Market Volatility: Delivering the Message

The participants, players and pros in finance (the traders, bankers, analysts, and deal-makers) love euphemisms.  They play with words and phrases to get deals done, raise capital, make investments, advise companies, and keep investors comfortable. Sometimes they are guilty of rolling out old products with brand-new, updated nomenclature.

Remember “junk bonds.”  When the industry introduced them as an important, popular financing channel for young companies in the 1980’s–thanks mostly to the trading prowess of then-powerhouse bank Drexel Burnham, nobody minded calling them “junk.” When the junk market imploded for a period in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s and after Drexel was railroaded into non-existence partly because of fraud, market-makers and bankers avoided the term.

When the market revived and such bonds found a permanent place on the fixed-income shelf, the industry preferred to call them “high-yield” instruments.  They are still referred to as high-yield bonds. “Junk bonds,” the term, receded into finance history.

Finance historians will likely be able to identify other times when the industry recycled instruments and financial strategies, but unveiled them later under the banner of new terms, new phrasing.  A play on words.

This fall, financial markets have rocked and rolled like a roller-coaster with plunges that remind us of episodes during the financial crisis.  But investment analysts, the media, financial consultants and bankers have been careful in their choice of words, if only to keep investors comfortable and calm, if only to avert the possibility of panic and rampant selling. Markets have fallen steeply some days; other days they have crept upward.

But industry participants prefer not to convey to investors (clients, shareholders, et. al.) that markets are in trouble.  They prefer more palatable terms.  You hear often these days that markets are going through a “correction”–which implies that the surges in the past year overstepped their targets and are settling back to where they should be.  You hear markets are “recalibrating,” suggesting that equity-market values are settling into their proper valuations.

You also hear such terms as “volatility” and “divergence.”

Are advisers, bankers, and the media being deceitful? Or are they doing their part to discourage investors and traders from irrational, panic-stricken behavior? Are the terms a fair interpretation of what is actually going on?  If headlines hint at “market recalibration” instead of exclaiming “market plunge,” will that keep traders and investors focused on fundamentals and long-term strategies and trends?

It’s likely a little of both.  A little bit of deceit, and a lot of encouraging investors and market-players to act rationally.  And it’s also a little bit of acknowledging how equity markets have moved in the past.  If traders and investment managers say the market is “recalibrating” while the Dow is falling by hundreds of points, they suggest, too, that (a) markets might have over-shot their true values in the past year and (b) decades of technical analysis suggest equity markets (at least those in the U.S.) do tend to bounce back. To ensure investors and traders (from the Baby Boomers with nest eggs to the black boxes in the back rooms of hedge funds) use common sense and not stir trouble, they avoid declaring markets are in a free for all.

The industry works that way.  Use terminology that won’t unsettle stomachs.  Bankers won’t necessarily say a company lacks cash, but will suggest it is “illiquid.”  A company with exorbitant amounts of debt, struggling to find ways to meet interest and principal payments, is not necessarily over-burdened with too many loans, but is “highly leveraged.” The company with dwindling net worth is “under-capitalized.”

Creative terminology is not new in finance.  There is, nonetheless, the ongoing tendency to come up with even more clever terms to describe market activity.  When stock markets crashed in 1929, few headlines denoted a “market correction.”  When they crashed in 1989, we didn’t hear much about “market recalibrations.” Each market event spawns more terms to attempt to describe what’s going on…

…and to keep investors sane and in the game.

Will HP’s Split-up Help Stock Values?

Does separating the company into two equal parts create more value than a consolidated whole?

As the third quarter, 2014, ended and before companies had a chance to announce earnings, HP slipped through to report it plans to split the company –literally (based on revenues) into two equal parts:  One half, to be called HP Enterprise, will focus on a corporate client base (cloud computing, business software, business services and data storage).  The other will focus on consumers who purchase personal computers and printers.  Right down the middle.

HP is a $100 billion-dollar company, enormous by most measures. The split-up (accomplished by spinning off the personal-computer business to current shareholders) will result in two $50 billion businesses, each still large enough to appear on Fortune 500-type lists. (HP will present a stock -like dividend to shareholders and allow the market to re-value what remains. They, along with their expensive banking advisers, hope the sum of the parts will be greater than the historical whole.)

Does the split (or spin-off) make sense? Was this a surprise?  Was this a maneuver it pondered for years, but CEO Meg Whitman now dares to do it?  Or did shareholder activists push for a financial-engineering move to help boost stock values? Corporate-finance experts:  What achieves maximum shareholder value–spinning off the perceived valuable parts of a global giant or accumulating diverse, well-run businesses to achieve the advantages of diversity?

The 1960’s marked a finance period when investment gurus claimed equity values surge by building conglomerates (via mergers and acquisitions). (Think ITT, as the business-school’s classic example.)

In current times, investing activists argue equity values rise because of focused management: Companies, they reason, increase equity values (and boost stock prices) by getting leaner, more nimble, and more targeted toward few product lines.  Company management is less distracted, corporate strategy is simple, costs are better controlled, and resources (human and funding) are less constrained.

If it isn’t a subject already, HP’s mishaps in management strategy and management misdirection and its misguided efforts to go head-to-head with any formidable competitor could be seminal business-school cases in corporate strategy. Whitman, after her renowned tenure at eBay and foiled attempts in politics, swooped in to try to salvage the company or at least restore some of its prominence.

With competition getting more fierce and with a fickle customer base always drifting to the latest new thing, Whitman may have been boxed into making this latest move.

In the eyes of equity investors, HP has slipped, recovered, stumbled, and been revived intermittently for years, but question marks still shroud its long-term outlook.

Its financial performance, nonetheless, has been laudable and overlooked by the fuss over strategy and competition.  Yes, total revenues have reached a plateau (with occasional slippage), and it absorbed giant losses as it restructured itself in the last few years.  As big as it is and as much as some project that competition and technology evolution will puncture it into non-existence, its track record for generating sound returns on equity and managing costs consistently is satisfactory.  (ROE in 2013 = 19%, and the company is on pace to generate  ROE = 16% in 2014.). The company didn’t have to break up to return to profitability, because earnings exist and cost margins have been stable.

Its balance sheet is fragile, because about a third of it (over $50 billion) includes intangibles and it needs the debt that’s piled on. (That intangible overload, which includes “goodwill” arising from a chain of flimsy acquisitions, leads to reported negative tangible equity; hence, liabilities exceed assets that can be touched, felt and presumably sold. Debt burden, which might be normal, in most financial situations is exacerbated with the existence of such negative tangible equity.)

Fortunately debt doesn’t swallow the balance sheet too much, and stable (if not growing) cash flow from business activity keep debt investors comfortable.  (Ratings agencies haven’t been harsh–BBB+/A—although they too have criticized management strategy in years past.)

But equity investors want the promise of growth.  They want to see sales increasing in leaps and bounds for indefinite periods. And they want to see returns on equity creeping toward 20%. The combination of impressive, boundless growth in sales, earnings, and ROE leads to big gains in stock price.

The split-up, they argue, is the best way to reach those big gains. Conglomerates contend big combinations of business result in cost synergies and economies of scale.  HP advisers and its board will try to show that dividing the company into two parts will give the company a chance to rationalize and reduce costs and clarify strategy.  The market, they claim, will know what HP Enterprise wants to be and do. The market will understand, they hope, that HP (the consumer side) will need to (and will successfully) figure out what it wants to be.

