor enters. She looks distracted and avoids making eye contact with the anxious father. But as she hesitates in speaking, obviously trying to frame her words, the father leaps into the silence. "Is it a boy?" he asks. There is a fractional pause - a kind of neutrality - in the doctor's silent expression. "Then it's a girl!" concludes the father breathlessly. By now the doctor has forgotten the comforting words that she had planned. There is the briefest negative shake of her head. "No, it's a muni bond analyst" she blurts out artlessly.
The father stiffens, resisting a display of disappointment. "You're ... sure?" he stammers. "I'm afraid so," says the doctor in her most practiced, soothing voice. Now a frown creases the father's face as an afterthought occurs to him, "Is it a boy analyst or a girl analyst?" he asks timidly. For a moment the doctor seems uncertain. "I'm pretty sure its a boy analyst" she says reflectively.
Several awkward moments of silence pass before the father probes the doctor's uncertainty. "How can you tell - I mean about being a municipal bond analyst?" he asks. The apprehension on his face seems to invite a withdrawal of the diagnosis. But the doctor shakes her head firmly to cut short. this futile hope. "You can always tell" she says. "The normal baby comes into the world with a contented expression on their face almost as if they were ready to burst into song - whereas your typical muni analyst.... well, I don't mean to imply that there is anything abnormal about an analyst... but they usually are frowning critically at the forceps." You can see their little minds ticking away, thinking about the occupancy rate at the hospital and whether the construction of the new obstetrics wing can be financed with tax exempt bonds.
Amused by this fantasy, I polled some of my analyst friends to see how they became municipal bond analysts. "Do you feel you were born a muni bond analyst or made into one?," I asked. No one admitted to being born a muni analyst. Instead they would give somewhat familiar stories. "Well, I was always interested in finance and business and... there was this job opening for a muni analyst" (or "I didn't have a clue what I was going to do after college but my family had this friend who worked for and the only opening they had was. ... "). Then they invariably finished with a note of pride. "I was always good with numbers and had a head for business," they would say to explain why. Nonetheless, to me, many of the stories I heard sounded tantamount to confessing to being born a muni bond analyst, but I suppose there are limits to self revelation.
One of my analyst friends whispered a bit of heresy to me the other day. After glancing nervously around the room, he ventured an outrageous hypothesis. "Perhaps being a municipal bond analyst is a trainable skill" he said. I composed my face into a shocked expression and shook my head in proper admonishment. Do you mean, I thought to myself, not daring to voice the words, that someone who wasn't born an analyst - someone who hadn't contemplated building bridges and roads, or hadn't necessarily aced accounting and public policy courses - that such a person could actually be admitted to our sacred profession. What about our stiff entrance requirements, the series of tests and obscure certifications that we have cleverly crafted to limit entrance in our profession? Only someone with innate skills (like a restaurant critic) and total dedication to the profession could survive the weeding-out process. Only someone like us.
Sensing my disbelief, my friend hesitantly elaborated on his tenuous premise. "Suppose, just suppose, that we were to encourage people - maybe even nurture them - instead of just throwing them in the water and seeing If they sink or swim," he offered. Well, this was going too far. Did this mean that a normal baby could actually become an analyst? My mind wandered back to the maternity ward, and now I imagined the doctor telling the father that his wife had just given birth to a healthy normal baby.
The father looks up in disappointment. "But we had hoped for a municipal bond analyst," he says sadly The doctor smiles, happy to be the bearer of good news. "You never know" she says. "Times have changed."
Gary Krellenstein of Lehman Brothers is the First Team winner in the Industrial Revenue and Pollution Control Revenue Bond category. His first exposure to public finance and municipal analysts occurred while he was working as a nuclear engineer on WPPSS Nuclear Projects 3 & 5 and the Harris nuclear plant in North Carolina. After the financial fiasco that followed the $2 billion WPPSS default in 1983, he sought out employment on Wall Street where there was be a need for someone who could tell the difference between a well constructed nuclear facility and an oversized toaster-oven.