The Game: How the World of Finance Really Works

The Game: How the World of Finance Really Works

by Alex Buchanan

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Overview

If we have learnt anything from recent economic upheavals, it's that, rightly or wrongly, bankers get big bonuses. Avaricious stereotypes aside, people don't get money for nothing. So what exactly do they do to earn this level of financial reward? Few people really know - least of all themselves. There's no magic trick that turns someone into a City superstar. It's often not the cleverest of the most hard-working who hit the big time - it's the people who listen, learn and understand that finance is really nothing more than a game. A game that, played correctly, reaps huge rewards. The Game: How the City really works gives you the tools to do just that. Whether you aspire to work there and want to find out what really goes on, have been ensconced there for years and fancy a look in the mirror or simply desire to learn the truth about a world so publicly vilified, this book provides a light-hearted, objective and accessible insight into the City, its people and its machinations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781907642104
Publisher: Elliott & Thompson
Publication date: 09/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alex Buchanan began his career as a stockbroker in 1998 and has since worked for four City institutions. The Game is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

The Game

How The World of Finance Really Works


By Alex Buchanan

Elliott and Thompson Limited

Copyright © 2010 Alex Buchanan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907642-10-4



CHAPTER 1

STOCKBROKING OR EQUITY SALES


'I'm now convinced that the worst thing a man can do with a telephone, without breaking the law, is to call someone he doesn't know and try to sell that person something he doesn't want.'

— Michael Lewis, Liar's Poker


PICTURE THE SCENE. It's six o'clock in the morning. You've already been up for an hour and are now sitting slumped on the train surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. Everything is still, lifeless even. The strip lights flicker and then cough their fluorescent glow over puffy eyes, sagging skin and double chins.

Sounds awful, doesn't it? Welcome to the world of high finance.


In a Nutshell

Stockbrokers (or 'equity salesmen' or 'brokers') sell investment advice to professional investors ('fund managers' or 'clients') in return for commission. While servicing the client will involve certain ancillary duties that we'll explore later in this chapter, the commission that you generate is the yardstick by which you are judged. In essence, your job is to tell investors which shares to buy or sell and get them to trade these shares through your firm in return for commission.


The Early Bird Catches the Worm

Most stockbrokers arrive at the office anywhere between 6am and 7.30am GMT. This is an uncivilised hour at the best of times, but one that is particularly grim on a bleak morning in February. Those who live far from the office can expect to hear the alarm go off as early as 4am.

Now that's not funny, is it?

Sadly you don't have much of a choice. European stock markets open at 8am and brokers, traders, analysts and fund managers must all arrive early enough to prepare for the day ahead.

Exactly what time you arrive will depend on your own ambitions or on the guidelines set by your firm, but it invariably follows that the more ambitious you are or the more aggressive your firm is then the earlier you will arrive. How you get to work is up to you – some take the underground or bus, others drive scooters and a handful take taxis (but these tend to be either the crème de la crème or the habitually late). Some use the journey to read the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal or will catch up on sleep. You'll soon get used to the early mornings – everyone has to – but most nights you'll be tucked up in bed long before others in less exacting jobs have even considered leaving the pub.

In the larger broking firms the trading (dealing) floor is the size of a football pitch and holds hundreds of people. Brokers, traders (we'll discuss what they do in due course, see Trading) and a vast array of support staff sit crammed together like hens in a battery farm, floundering in a sea of screens, telephones and (misplaced) egotism.


Back to School

Many brokers don't have time for breakfast at home and so eat at their desks. An amusing game is to look up from your cereal bowl and see which of your colleagues is late for work. Salesmen who turn up late (this might mean arriving at 6.01am) will try to slip into their seats unnoticed, but more often than not will run the traditional gauntlet of disapproval from their more punctual colleagues. A late arrival will cause lips to be pursed and heads to be shaken. It's true – people really are this childish. In some firms those who arrive after the appointed hour are forced to buy lunch for the entire team (although not at a venue of the laggard's choice).

In terms of pettiness the average trading floor is no different from the average classroom. Substitute the teacher for the Head of Equities/Sales and the pupils for the brokers/traders and it's a close-run thing. It's all about denigrating the weak and sucking up to the person in authority.


Morning Glory

Most firms hold a meeting at around 7–7.30am GMT. This is the time when research analysts update the salesmen on any relevant stories (companies tend to make statements first thing in the morning) or on new research published on their stocks that day. In the larger firms you will stay at your desk while the analysts speak to the dealing floor over a microphone, while in the smaller houses salesmen and analysts are herded into the same room. You must then note down what the analysts say.