Another view? Institutional investors and activists prefer investments in two companies–one with stagnating prospects and one with growth possibilities–than an investment in one company with an uncertain, unstable outlook or the possibility of arm dragging down the other.

What poses a challenge in achieving those gains after the division?

1.  As the two entities polish their strategies and introduce products and services that can compete capably, how will costs be divided? Will they be divided fairly or divided in a way to give one a value boost more quickly than the other?

2.  CEO Whitman will have senior presiding roles in both entities.  Will management attention be even more stretched and pulled apart than it is already?

3.  That fragile, awkward balance sheet:  Which entity will accept the burden? Will deal-structurers decide to present HP, the consumer side, the gift of a sturdy, sound balance sheet with positive tangible capital and manageable debt burden?  Will HP Enterprise bear the burden of a capital structure with far more debt than its sister (or cousin?) company?

Dividing the company into two fairly equal parts sounds straightforward. But creating sturdy balance sheets for both and manageable cost structures (as one is extracted from the other) will be formidable tasks–enough to possibly postpone the scheduled late 2015 spin-off.

And enough to give investing activists enough time to develop or discover the next value-creating equity trend.

The Finance Resume’ and Recruiters

A bank Vice President is tapped to be involved in recruiting new bankers for the upcoming year. The group plans to expand its business with new deal flow, new clients, new accounts, and perhaps a new office presence in London or Tokyo. The group must, therefore, expand the number of associates who analyze and rationalize deals, prepare presentations to clients, research markets and market trends, and explain the pros and cons of financial instruments.

She and others on her recruiting team are asked to review a handful of resumes’ to determine who should be offered chances to interview in first rounds or who should be rewarded with “call backs” for further rounds.

For each resume’, the team reviews, sizes up, summarizes and concludes in just a few minutes. What did they notice? What stood out? How can they decide who’s worthy of more attention (and eventually an offer) from mere glimpses of resume’ material that candidates took years to accumulate? What do they see? What do they look for? And what do they target on a page filled with words, recruiting jargon, and an array of experiences?

Or how does the candidate in finance (before the interview, before the laborious second and third rounds) make a resume’ impression in just a few minutes?

Career advisers and MBA counselors like to refer to the “elevator speech,”  the 30 seconds a candidate might sell himself when he encounters a senior department head at a reception, after a meeting or, in fact, in the elevator.  On a resume’, the candidate must sell himself to the recruiting team in a frightening flash.

If the role is in finance (corporate finance, banking, trading, investing, asset management, equity research, corporate banking, e.g.), in the midst of a list of highlights of candidates who, say, captained their debate teams, recruiting teams look quickly for clues that the candidate can do the work. First things first, does the candidate have first-rate technical skills? Can the candidate excel in the day-to-day requirements of the job of a job in finance?

In finance, for MBA’s, that often means proving competence in accounting, corporate finance, financial analysis, and capital markets.  At some firms, it will mean proving competence in much more:  financial modeling, corporate firm valuation, and financial products.

Recruiting teams can’t give a test to ascertain competence. (That can wait for second-round interviews.)  But they can look for familiar clues.  An MBA in finance, a CFA certification (even Level I passing), a CPA certification, and experience in banking and finance will be superb clues that the candidate can thrive in a world of numbers, spreadsheets, projections, forecasts, ratios, sensitivity analyses, and financial theory.

Sometimes listing specific courses (in an MBA course) will help, too.  Courses in intermediate corporate finance, intermediate accounting, options theory, mergers & acquisitions, derivatives markets and equity valuation will confirm competence.  If an MBA candidate has thrived in a course expounding on Black Scholes options theory or if the candidate has studied how FX currency markets are tied to interest-rate expectations, then recruiting teams will check with a plus.

There is no one way to promote technical skills and competence on a resume’.  They should be highlighted clearly and, if possible, headlined (not buried).  Recruiting teams must get over this hurdle before they begin to look for other qualities. The MBA student or graduate from Dartmouth-Tuck with a specialty in corporate finance, who studied corporate valuation, who worked previously at Lazard Freres, who has an engineering undergraduate degree, and who won prizes for stock-market valuation, will vault to the front lines in the eyes of prospective employers.

Unfortunately large numbers of candidates will meet these initial tests.  So finance professionals looking to hire will look for other qualities.  They then cast their eyes on clues that demonstrate productivity, professionalism, engagement, impact, creativity, and teamwork.  They ask:  What is there on the resume’ that will show us that the candidate will get work done, can produce an enormous amount within tight deadlines, will show special insight and make useful recommendations, and represent the company in a professional way.

This exercise is more difficult for recruiting teams. Sometimes it requires a dissection of intangibles and qualities. If the candidate uses numbers to show priority or impact, employers must understand the context.  Still, on the resume’, the candidate must maximize impression with specific experiences, good examples, and clarity.

Yes, clarity counts for much in reading resumes’.  Some of the best candidates hurt themselves because when they describe experiences, they retreat to fancy jargon or awkward (or erroneous) terminology.

Even the most qualified technical MBA’s should showcase intangibles and special qualities on the resume’.  There is no formula, but they can ask themselves what examples and experiences will show impact, creativity, and productivity.

What hurts on the resume’?  Remember, the recruiting team is dissecting a lifetime of activities in a few minutes.  Tedium, detail, and illogical presentation of material slow down the reader.  Or they  distract the reader.  Unexplained, confusing descriptions of past experiences hamper the reader, too.  In an effort to upgrade experiences or embellish them, sometimes candidates end up describing gobbledygook. Simplicity and clarity work best.  If busy finance professionals can understand the experience immediately, there is another check plus.

Hyperbole hurts, too. Too often candidates slip and exaggerate past achievement, not realizing how the description sounds.  If the MBA student says he started a $100 million hedge fund at age 21, a fund that exceeded all benchmarks during years when many funds stumbled and closed, is that believable? Will recruiting teams apply a question mark, instead a check plus?

Recruiting professionals and career counselors will say resume’ preparation also involves promoting a brand, becoming marketable, and showing ambition.  But first things first, the experienced recruiting teams at big banks and notable firms take a first-things-first approach:  Prove technical competence (from classes, courses, and previous work).  Prove impact, productivity, creativity and professionalism with crisp, simple descriptions of past experiences and past accomplishments. And then survive the second and third rounds.

Wall Street’s Favorite Business Schools

This is not an assessment of the ranking of business schools, although such rankings tend to be unveiled this time of the year when fall classes start.  This is about the MBA programs that tend to send large numbers of graduates into coveted positions in investment banking, corporate banking, sales & trading, capital markets, and equity research.

This is less about the schools’ efforts to channel and push MBA students into certain directions.  For the most part, they don’t.  Business schools don’t shove students into banking and finance, although there are implied messages (based, for example, on the resources the school might devote to finance, finance instruction, and career-advisory services in finance).  Business schools certainly don’t ignore benefactors, including sponsors that will include large banks and private-equity firms or alumni holding senior positions in finance. And schools do their best to cultivate close relationships with top institutions.

Business schools, for their part, facilitate a pathway into banking and finance, if large numbers of students prefer to go in that direction.

