the money game

Revolt of the Goldman Juniors

Crushed by pandemic workloads, Wall Street’s youngest want more money and better conditions. But mostly more money.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Jeenah Moon/The New York Times/Redux
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Jeenah Moon/The New York Times/Redux

When Goldman Sachs sent its analysts home at the beginning of the pandemic, they figured their jobs would stay largely the same: the same 80-hour weeks, the same urgent but menial tasks, the same imagined riches a few years down the line. And they figured they could rely on the essential sustenance Goldman had always provided: Seamless. In the in-office era, analysts had been able to expense around $30 worth of dinner when working after hours, plus another $25 or so if they toiled past midnight. For analysts — the youngest employees at the bank, enrolled in what’s essentially a two-year boot camp — the meal allowance was sacrosanct, less a privilege than an entitlement. Of course they’d get free dinners when work shifted to home.

And so when Goldman eliminated the Seamless stipend in the spring of 2020, the reactions came in shades of disbelief and outrage. “The free-dinner thing is a very big perk out of college,” a Goldman analyst who quit last year told me. “JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley were giving free meals, and we felt that we deserved that. When we went work-from-home, they gave us nothing — literally nothing.”

The bank’s reasoning: If it paid for dinner at people’s homes, where workers technically had access to a kitchen, Goldman would owe taxes on that compensation, whereas in-office meals were deductible. The rationale grated on first-year analysts making an $85,000 base salary plus bonus. “You guys have billions of dollars,” said a second Wall Street analyst. “We’re just trying to eat.”

Goldman had long been known as the worst-paying bank on Wall Street, the theory being that aspiring financiers would accept a “Goldman discount” in exchange for a chance to soak up some of the company’s prestige. But during the pandemic, the bank just started to seem cheap. Unlike its competitors, Goldman refused to issue a stipend to cover at-home tech and ergonomic equipment; some analysts even had to purchase their own laptops. Meanwhile, the work itself was only getting more overwhelming — nowhere more so than within the San Francisco office’s technology, media, and telecom group, or TMT for short. These bankers were handling a historic onslaught of SPAC and IPO deals, and 120-hour workweeks became the norm. “There’s a number of real things that made the experience of a junior banker worse, and on top of that, they’re cutting their meal stipend,” said another person who left Goldman’s TMT group last year. “I think people just felt like they were being shit on even more.”

In May 2020, a group of  TMT analysts polled each other on various measures of work-related misery and presented their findings to an indifferent senior banker on a Zoom call; on another occasion, they tried to convey to a partner how hard it was to find time to buy groceries. “When I was an analyst, I used to eat ramen noodles,” the partner told them. “Just microwave some ramen — you should be fine.” By the end of 2020, at least half of the second-year TMT analysts had prematurely left the bank, forcing their rookie colleagues to shoulder an even greater load. “Shit hit the fan for the first-years who had just started,” one of them said. (Nobody currently working at the bank would talk to me on the record.) “All these deals coming up on our asses — the expected few all-nighters a month turned into a few all-nighters a week. It’s not like I went into it expecting a rosy lifestyle. I just didn’t expect it to be so consistent and so constant.”

Lots of people’s jobs came to suck more during the pandemic — but at Goldman, where every act and trend takes on an added symbolic charge, discontent was boiling at levels that threatened to erupt into public view. In February 2021, analysts in the TMT group secured a virtual audience with a senior executive, hoping to make some requests to moderate their workload. Worried about appearing in front of a powerful banker like a litter of mewling kittens, the analysts decided to organize their points as best they knew how: in a data-stuffed PowerPoint deck, just like the ones they produced en masse for Goldman’s clients, using the bank’s own watermarked template.

The 11-slide presentation, titled “Working Conditions Survey,” represented 13, or nearly all, of the first-year TMT analysts in San Francisco. As they went through the findings — e.g., 77 percent felt like they’d been a victim of “workplace abuse” at Goldman — some analysts thought they saw the executive wipe away tears after seeing one analyst’s comment: “The sleep deprivation, the treatment by senior bankers, the mental and physical stress … I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse.”

After the call, the analysts waited for a response. They knew CEO David Solomon personally got a copy of their report. For a month, they heard nothing; then, on March 17, the San Francisco group woke up to a deluge of texts. Their presentation had gotten out and was going viral, first on the Twitter and Instagram feeds of @Litquidity, a must-read industry satire, then Bloomberg and CNBC and major newspapers from New York to London. “It was like, What the fuck is happening?” one analyst who participated in the survey told me. “The intention was not to leak it.”

