LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Investment banking may seem glamorous from the outside, but the mundane reality of spreadsheets and presentation slides is tough to dramatise. “Industry”, a new series from the BBC and HBO, has had a go. It follows a class of fresh graduates navigating Pierpont & Co, a fictional investment bank in London. Though the show fails to make finance gripping, it accurately reflects how little the industry has kept up with the changing world of work.
“Industry”, whose directors include “Girls” creator Lena Dunham, was written by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, who worked in finance around eight years ago. As the series starts, some of the socioeconomically and ethnically diverse new recruits join the division advising companies on deals while the others, including protagonist Harper, take their places on the trading floor.
Like many fictional portrayals of finance, the show struggles with its jargon-ridden subject matter. Harper trades credit default swaps and almost loses lots of money in one trade. Instead of coming clean, she keeps her position open, hoping the dollar will strengthen. Against the odds, the loss eventually becomes a profit and Harper strengthens her relationship with her mentor. It’s a sequence any non-specialist viewer will find hard to follow.
The bigger problem, however, is the unrealistic degree of autonomy the show grants its young protagonists. While the feel and style of the sets is eerily accurate, “Industry” glosses over how regimented investment banking teams are.
I worked as a graduate analyst in investment banking around the time of the last financial crisis. Even minor deal pitches are passed up and down a chain of several people before being finalised. The most promising junior will struggle to make an impact, let alone spend time with a client.
The series is a lot like other shows about young people, but with an occasional awkward reference to Margaret Thatcher. Attempts to throw in more up-to-date storylines – for example, by portraying a female client as a sexual predator preying on Harper – fall flat. Abundant sex and drug-taking seem gratuitous.
However, the show does capture the old-fashioned nature of the industry’s inner workings. While those on the sales and trading floor stick roughly to market hours, analysts in the advisory division work through the night on deal pitches. As depicted in the show, the realisation that an entire set of presentations, bound with plastic covers as they have been for decades, needs to be reprinted because of a minor error adds extra sting to an all-nighter. While it’s true that the culture of long hours in the office has eased up a bit in recent years, it’s still a big part of banking. That approach looks even more jarring given the pandemic-induced shift to working from home.
In the trading business, too, Harper quoting a price to a snooty client by phone smacks of a bygone era. This world may appeal to impressionable graduates itching to wear Hermes ties and frequent nightclubs in London’s West End, but it’s hardly cutting-edge. The show’s portrayal of banking’s box-ticking approach to diversity also rings true: the characters joke about two people of colour who have never met being photoshopped onto a brochure.
The disconnect between investment banking’s high-octane image and humdrum reality is hardly new. Like the characters in the show, I thought a banking career would mean jet-setting around emerging markets in designer togs. In the end, my only business trip was an economy flight to the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, where I spent five days redacting loan records in a smoky data room. Working out how little the job paid on a per-hour basis made me reluctant to splash the cash.
These days, graduate recruiters in investment banks are competing for talent with industries such as technology or consulting. Technology startups can make a more credible pitch to 21-year-olds seeking autonomy in a cool and modern working environment. They also have a better shot at offering work that seems more ethical to clever youngsters concerned about purpose. By comparison, the analogue banking world of plastic-covered pitchbooks and landlines portrayed by “Industry” lacks dynamism. If it is to keep attracting the brightest recruits, this industry could use a facelift.
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