This is more about the major financial institutions and where they go to fill up the first-year slots in banking and finance.  What are the favorite schools (including those with ties to the Consortium) and why?

The careers website eFinancial Careers updated its list this month. It tries to list schools based on a calculated index, which of course will inevitably be biased or flawed. It acknowledges that.  But the exercise presents a valid picture.  It can tell MBA students and graduates from where major financial institutions (from Morgan Stanley to BNP Paribas) hire business-school graduates in financial centers in the U.S. and Europe. In other words, what are the top “target” schools, not necessarily the best schools, but the top schools where they have had success in steering graduates toward major positions in finance?

Some of that success is due to aggressive efforts by the financial institutions, including their recruiting programs and the relationships they establish and nurture at certain schools.  A lot of that success is influenced by the alumni employed at the bank or firm.  If a large number of senior and influential bankers at a certain bank went to Michigan-Ross, then it is likely the bank will continue to maintain a meaningful relationship that results in a high-frequency recruiting pipeline.  Another factor is the institution inferring that if past graduates of the school have performed well, then the bank should go back and get more of them.

This latest list includes the typical business schools known for corporate finance and investment management and for sending dozens of graduates to Wall Street every year. That includes Penn-Wharton, Columbia, and Chicago-Booth.  The list of 35 includes at least seven Consortium schools:  Yale, Cornell-Johnson, Dartmouth-Tuck, UCLA-Anderson, Michigan-Ross, NYU-Stern and Carnegie Mellon-Tepper.

But the list includes some surprises and perhaps some notable omissions.

Yale SOM, a Consortium school, with its history and tradition in general management and public administration, is third on the list.  The list suggests it is a more popular target among major banks than Harvard, Chicago or MIT–at least based on percentages and the school’s success in its graduating landing the best banking positions.

Stanford is no. 8 on this list, even if the more popular notion is that its graduates tend to prefer entrepreneurship and technology. We don’t observe many of its graduates heading to the East Coast to work for Citi or Deutsche Bank, but the school has an advantage in residing next door to some of the country’s top venture-capital firms. The venture firms, if they choose to, can manage an open-door relationship with the business school just across the road.

Rice-Jones in Houston appears high on the list (14th), higher than even Michigan-Ross, Duke and Dartmouth, despite the well-documented record that Tuck sends large numbers into prominent slots at the top banks and finance firms.  And most would have thought that Texas, another Consortium school in Rice’s region, which doesn’t appear on the list, would be a more attractive finance target than Rice.

Virginia-Darden and Indiana-Kelley, Consortium schools with prominent programs and graduates in finance, are not on the list.  Regional preferences among its graduates may explain that.  eFinancial doesn’t claim to offer a perfect or a fair list. It reminds list-users that it attempts to capture what appears to be favorite target schools among favorite target banks.

Critics might dismiss one impactful bias about the list.  It opts to divide financial institutions into three tiers and gives more credit to schools with graduates who go to work at the top-tier banks (Goldman Sachs, Citi, JPMorgan, e.g.).  It, therefore, penalizes, schools with large numbers of alumni who work at such institutions as Credit Suisse, Barclays, RBS, Regions Financial, US Bancorp, Sun Trust, HSBC (not regarded as top-tier by these list-preparers) or work at the prominent boutique firms that, in some tallies, have seized some market share from the bulge-brackets.

Remember, this is a list, one that will be out-dated by next summer and one, like all others, should be examined with caution.  While it may be true that Bank of America and JPMorgan enjoy recruiting large numbers from NYU for corporate-finance roles, it doesn’t mean a graduate from UNC-Kenan Flagler or Emory-Goizueta won’t have a chance to gain an offer.

Work-Life Balance: The Discussions Continue

These are times when banks and other financial institutions worry about their junior resources, the analysts and associates who toil in cubicles, working legions of hours each week cranking out spreadsheets, pitch books, industry analyses and client presentations. It’s exhausting, tiring, grinding work.

Picture a first-year associate who makes plans with college buddies on a Friday evening at about 8:30 pm after a long, tough week. Just as she taps the elevator button, she is summoned back to her desk, because a vice president in M&A just received an e-mail from a managing director, who just received a phone call from a client CFO who on a whim decided to increase the offer price that the client company wants to make on a target firm. The CFO, responding to the CEO, wants to know if the numbers make sense for the new offering price and wants to know the answer by Saturday afternoon.

The associate returns to her desk and cancels her Friday plans and all hopes of spending a weekend winding down from a week of hard labor. Back into the dozens of variations of Excel spreadsheets depicting merger-acquisition scenarios she plunges. Nothing is new. She and her analyst and associate colleagues encounter this scene several times a month.

The tale is told frequently, year after year.  In post-crisis times and in times when recent college and MBA graduates can be lured into other more humane (and perhaps similarly compensated) career choices, some financial institutions worry they must do something about a potential talent drain. This tale, however, has been told over generations. Financial analysis, financial modeling, and the early years of banking and financial research have been marked by stories of hours working until 2 a.m. and weekends erased by a sudden tap on the shoulder.

Banks, too, have endured intermittent panics about about potential talent drain since the mid-1990’s. The current times aren’t the only times they’ve hustled among themselves to do something about it. Remember the dot-com craze of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s? An analyst from this period wrote a memorable treatise, a state-of-banking message about what banks must do to appease the junior crowd and keep them from escaping to more interesting dot-com jobs on the West Coast. His plea and his presentation of soft demands appeared on the front page the New York Times.

Around that time, banks, one by one, began to ease the starched-shirt, Brooks Brothers suit dress code and permit what is now know as “business casual” fashion in the office. Many of his “demands” from that time, however, have disappeared into history, and banks quickly resumed their culture of expectations that analysts and associates must work marathon hours to justify their handsome compensation packages and must, as industry old-timers contend, “pay their dues just as those who trekked before them.”

Voluminous websites, chat-rooms, magazine stories, and books have been written about the lifestyles and work burdens of those in their early career years working at banks, private-equity firms or hedge funds. In recent years, especially in 2014, big banks have reviewed work-life balance in the trenches and tried to come up with satisfactory solutions, including offering juniors the occasional weekend off and presenting ways to relieve the work pressures and daily burdens.

Some banks are considering increasing the number of hires in the coming year under the premise that (a) business conditions are better, (b) there is more work to be done for clients and (c) it would be better to spread this work among a larger number of analysts and associates. In the last few weeks, a few banks (notably, Goldman Sachs stepping out in the middle of summer with its announcement that it will pay analysts and associates base salaries that are about 20 percent higher) have decided to increase compensation in ways they did routinely before the crisis.

History suggests the pathways to better work experiences are slippery. They improve. Business (deals, client activity, trading, and expansion) takes off. Competition grows stiffer. Work burdens pile up. Work environment inevitably sinks back to days of dreary, exhausting work weeks. Banks resolved and committed to improve the work-life balance of young professionals. But the real world got in the way.

When deals must get done before they are lost to competitors and when client presentations must be prepared overnight, or when market conditions change suddenly as stocks rumble or interest rates surge, vice presidents and managing directors hardly think about work-life experiences. Bank senior managers slip back into old habits and forget about the newly implemented programs to improve the lives of juniors.