In the middle and higher echelons of Goldman, the analysts’ plight received little sympathy. Randy Habeeb was working as a trader in the bank’s New York office when the PowerPoint leaked. “To be honest with you, I was actually really pissed,” he told me. “It’s kind of like an unwritten code that you just don’t talk about it. You kind of just man up and do it.” He’s since left Goldman to start his own firm, Habeeb Capital, where he sits in front of a faux-grass wall and keeps on his desk a mug with the words “Fucker in Charge of You Fucking Fucks.” Even the survey’s most disturbing allegations failed to resonate with longtime bankers. “I haven’t been in foster care,” said a former Goldman executive, who started as an analyst. “But that struck me as somewhat dramatic. Either highly dramatic, or they had a great foster-care experience!”

Goldman’s leadership may have been unbothered by its greenest employees’ unhappiness, but elsewhere on Wall Street, an unusual phenomenon began to unfold. The day after the survey leaked, Jefferies awarded its analysts Pelotons. A week later, Credit Suisse doled out $20,000 “lifestyle allowances” to its junior bankers and promised additional raises to come. In early April, Bank of America bumped analysts’ salaries by $10,000, Wells Fargo announced a one-off “financial allowance” bonus of $10,000, and Houlihan Lokey gave out all-expenses-paid vacations. By early this summer, JPMorgan and Barclays had followed suit.

It was the biggest pay gain for junior bankers since 2014, when a rash of sudden deaths, including some suicides, forced the firms to reckon with their treatment and mental health. This year’s raises brought the starting salary for investment bankers to at least $100,000, not including annual bonuses, which often double their total compensation.

And yet it’s not at all clear that the extra lucre has restored equilibrium to the investment-banking bargain — a job that has always sucked and always paid well enough to convince hordes of Ivy Leaguers to apply anyway. On top of salary and bonus, analyst posts have traditionally offered a chance to see how Wall Street operates up close before providing off-ramps to sweet gigs in hedge funds and private equity. Today, all three of these major perks are less compelling than they were just a few years ago. Tech pays better; the pandemic has deprived analysts of observing much of anything; and banking experience is not remotely a prerequisite to enter the hottest sectors in finance, namely venture capital and crypto.

For many new investment bankers, the deal they struck for their first two years out of college is looking like an increasingly out-of-the-money trade. “Banking used to be this golden ticket,” said a former Wall Street associate. (Often possessing an M.B.A., associates are one rung up from analysts and are still considered junior bankers.) “It’s still a really good job, but if you can get Google, Apple, Netflix, Snap — those are better jobs.” His wife, he noted, earns more money for fewer hours at a tech giant.

There’s also evidence that a new generation is less willing to stomach what has long been known as the I-banker nine-to-five: 9 a.m. to five the following morning. “This is a complete change. For the top graduates, they think, ‘Why would I do that? I’m smart, I’m clever — that’s for the worker bee, not me,’” said Paul Webster, a managing partner at the recruiter Page Executive, who specializes in placing investment bankers. “All of a sudden, new graduates don’t want to work long hours anymore.”

Goldman may have gotten all the media attention because it’s Goldman, but wretchedness has been building at nearly every bank. “People are quitting left and right,” one analyst at Wells Fargo told me. “People are just so burnt out. I know someone who quit with nothing lined up just because their mental health had been hit so hard.” Patrick Curtis, the founder and CEO of Wall Street Oasis, a popular forum for the banking industry, said the frequency of posts indicating mental-health breakdowns more than doubled over the past year from the usual — to the point where the site is considering setting up an automated system to direct members to crisis hotlines.

What if banks are incurable? Run too long by such avaricious people that no amount of power inversion or generational reconsiderations of work-life balance can change the culture? At Citigroup, a new CEO, Jane Fraser — the first woman to run a big U.S. bank — assumed the reins in March and within weeks announced measures aimed at alleviating worker stress. “It’s refreshing because you get rid of some old anachronistic cultures or ways of doing things and you unleash this energy,” she told Bloomberg. But executives quickly overrode many of her initiatives. On “Zoom-Free Fridays,” managing directors still made analysts Zoom — but sometimes let them leave their cameras off. Fraser instructed employees to avoid scheduling calls outside traditional business hours and declared Memorial Day a four-day weekend; “We get an email five minutes later saying ‘This doesn’t apply to our group,’” said a Citi associate who quit this summer, after working every holiday except Christmas last year. Workers knew their bosses expected them to ignore Fraser’s notes reminding employees that July 4 was paid time off and to observe a “protected Saturday” policy. “All those initiatives, all of us just look at each other and are like, ‘LOL, what?’” said another former Citi associate who recently quit, despite being offered a retention bonus. “It just becomes like a joke among everyone.”

