The best critique I've seen of Martin Scorsese's film "The Wolf of Wall Street" came via a Tweet circulating around my social media networks in December: "Someone should make a Wall Street movie where characters are bland and pleasant young men and women who know a lot of Excel shortcuts," the Twitter user @tetzelny wrote.
It's not a movie yet but the new book "Young Money" otherwise fits the bill. Kevin Roose, a writer for New York Magazine and a former New York Times banking reporter, spent three years shadowing eight young analysts as they started working at the country's biggest investment banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis. His account, which promises to go "Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street's Post-Crash Recruits," is an engaging, entertaining and ultimately damning exercise in social anthropology, full of sober yet sympathetic assessments of both the people who become bankers these days and the banks that hire them.
Most of Roose's subjects are smart, hard-working but, oddly, risk-averse college grads who regard entry-level jobs at the likes of Goldman Sachs (GS), Citigroup (NYSE:C) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) as a way to start careers, lock in good salaries or kill time while figuring out what else they want to do with their lives.
Roose spends time with true believers, too. In one chapter he visits an exclusive hedge fund run by Harvard undergrads with an "honest-to-God passion" for finance. But the majority of his focus is on the people who go into banking because they don't know quite where else to go. He argues that investment banks have deliberately sought out such people, cultivating a "generation of accidental financiers"and hurt themselves in the process.
"Wall Street, more than most industries, makes its workers feel expendable; many entry-level bankers conceive of themselves as lumps of body mass who perform uncreative and menial work, and whose time can be exchanged for labor at any moment," Roose writes.
While young employees on Wall Street have been miserable forever, "Young Money" follows this batch of recent grads at a time when the banking industry is contracting, and trying to dig itself out of layers of reputational muck acquired during the financial crisis. In a post-Dodd Frank, post-Occupy Wall Street era, Roose argues, big banks will no longer have their pick of the best and the brightest.
Which brings us back to the filmed orgy celebrating the good/bad old days of Wall Street debauchery that is "The Wolf of Wall Street." The flashiest chapter of "Young Money" chronicles a party of old-school excess seemingly cut from that movie; it is replete with financiers in drag, bankers "gorging themselves on racks of lamb and throwing petit fours at the stage" and attendees swapping sexist and homophobic jokes about Hillary Clinton and Barney Frank.
Roose observed this all in January 2012, less than four years after the height of the crisis, when he successfully infiltrated the annual dinner of the Wall Street fraternity Kappa Beta Phi. The group's members include billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, former Citigroup Chief Executive Vikram Pandit, former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Schapiro, former Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup senior executive Sallie Krawcheck, former Citi Chairman Sandy Weill, former Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne and former Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, among many others.
That chapter has understandably been the focus of the initial attention "Young Money" has garnered and effectively illustrates how little the financial crisis, bank bailouts, sweeping regulation or widespread public anger has affected the worldview of Wall Street's old guard. But it serves as an exception to the rest of the book, which makes clear the vast differences between Wall Street's high life and the routines followed by the hordes of low-level grunt bankers.
Yes, Roose's subjects might play beer pong at company retreats and get stoned regularly after work, but they are far more likely to pass out from exhaustion at their desks than to crash a helicopter into the grounds of Long Island estates. Indeed, such estates are far beyond their financial reach, and the rarified indignities of Wall Street's annual bonus season instigate soul-searching among Roose's subjects. (Yes, for the aspiring one-percent, payday begets introspection.) Some come to the stark realization that they've sacrificed personal relationships and even their health in exchange for tedious, unfulfilling work and an increasingly unclear financial payoff.
So while the behavior of some Wall Streeters continues to damage banking's reputation, its future problems extend far beyond over-the-top parties or the tone-deaf defensiveness of executives whose banks have recently paid billions of dollars in regulatory and legal fines. Keeping and retaining talented future leaders has become a vastly more far-reaching challenge for Wall Street, Roose argues.
As banks struggle with declining revenues and increased regulation, they can no longer dangle before college grads the same job security and bonuses that attracted previous generations. Meanwhile, the industry faces increased competition from the growing, and more nimble, tech sector. Reflecting this harsh reality, three of Roose's eight subjects left banking for startups. Which raises the possibility that, even if the trend hurts Wall Street over time, it may leave the broader economy better off as a result.
Roose welcomes the change, arguing that Wall Street has too long had a "monopoly on brilliance," and citing a "cultural contagion and the genuine misery I saw Wall Street inflict on so many young people." Whether or not you agree with him, it's clear that banks have work to do to make themselves more appealing to future generations of pleasant young men and women, no matter how many Excel shortcuts they know.
Maria Aspan is the national editor for American Banker. The views expressed are her own.