(In banking, the competition to win a client or a new deal has been and continues to be fierce.  Bankers know that clients sometimes resort to whimsical, illogical criteria in choosing a winning bank.  Pricing, fees and execution may be a primary reason why a Fortune 500 company chooses Citi to lead a financing deal (or why Alibaba opted for Goldman to lead its upcoming IPO).

But in some cases, bankers know the client might choose a bank based on exuberant vibes in a client meeting, a polished presentation before the client’s board of directors, or a personal relationship that goes back to good times in a freshman-year dorm. Bankers, therefore, don’t want to take chances; hence, they summon analysts and associates to be accessible 24/7 to help find more ways to increase the probability that their bank will be selected.)

After the financial crisis of the late 2000’s, banks once again felt they reached an emergency state, where they feared the best and brightest will ignore Wall Street. Most inside and outside the industry (whether they were just about to embark on a career or had survived decades) contemplated deeply about long-term careers in financial services: How will roles change? When will client activity rebound? What impact will regulation have on roles? As banks re-engineered the organization, how would they re-design work roles?  Will bank jettison entire units (trading desks, departments, etc.) over time or in one leap?

An industry in turmoil also had to confront criticism from every direction–regulators, politicians, the public, other market participants, and clients. How could financial institutions, therefore, convince a recent Brown graduate or a new Michigan MBA that he should migrate to Wall Street and be assured that his business unit will be in operation a year or two later? And how could they convince him to ignore a sweet offer to work at Google or at a West Coast start-up, where the grass is green, the sun shines, lunch is free, and time spent away from the office is applauded?

The environment continues to be tweaked. Banks (and hedge funds and private-equity firms) continually address work conditions, even as traders and deal-doers slip back into old habits. Even if the long work hours are still characteristic of the banking life, the discussion continues.

Financial Modeling: Yet More Tools

A clearinghouse of financial models

Visualize how analysts, bankers and researchers performed financial analysis decades ago, especially if they set out to analyze a company, assess whether a company can pay down debt obligations or determine the equity value of a company.

Analysis involves financial statements, financial ratios, projections of income statements, cash flows and balance sheets, and a presentation of various business scenarios. It also involves an assessment of the financial condition of the company and often a careful determination of its value.  Decades ago analysts and bankers used pencil, erasers and paper spreadsheets to do these exercises, aided by slow calculators and rock-hard patience to complete these tasks over 1-2 days.

Today, analysts, whether they know it or now, are gifted with technology tools to perform the same tasks in just a few hours. In days of yore, financial analysts endured tedium to ensure that numbers were transferred from detailed financial reports to paper spreadsheets accurately. Balancing balance sheets was a monumental task. Because these tasks were physical and time-consuming, there were limits in what analysis could do–limits in the way company performance could be projected, limits in how many scenarios could be presented and evaluated, or limits in what growth rates or interest rates to use in assessing a company’s value or creditworthiness.

Today, these exercises are conducted using elaborate, precise, sometimes complex financial models, all performed swiftly with computing assistance. Researchers and analysts no longer “do spreadsheets,” as much as they tweak them, adjust them, or churn them through countless scenarios. What an irony. With vast amounts of computer power and with innumerable financial models available to perform almost any kind of financial evaluation of a company, financial analysts and associates at banks, hedge funds and private-equity firms continue to labor inhumane hours each week (and weekend) doing the work that those in a long-ago generation performed via labor and hand muscle.

Many will say in current times, the stakes are higher; banking deals are done at much larger amounts (some in the billions). Competition is fiercer, tougher.  And business demands to get the deal done right, with precision and no tolerance for failure, become primary factors that keep junior associates toiling in bank cubicles until the wee hours. Clients want answers and updates right now.  Trading and investment decisions must be made on the spot.

Yet with all the computing power and available financial models, today’s analysts are blessed with boundless resources.  Financial information is available everywhere online–sometimes free and accessible, other times purchased from special-services companies.  Analysts, traders and researchers don’t need to pore through dated paper 10-K reports or hard-copy financial statements.  The tools that exist to streamline the analytical process are bountiful.

And now along come financial-services companies like Thinknum, which permit analysts to share their financial models online, accessible to anyone among the public looking for assistance, guidance or insight when it’s time to analyze the financial condition of a company or assess its value. Thinknum was formed last year by banking and hedge-fund analysts, recent Princeton graduates, who thought the industry and broader marketplace could benefit from a financial-modeling clearinghouse that lets analysts pull from a virtual shelf any model or equity or debt analysis  for whatever need that suits them.

Founders Justin Zhen and Gregory Ugwi told the CFA Institute that the new company’s services are “radically open.” They pattern the company after GitHub, a computer-software company that allows programmers to share their coding with the public, a collaboration that helps improve software and makes it available to anyone who needs it.  Same idea for those who need and use financial models.

Thinknum acknowledges most equity research analysts present their work publicly, including the thousands of assessments of just about all publicly traded companies.  However, they present their conclusions. They don’t necessarily share their detailed models. Thinknum wants to display the analysis behind the conclusions and wants to help others build their own models based on the work of others.

Take Apple, Inc., the computer giant. If an analyst seeks to determine its intrinsic corporate value, based on a projection of earnings and cash flows, she can start from scratch and develop her own financial model and incorporate projections, scenarios, and assumptions. Or she could decide to examine the work and models of others, study them, and tweak and revise them for her purpose. She may disagree with others’ assumptions of growth or may decide that a rise in interest rates may have little impact on the company’s fortunes.  Thinknum would permit the analyst to dial up and review others models (and projections and calculations of value) before immersing herself into the exercise.

Yes, she could copy their models and present them without adjustment or change, but those who share their work are aware their analyses might be used for any purpose. Or she could study them to gain insight–to find something new or to unearth a factor or variable she may have previously neglected. On Thinknum’s site, with Apple, she can see the company valuation performed by a handful of analysts around the country, including one from a prominent business-school professor. She can explore the assumptions they used, the long-term business conditions they describe, and their attempts to project earnings and cash flow out several years.

Thinknum’s founders say the forum, the sharing of models and model ideas, should reduce the labor of analysis, help analysts focus more deeply on valuation concepts, debt structures, business scenarios and management–less time on figuring out why balance-sheet items don’t reconcile.

In certain industries, financial analysts already have access to private services that provide financial information, financial ratios, and ready-made spreads. But they come at a cost and typically an expensive contractual subscription. Other services, including, for example Google-finance, provide financial information and ratios, but stop far short of doing analysis or making an evaluation. Thinknum’s services, meanwhile, are available as easily as it is to type ” Apple” into a search box.

Will such services take off? Will they contribute to vast improvements in the work-life balance among young bankers? Not so fast, the big banks and hedge funds will say. They will argue they have privileged access to and use significant amounts of confidential information from client companies. That information, used as inputs in models and used to enhance them and make them more detailed, could never be offered to an at-large public forum. They will also argue that many models they use are proprietary and are specially designed in a way to give them an analytical edge above competitors. When Bank of America advises a client that a target company is worth X, the bank and the client will not want to convey to public markets how it derived the value X–at least not until it’s necessary.

But give Thinknum the credit it’s due, especially in its efforts to expose the details of how banks might determine whether a company can pay down millions in debt or how banks determine at what price a client should sell new stock or why a hedge fund might have discovered intrinsic value in an unpopular stock. There are much art, magic, intuition and mystique to deal-doing or trading, but much of it starts with a methodical, more scientific process, the process of assembling the financial numbers and getting them to tell us something about the future (future worth or value, or future ability to generate cash to meet obligations).