Decades of junior-staffer abuse can’t be unlearned in a year, especially when the industry self-selects for the ruthless. When one Citi analyst informed a superior by email that he’d caught COVID and was heading to the hospital, the VP replied and gave him a new assignment. “No time off. He was like, ‘Oh, thanks for letting me know. I actually have a staffing for you.’” Another analyst griped on Citi’s internal messaging system: “I hate this job, I hate this bank, I want to jump out the window.” A monitoring system generated an alert, and he got a concerned call from HR. “This is a consensus opinion,” he responded dispassionately. “This is how everyone feels.” 

The low point at Citi happened on April 19. It was during the frenzy of Pelotons and bonuses, and Fraser scheduled a virtual call with Citi’s junior bankers for 7 a.m. They assumed the meeting could only mean higher pay. Instead, Fraser and a lieutenant beamed onto their screens and told the workers — in a gesture apparently intended to signal respect — that they knew what they didn’t want: raises. Rather, she was focused on improving their work conditions, rattling off a list of efforts from IT upgrades to hiring more analysts and associates to help ease the workload. When the video call concluded after 20 minutes, young bankers left furious. “Everyone was like, What the fuck? It was just very tone deaf,” said one of the former associates I spoke to. The analysts and associates turned their computers off and didn’t dial into any calls for the remainder of the day. In the end, Citi caved, raising junior bankers’ pay in July to start at $100,000. But by then, feelings had curdled. “It was sort of like, if you’re the first kid on the block to get a puppy, cool. If you’re the last one on the block to get a puppy, great, like, that’s it? What else are you going to do?” said the ex-associate, who had already given notice by the time the raises kicked in. “It doesn’t make it better. It only made it worse when other people got it and you didn’t.”

At Goldman, by midsummer, the analysts were feeling insulted that their bank was holding out on higher pay. “We were still being worked like crazy,” one said. “Nothing changed internally. All of our friends are getting money, and we’re getting promises of a better work life two months down the line.” One former TMT associate who’d left before the PowerPoint debacle called one of its authors to check in and marveled at how much the situation had deteriorated in just a few months. “It just felt amplified. The level of animosity toward the employer felt really pronounced, and very dysfunctional,” he said. “There was real anger, a real sense of unfairness, and a bit of an attitude like, I just don’t give a fuck anymore. That was just kind of shocking to hear that tone — kind of dark, honestly.”

Finally, in early August, Solomon called the analysts to an in-person meeting in a Goldman auditorium. The bank was hiking their base salaries by about 30 percent, to $110,000 for first-year analysts and $125,000 for second-years — making Goldman the highest-paying of the so-called bulge-bracket banks. (Morgan Stanley later matched the figures.) It was a sign that the calculation for working at Goldman had changed: The bank would have to compete for young talent with cash, not just its reputation — the end of the Goldman discount. “If you can suppress an insurrection for small dollars, I think you just do it, even though no one loves it,” said the former Goldman executive. “I’m sure David increased the salaries totally against his desires.”

The analysts, improbably, had won. But not all of them stuck around to collect. The employee who negatively compared Goldman to foster care was already gone. Among the 13 analysts in the TMT group that conducted the survey, at least five have left the bank; four of them are women of color. One told me she quit because she couldn’t conceive of moving up the ranks to a position where she might inflict the same pain on another underling and concluded that even the boosted compensation wasn’t enough to keep her at Goldman. “When I thought about it bigger picture — How much difference does it really make in your life? — I decided that my happiness was worth more than a few hundred thousand extra dollars,” she said. She recently accepted a corporate role outside the finance industry.

I thought about the next next crop of elite graduates — the ones entering the workforce next May  — and wondered what in this chain of events had made a larger impression: the junior bankers’ total misery or their huge new salaries. I found an answer pretty quickly. At Yale, applications to the undergraduate finance club were up 23 percent at the start of the school year, according to Yash Bhansali, the president — and a 2021 Goldman intern. And at another elite university, I spoke to a student whose offer for a full-time analyst position at Goldman Sachs, starting summer 2022, arrived the same week the bank announced its junior banker raises. The letter included the higher sum. “When I heard I would be getting paid the amount I would, I didn’t even blink,” the student said. “I was just like, ‘Yeah.’ I immediately signed.”

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free, anonymous support and resources.

Revolt of the Goldman Juniors