In some sense, banking will still be banking. The hours will still be long. Decades ago, because they were strapped with pencil and paper, bankers and analysts were satisfied with one or two business scenarios (based on growth rates, interest rates, or leverage ratios). In these times, because there is technology, two scenarios won’t suffice, when a dozen or more can be performed and presented with the click of a button.

Wells Fargo: Sticking to What It Does Best

Wells Fargo:  A well-deserved Double-A rating

Give some deserving credit to the bank Wells Fargo.  It’s one of the largest, most important financial institutions in the world and certainly one of the most recognizable banks anywhere in the U.S., thanks to a widespread branch network that puts a Wells Fargo office on just about every other corner in most regions of this country.

Among regulators, the bank is deemed, like other big institutions wielding similar financial impact, a “systemically important financial institution,” (or “SIFI,” as they are called).  (Accompanying that tag are extra attention, potentially more capital requirements, and a requirement to pass occasional stress tests administered by regulators.) Its “SIFI” designation came about because of its size and geographic scope and because of its large customer base of both retail and institutional clients.  Wells Fargo, like its peers Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, is a “trillion-dollar bank” with assets now above $1.5 trillion dollars.  A trillion dollars in deposits support a loan portfolio of hundreds of billions.

Without much fanfare and limelight, Wells Fargo has maintained profitability and market strength, while its peers continue to wrestle with financial-crisis issues and scramble for ways to generate profits investors like. The bank just reported second-quarter, 2014, earnings:  Another period of excellent performance ($5.7 billion in net income for the first quarter, $11.5 billion for the first six months). Yet some market doubters have begun to worry about revenue growth and about how the bank will be able to sustain such performance.

In the past several years, while big banks have confronted every imaginable detrimental financial risk, from strangling new regulation to huge losses tied to imploded mortgage portfolios, Wells Fargo hangs in there from quarter to quarter with handsome returns on equity (12% in 2013, 13% in the second quarter, 2014, e.g.), a relatively clean balance sheet, and fairly basic business lines.

Headlines about  financial institutions often scream about management shortcomings or major challenges at banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, and Citi.  Wells Fargo, perhaps to its liking, gets crowded off the front pages.  Even those who follow the industry closely won’t know its CEO by name (John Stumpf) as well as everybody knows the names Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase or Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs.

What is Wells Fargo doing right? And how does it get it done?

1.  A bread-and-butter business.  The bank sticks to its niche, for the most part, and that seems to be basic commercial banking: deposit-taking and loan-making. Profits come from a shrewd management of interest spreads, maintaining loan quality and managing costs carefully.

Its peers long ago ventured into far-ranging activities such as investment banking, institutional sales and trading, derivatives and financial engineering of all kinds (and did so successfully until the crisis and until regulators decided to put straps on all that activity).

The bank has now reached a trillion dollars in deposits, which accrue low or no interest expenses.  Over 75% of the these low-rate deposits (no rates, in some cases) support a vast loan portfolio, now exceeding $800 billion (but not growing as fast lately as some investors and market-watchers would like).  (Because of the deposits, net-interest spreads exceed 500 basis points.)

2.  A clean balance sheet.  Like all big banks, Wells had to scrub its balance sheet to manage through or get rid of bad corporate loans, defaulting mortgages and trading assets, while raising capital and reducing risks. (Over $175 billion in equity capital anchors that balance sheet.)  The clean-up exercise, however, didn’t lead to billions and billions in settlements and reserves, as other banks incurred. Some banks are still suffering from the recession, still paying settlements to investors and regulators (Bank of America in recent months), and still trying to shake off the crushing blows of the crisis.

Despite the many ways mortgage abuses and incompetence in managing mortgage risks led to billions in losses, Wells Fargo emerged as a leader in mortgage banking, devoting even more capital to this business line than ever, but likely prudent in what it does and how it does it.  Mortgages today comprise a large portion of its $800-billion loan portfolio; mortgage-servicing contributes about 11% of total net revenues.

Marketable securities and trading assets comprise about 20% of all assets, suggesting the bank is still vulnerable to market volatility and still maintains a big trading operation.  Yet in 2014, it hasn’t had to grapple with big trading losses, nor is it entrenched in the trading activities (fixed-income, derivatives, e.g.) that are pummeling other big banks.

3.  Few thorns from the Wachovia merger. Wells Fargo had to digest Wachovia in recent years.  Wachovia had not been healthy financially in the late 2000’s, and Wells Fargo was even nudged to make the acquisition.  Years after acquiring it, Wells Fargo doesn’t appear to have had regrets in the way Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase are second-guessing themselves on acquisitions of Countrywide, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual.

Either Wachovia was in far better shape than the quartet Bank of America and JPMorgan purchased, or Wachovia and Wells Fargo complemented each other more perfectly than expected.

4.  Less temptation to get too fancy.  With regulators pounding their doors, many banks have retreated, too, to more basic banking activities to comply with tough new rules and to find ways to be profitable.  Wells Fargo, it could be argued, has had an easier time, because it didn’t have an aggressive global investment-banking and trading operation and it never seemed tempted to expand beyond what it is comfortable doing.  Think Wells Fargo, and you think of mortgages booked in North Carolina and not exotic derivatives traded in Singapore.

5.  Ability to prepare for regulation.  The bank is well prepared for the Basel III and Dodd-Frank.  It has already begun to meet capital requirements for 2014-19, and Volcker Rules prohibiting proprietary trading won’t have the impact it has had on, say, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.  Equity capital has grown steadily with earnings (about 11% the past 15 months).

6.  Strong ratings from ratings agencies. The ratings agencies like Wells Fargo, too.  It has one of the best ratings among large financial institutions (Aa3 by Moody’s).  Compare to Baa2 at Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup, several notches below, or A1 at JPMorgan and Baa1 at Goldman Sachs.  It’s not just the clean balance sheet it likes, but stable, consistent earnings in easily understood business segments help, too.

Are there worries?

Investors (and the equity markets) will push for more.  They want assurance the bank can generate 12-13% returns on equity from quarter to quarter and evidence that every quarter going forward will result in more than $5 billion in net profits.  They’ll want to see earnings growth from steady increases in the loan volume. But loan volume is a function of other factors, as well, including limits on customer demand, economic cycles, and a long list of competing banks that won’t give in. Wells Fargo will strive to push volume without sacrificing loan quality and taking desperate steps.

For now, slap its back and applaud the San Francisco-based institution for showing how plain-vanilla activities can achieve good returns, strong ratings from credit agencies, and a nod of approval from regulators.

JPMorgan’s Refined Regulation Strategy

 Thousands of pages of regulation upcoming

Banks have a monumental task before them these days. Almost from scratch, they must redesign their operations and organizations to embed a new, more burdensome  regulatory-compliance structure. Processes related to all aspects of compliance (data accumulation, rules interpretation, reporting, etc.) must be meshed into almost every bank activity. The task is far more complicated than it sounds.

There was a time when regulatory compliance, even for the biggest of financial institutions, was managed by a modest-size staff within a silo detached from most bankers, traders, sector leaders, and research analysts. Quarterly compliance with bank capital requirements was always “someone else’s” responsibility, the job functions of others less attuned to core bank activity.

Bankers understood the importance of compliance, but they conducted business without much regard to the gory details of SEC or OCC rules–unless they were kindly tapped on their wrists to be mindful of the capital that was required to book new loans or new trades or expand business units. Reserve requirements (for deposits) were monitored by “others” (compliance officers). In good times before the crisis, most profitable banks presumed they could manage requirements without much fuss.

These are new days and times. Compliance and building the complex structure to ensure banks comply today and in the years to come are top priorities for regulators, board members, and bank leaders.

In years past, JPMorgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon ranted against the reams of new regulation crash-landing in the lobbies of banks in the late 2000’s. New regulation and rules were imposed on banks as long-term penalties for what happened in 2007-09. New rules would be so restrictive, he and some of his cohorts argued, that banks will operate with arms in slings and hands tied to perform the most basic services. To comply, banks would need to jettison product lines, pare down to basic activities, and increase prices across the board just to achieve below-average 10% returns on equity. Regulators, for sure, haven’t had an issue with the industry’s back-to-basics reorganization.

This year, Dimon in his state-of-the-industry letter to JPMorgan Chase shareholders presented no raging argument, no rant that new regulation is overwhelming banking. It is what it is. And some of it, he admits, is good for the industry and the financial system.

Instead he offers a logical presentation of what it will take for a major financial institution like JPMorgan to comply with thousands of new rules and requirements. JPMorgan, he promises, will spare no expense or investment to ensure compliance. He says JPMorgan will be a model citizen for compliance. Expenses are increasing $2 billion annually just for compliance, and the bank will invest over $600 million in systems and infrastructure to keep the compliance machine running properly.

Shareholders must understand the true impact of regulation. He explains to shareholders (and to the public at large) that the task is arguably more challenging than, say, the most daunting, most complex bank merger. And bank mergers are usually always difficult, cumbersome, and frustrating.

After a nightmarish year with regulators and law-enforcement officials and after billions in settlements, JPMorgan insiders may have decided it serves no purpose to step on a pedestal to agitate about the burdens of regulation. Regulators, too, likely wanted to see nothing of the sort and may have conveyed their expectations on how banks should behave in public.

Let’s examine the scope of the burden outlined by Dimon, who didn’t whine much about those additional expenses to the bottom line. Dimon reminds readers often there are hundreds of pages and thousands of rules. All those pages and lines of rules apply to–at least at JPMorgan–to dozens of its subsidiaries and operations around the world.

New laws and requirements will be enforced by several regulatory bodies, including the familiar overseers such as the Federal Reserve and the SEC. Most industry followers know the well-known Dodd-Frank, Basel III, and Volcker regulation or at least have a big-picture understanding of what that is intended to do. Banks started a few years ago reorganizing their operations and raising new capital to meet requirements that become more restrictive in the next few years.

But there are batches of other regulation, too, including rules related to “Living Wills” (Recovery and Resolution, which forces banks to outline a plan for orderly liquidation or wind-down, if that scenario is necessary) and rules related to something called “CCAR” (which requires large banks to pass periodic stress tests to show they can survive worst-case scenarios).

There are other new acronyms: “SIFI” (which will impose requirements on “systemically important financial institutions”–including big banks and some insurance companies) and “AML” (an old, updated rule that requires banks to implement practices to discourage money laundering). “MiFID” regulation will be enforced in Europe.

Overall, bank regulation in the U.S., Europe and Asia will have impact on the following activities and balance-sheet items (broadly speaking) at JPMorgan: capital, loans, derivatives, trading, clearance, liquidity, leverage, mortgages and securitizations.

This is exponentially more complex than it appears here. For example, there are capital-requirement rules that apply to many JPMorgan entities and operations. Yet some of the same operations are subject to different capital rules from different regulators in different countries. Dimon even suggests there could arise conflicting cases, where the bank attempts to comply with a capital or leverage rule by one regulator, but breaches, say, a liquidity or trading rule by another. (“Unintended consequences,” he explained and outlined three years ago.)

Check the personnel requirements and the level of detail those bank officers must immerse themselves in to ensure ongoing compliance. Stress testing (CCAR, or Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review) has 750 requirements, Dimon points out; about 500 people at JPMorgan will be involved in some way to gather data, devise models, conduct tests and prove compliance.

Rules related to liquidity and funding (Liquidity Coverage and Net-stable Funding) have 250 lines of requirement, and about 400 people could be involved in related compliance (including data gathering, accounting, cash management, funding management, etc.). Derivatives trading and clearing will be overhauled entirely. There are 2,000 pages of new rules, requiring 700 people to help build a new derivatives operation.

Regulation tied to stress tests (SIFI, Recovery and Resolution) evaluates whether banks have a sufficient capital cushion to survive market crashes, unexpected market events, or any other debilitating scenario. Some call this regulation for financial institutions “too big to fail.” Whatever, JPMorgan must adhere to requirements and says 35 separate subsidiaries are subject to the test.

Anti-money laundering procedures have been in place at the bank for over a decade, but with even more onerous requirements for diligence, JPMorgan now says over 8,000 people will be involved in related compliance in some way.

Economists, politicians and now financial historians blame the financial crash of the late 2000’s on mortgages (including mortgage practices and mortgage trading). It’s no surprise, therefore, that rules related to mortgage underwriting, servicing, and securitization now exceed over 9,000 pages.

Dimon showed that compliance, at least at JPMorgan, is no longer a bullpen operation.  It’s as important an activity as leading a billion-dollar syndicated loan for a Fortune 500 company or advising GE in its next overseas acquisitions. Still not glamorous. Still not an attractive hub for glory-seeking bankers. But sufficiently vital to bedazzle officials at the Federal Reserve and the OCC. And probably vital to ensure the institution will be in superb shape for generations to come.

Krawcheck’s Pivot Move

Krawcheck unveils a new index and fund

There might have been a time when industry analysts would have bet it was just a matter of a few years before Sallie Krawcheck would climb into the CEO’s seat at a major bank.

Her rise through the ranks at Citi was swift and included a stint as CFO.  She subsequently held senior roles in asset and wealth management at Bank of America. But in both places she crashed upward into a ceiling, shoved aside from senior, sector-leading roles after being just steps away from the CEO’s front door. She was not yet 50.

Some who followed her career might not have wagered that she would become the next CEO at Citi or Bank of America, but many might have bet that a known regional bank would have asked her to leave New York’s financial cauldron and lead a smaller institution in banking’s regulation-challenged new era.

Her days at Citi and Bank of America are apparently done. And since then, she has not shied away from reflecting upon her experiences in why she might have been dismissed and wondering whether Wall Street is still reluctant to let women lead major financial institutions. Many major banks have had women in significant roles. JPMorgan Chase, Citi, BankOne, Morgan Stanley, and even Lehman Brothers had or have women in CFO spots.  Bank of America has had women in roles as Chief Risk Officer and Chief Marking Officer. JPMorgan had women as Chief Investment Officer and has a female CFO and head of wealth management. Nasdaq recently rehired a senior woman executive, who some speculate could run the exchange one day.

Yet something seems to happen–a dismissal, an unexpected downturn, a financial crisis, a bankruptcy, a different CEO and his new team–to get in the way of women rising and settling into the top spot.

In the past year, Krawcheck has assumed a different leadership role, preferring now to lead efforts to find pathways for women to seize important roles in not only in financial services, but all of global business. Hers is a different approach from Facebook COO’s Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In strategy that encourages women, more or less, to look into the mirror, change some of their ways, and forge ahead aggressively.

Krawcheck has adopted a take-action approach, ready to bang on corporate doors to force companies to do better about women in their corporate ranks. Last year, thanks in part to comfortable severance packages from her old employers, she bought out the women’s finance network “85 Broads” and is using that as a platform to make the industry uncomfortable. She is preaching about industry’s sluggish efforts to make the sheltered circle of financial services–at its highest levels–more welcoming for women.

Just days ago, she announced the formation of an industry scorecard, a new index along with a new fund, that will report publicly to investors and business leaders which companies are walking the walk. The financial index, the Pax Global Women’s Leadership Index, will include companies that have significant numbers of women on their boards and significant percentages of women in senior roles. The index will highlight companies, she contends, that should be revered (and promoted) because women are in visible, impactful leadership positions.

The fund, the Pax Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund, will invest in companies that appear in the index. Krawcheck says companies that are successful in “gender diversity” have a track record for producing good returns for investors.

(Krawcheck, after acquiring 85 Broads, changed its name to “Ellevate,” partly because of the old name’s ties to Goldman Sachs. Goldman’s old headquarters were located at 85 Broad Street in the Wall Street area. She wants to expand the network beyond its investment-banking roots and its Goldman Sachs birth, and some might have advised that “Broads” in reference to improving the business prospects of women might not work well in Dubuque.)

As the index and fund are launched, what’s the current scorecard with some major financial institutions–for women and for those in other under-represented groups?

For the past couple of decades, the industry had taken token steps. You could always count on major banks, broker/dealers, insurance companies, and asset managers to have one or two women and one or two minorities on boards of directors. You could probably count on the same institutions to have a woman leading a small fraction of a bank’s major business units or acting in a one or two major corporate-staff roles. But you couldn’t count on financial institutions to promote regularly a woman into the president’s or CEO’s office, and you don’t see boards of directors where more than half comprise women or minorities. As the index and fund are launched, few financial institutions have met the initial qualifications to be included. (US Bancorp is one bank that will be included.)

Let’s take a peek at the leadership landscape at selected financial institutions today. What do the board numbers look like in 2014?

1.  Goldman Sachs. Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University at the time and an African-American woman, served on its board until 2010.  But as she was departing, certain factions attacked Goldman for haven chosen a university president not experienced in the complexities of capital markets, derivatives and corporate finance, especially in midst of the financial crisis.

Nonetheless, she brought many other important experiences, skills and judgment to board discussions. Remember, Brown has an endowment in billions, and Simmons managed a large organization with several silos of departments led by smart, stubborn professors, populated by thousands of smart students. Sounds somewhat like Goldman. So why wouldn’t she have been qualified at Goldman?

The criticism might have influenced Goldman in selecting other board members, but the firm later appointed another woman college president to the board (Debora Spar of Barnard College) and–to its credit–didn’t seem to be moved by voices assessing who was and wasn’t qualified to serve on its board.

Goldman’s numbers are adequate, at best.  Two women and one black (Adebayo Ogunlesi, who once held senior positions at Credit Suisse) serve on the board.

2.  JPMorgan Chase has two women on its board and has had a history of having one or two African-Americans (including long-time board member, the late Congressman Bill Gray).  In recent years, it has had women in CFO roles or women managing large business units.  But when people dare to speak of CEO Jamie Dimon’s successor or those on the short list to lead JPMorgan in the 2020’s, no woman appears to be a front-runner.

3.  Bank of America has better representation. Four women serve on the board. Although Krawcheck left under unhappy circumstances, women have had major, visible roles the past decade (e.g, in risk management, wealth management, and marketing).

3.  Applaud Wells Fargo, because its board ranks include at least five women, one African-American and two Hispanics, unusual representation for a financial institution that large. The bank chose the eight or more because of their experiences and leadership, but don’t discount how much Wells Fargo, a major commercial bank with footprints in diverse communities, values the business it does with these groups.

4.  Richard Parsons, an African-American, once served as Chairman of Citigroup. Hence, it has had its significant first.  Three women serve on its board today.

5.  Some companies, powerful and profitable in the industry, conduct much of their business transactions out of the public (or individual consumer’s) eye. They might not be attuned as others are about diverse representation at the top levels.  

Blackstone, the private-equity firm, roams the top in its sector. Big, powerful, successful, it conducts much of its business in private, out of the headlines, or often in the back of the business pages in the media. It doesn’t advertise its services in TV commercials or online ads; it doesn’t need to or want to.  It has only two women and no African-Americans on its board.   

Lazard, the boutique investment bank with major corporate clients, has no women and one African-American (Richard Parsons, formerly of Citigroup and recently announced as the top executive of the Los Angeles Clippers). To its credit, Lazard has had African-Americans in senior banking roles.

6. Count on Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express, who happens to be African-American, to ensure his company sets examples for all major financial institutions. And it does.

Many bank leaders will say privately they welcome women and those from under-represented groups, but can’t find them. Chenault and American Express seem not to have had that issue.  Its board includes three African-Americans and three women.  Other institutions usually (a) don’t see this as a priority, (b) don’t make concerted, painstaking efforts, and/or (c) are so mired in other issues (regulation, business downturns, slow growth, or challenges from shareholder activists) they overlook the importance of broad representation.

7.  Capital One, AIG, and eTrade have two women board members each.  Notice a pattern? JPMorgan and Goldman also had two.  These financial-services companies seem to have stopped at two. Since it’s 2014, many will likely ask themselves, “What’s good enough? What’s appropriate?” Two seems to be that number and, unfortunately, has been that number for about two decades.  (Some of the same institutions have had two women and one or two African-Americans or Hispanics on their boards since the late 1980’s.)

Krawcheck’s campaign (managed by her organization, the new fund, and the new index)  hopes to push companies to do better.  Companies, she would contend, need to get beyond settling for a number and patting themselves on the back.  Companies must recognize there are women and members of under-represented groups who are qualified to serve and lead (from vice president to managing director to CFO and CEO and board membership).  Financial institutions should open their doors, Krawcheck suggests, or else….

Finance MBA’s Face a Complex Landscape

Michigan’s Ross (above) and 18 other Consortium schools welcome 405 new MBA’s

In a week or two, over 400 new MBA students will journey to Austin, Tex. for the Consortium’s 48th annual Orientation Program. Like other OP sessions, they will meet each other and share cocktail, networking moments with business-school deans and large throngs of corporate representatives. They will attend special sessions related to industries and job functions. They will discuss hopes and expectations of a current generation of MBA graduates.

For this moment, they’ll celebrate reaching a fork in the road that opens up to bright opportunities. And for right now, they’ll dismiss worrying about the burden of coursework they confront in the fall.  Nineteen Consortium institutions, all prominent business schools with rigorous programs, will welcome them in Austin and then escort them back to the MBA experience in the fall from California to New Hampshire.

Of the 405 Consortium students of 2014, about 100 have indicated an interest in finance or financial services, hoping to land jobs in a range of positions from M&A investment banking to real-estate private equity.  Many in this group endured the grueling times of the financial crisis.  Some were undergraduates during those years (2008-2010) trying to make sense of a financial system on the verge of collapse. They must have asked themselves:  Could they envision themselves as role players in the industry in years to come?

The landscape has changed in many ways, and most new MBA’s know that. It’s complex. Financial institutions, encountering limited revenue opportunities and mountains of regulation, struggle to figure out, every day, what they want to be and how they are going to get there.  They ask themselves:  With thousands of rules to adhere to, with strapped balance sheets, with enormous requirements to maintain large capital cushions, and with none of the chances as before to do just about what they wished, how will they generate revenues and sufficient returns on capital?

If it’s complex for financial institutions (including banks, broker/dealers, boutique investment banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, asset managers, and private-equity firms), then it might be overwhelming for MBA students in finance.

These times, nonetheless, are not the terrifying months of the financial crisis and recession.  These same institutions have cleaned up their balance sheets, siphoned off distressed assets, shut down non-performing operations, injected new capital, and sliced off much of what was proprietary trading. They have also rationalized every single business line under the CEO and continue to hunt desperately for ways to generate new forms of revenue to help find new earnings for all the capital they must now maintain.

This new class of MBA’s in finance will have abundant opportunities to explore, spread out across many functions and regions. But gone are the days when a Consortium grad could study corporate finance, do an internship at Morgan Stanley, and then hop on board at Merrill Lynch and spend the next 20 years rising to the top negotiating with clients while doing deals.

What will this class encounter?

1.  Investment banking has been a long-time favorite destination of many finance MBA’s from top schools.  The industry is in flux. Challenged by new regulation after having  been bowled over in the aftermath of the crisis, some banks have withdrawn from full-scale emphasis (UBS, Barclays, e.g.)  Others have decided to re-deploy resources, capital and talent toward commercial and corporate banking (Wells Fargo, e.g.).

The big bulge-brackets (JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) have doubled down, will continue to hire large numbers, and are prepared to bang heads with each other chasing down many of the same headline deals, but willing to work arm in arm in transactions if they must.  Big banks will cross the country in search of new MBA associate, as long as the deal environment is brisk or predictable.

2.  But the boutique banks continue to make their marks.  Big banks aren’t threatened by them, although they certainly squeeze themselves into numerous advisory mandates. The roster of boutiques changes from time to time. The favorites these days are Lazard, Evercore, Greenhill, Moelis, Weinberg Perella, Soundview, and a handful of other small, but still relevant shops (M.R. Beal, Williams Capital, e.g.).

They look for MBA talent, but their relationships with top schools are often limited and fleeting. Think in terms of founding partners focusing primarily on the few schools they attended when recruiting season rolls around. They covet MBA’s from top schools, but won’t jet across the country recruiting them.

2. Banks are facing a debt and commodities crisis this year–not from having highly leveraged balance sheets, but in managing debt-product units that are struggling to be profitable.  Debt sales & trading and many activities in the realm of what the industry now calls “FICC” (fixed-income, currencies, and commodities) are ransacked by regulation, low interest rates, and low profit margins. An MBA interested trading bonds on a debt is headed toward a dead end.

M&A units are smirking these days.  It’s as if they’ve found gold in their back rooms. What they’ve found are company CEO’s and CFO’s now confident enough to contemplate a strategic acquisition. They’ve found companies now willing to spend cash they wouldn’t touch after the haunting, crushing blows of the crisis. M&A activity, however, fluctuates and swerves, and all MBA graduates should be forewarned.  For new MBA’s, this might be the optimal time to secure a spot at a major bank or boutique.

3.  Few MBA’s in finance head off to business school with an ambition of becoming legal, regulatory and compliance officers at major banks. And financial institutions have done a poor job in explaining the role or convincing students to consider these now visible, important functions.  However, banks everywhere are hustling to fill roles. They are tossing millions into budgets to build a long-term infrastructure to manage every aspect of compliance–from data accumulation, regulatory reporting, regulatory compliance, capital allocation, and risk-capital computations.  The functions exist far from the front lines of client banking, yet are getting maximum attention from senior managers and boards.

4. New MBA’s, especially those interested in proprietary trading, investments, and equity research, will aim for hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital at firms big and small.  But they’ll learn quickly after they attend the first corporate-recruiting reception that the road to Blackstone, Carlyle, Citadel, Bridgewater, or Sequoia is far more treacherous than the road to Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan.

Opportunities will exist, because these are the best of times for venture-capital firms and favorable times in private equity. They all need finance associates to crunch numbers, run models, value companies, perform research and present conclusive findings. Every deal requires these exercises.

Meanwhile, hedge funds have stumbled in clumsy ways the past year or two. Some large ones have closed.  Hedge funds will still persist and will always be happy homes for market traders in all asset classes who insist they can out-perform broad markets.  They’ll welcome MBA talent that in years past might have spent early years in apprentice roles on equity, debt, and emerging-markets desks at big banks.

5.  The corporate-finance function at non-financial institutions thrives, especially in a post-recovery setting where companies are finally confident about deploying cash that has sat dormant for years. They appear ready to use idle cash to expand, grow, and perhaps acquire a company or two.

In the past, pursuing a career in financial management or corporate finance at an industrial company or Fortune 500 corporation wasn’t a preferred route for some MBA’s at top schools.  MBA graduates chased the fanciful, more lucrative opportunities on Wall Street.  But after late-2000’s turmoil, working as a financial analyst at places like IBM, Eli Lily or Pepsico was more attractive and offered a more stable, more sane existence.

Furthermore, the same companies have become shrewd and begun to bring more of its corporate-finance and corporate-strategy work in-house before they reach out to investment bankers to do some of the same.

5. The asset-management industry also presented itself as an oasis of stability, predictable revenue streams, and growth.  The industry welcomed MBA’s and has successfully recruited them over the past decade.  Yet even this sector must fend off challenges.

Investors have low-cost options now, especially after the explosive growth of ETF’s.  Some investors and experts question the value of hiring advisers to manage funds to try to beat market performance.  Why pay high fees when investors can push assets into a low-cost ETF’s or similar portfolios that match the market? Why pay high fees when it is possible that managers’ performance will fall shy of market returns, as they have done at many hedge funds the past year or two?

Asset managers won’t concede.  They work hard to convince investors (individuals and institutions) that they have analytical tools to out-perform market indices and to reallocate funds quickly among different asset classes when market conditions encourage a reshuffling.

6.  Financial institutions that once thought they could escape the grasp of regulation must also adapt and comply with new requirements. Federal regulators, for example, can now parachute in, tap the front doors of non-bank institutions that had little to do with Dodd-Frank or Basel III, and wrap them under new rules.  Insurance companies like Prudential and AIG have been designated “systemically important financial institutions,” or “SIFI’s,” institutions that have roles and market positions too large in financial markets not to be supervised like big banks.

New MBA’s shouldn’t fret.  The environment is not discouraging; it’s merely complex, evolving. The industry harbors many forces, including forces that want substantial regulation and oversight and forces (applied by banks and hedge funds, for the most part) that don’t want to be strangled too much in their desperate efforts to maintain earnings and returns.  The jockeying, pushing and pulling have been going on the past few years and will continue.

In an improved business environment, there’s still room for the new deal, new client, new financial model, new investment, new discussion to acquire or merge or new financing to support new product lines–all promising signs for a new MBA in finance.