Some brokers will write down nothing at all. These individuals think either a) that they know it all already, or b) that the firm's analysts are useless and so should be ignored or c) that there's no point writing anything down because they stopped caring years ago. Don't be under any illusions – indifference, feigned or otherwise, is all part of the act. Watch as they lean back in their chairs, roll their eyes and yawn ever so conspicuously.

What you note down is up to you – it depends on what you think your different clients will want to hear. Much of what the analysts say might seem unremarkable or even irrelevant, but brokers can afford to put up their feet and put down their pens only when sure of their status.

Here's an abbreviated example of the sort of thing an analyst might say:

'This morning we have Q2 numbers from Martin and Wellbourne. Revenue was in line with expectations but EBIT was 5% short of consensus forecasts as discounting took its toll on the gross margin. EPS was 8% light thanks to the higher tax charge. Going forward the company expects the positive trend in like-for-like sales growth to be maintained. Early indications are that Q3 like-for-likes have been in the region of 2%. We maintain our full-year forecasts and our outperform recommendation, believing that on 7x EV/EBITDA the stock looks good value versus the peer group.'


And here's another:

'You'll find on your desks a report we published last night on Automobiles de France. We maintain our in-line recommendation. Despite our conviction that the sector [industry group] has turned something of a corner, we feel this has been fully discounted by the market. Susan and I will be laying out our arguments in greater detail at midday today.'

What this actually means will be fully explained in a later chapter (see Equity Research). In the City there's much to learn in terms of jargon, and any new recruits are soon whisked off to the nearest classroom and indoctrinated in the lingua franca of the financial world.

When the morning meeting comes to an end most salesmen will pick up the phone and begin to call their clients (indeed, some might be making calls well before the meeting has even finished). Only the very successful or the very disillusioned will get up from their desks at this stage, the former to stand and flex their muscles in true Master of the Universe style and the latter to wander off to the lavatories where they'll sit in contemplative gloom.


What You Say and Do

Most mornings will be spent contacting your clients either by telephone, email or Bloomberg (see box below) and telling them what you think they might want to hear.

In theory brokers phone clients in order to give them investment advice. In return they will expect to receive 'orders'. An order is when an investor buys or sells a stock through his broker's firm. Commission is earned by charging the investor a tiny percentage of the value of the order. Orders can range anywhere from the tiny ($5,000) to the gigantic ($30m+) – it all depends on how much money the client has and how much he trusts you or your firm.

Trading stock is a not simple process. It is, in fact, a political minefield. Never mind the actual mechanics of the buying or selling (or 'dealing' – see Trading), in most firms more than one salesman speaks to the same fund management house, and so it is often unclear which salesman generated the order. The picture becomes further blurred when one takes into account the armies of analysts and traders who have their own contacts with the institution in question. In this industry there are many snouts in the trough – apportioning credit where it is due is never straightforward. Learning how to grab the credit (especially when you don't deserve it) is the canny broker's greatest trick.

In reality brokers will look for any number of excuses to phone their clients – for appearances' sake they must be seen to be on the phone as often as possible. Investors tend to encourage this frequency of contact, not necessarily because they set any store by brokers' opinions but because they regard them as indispensable shoulders to cry on in times of trouble (of which there are many: a fund manager is the ultimate masochist – see Fund Management).

In this job the most important maxim is 'know your client'. The good broker wears many different hats – he is psychologist, detective, agony aunt, nursemaid, adminis trator, entertainer, information filter and investment adviser all rolled into one. It matters not so much what you say (some investors will have forgotten a conversation as soon as they put down the telephone) as how you say it. If your tone is compelling and your manner is sympathetic then you soon become a drug they cannot do without. This world, like so many others, is all about trust. Convince a client you have his best interests at heart and you're up and running. The City's penchant for 'relationship building' is what keeps so many cocktail waiters, restaurant owners and wine merchants in business.

Let's have a look at some of the things you might say and do.

a) Call the client and repeat verbatim the morning meeting.

Reading from the sheet is the preserve of the unimaginative, the uninspired or the terminally depressed. It is the City equivalent of the human speaking clock or the actor who stands on stage and reads his lines from a script.

It's also what many brokers do. It's the easy option.

There is one catch, however. If all you do is read from the sheet, you may find yourself in a tight spot when your client wishes to dig a little deeper.

Much of what is said in your morning meeting will be repeated in other morning meetings in other broking houses the length and breadth of the City. If we take the earlier example, the response to the Martin and Wellbourne financial performance, we can safely assume that yours won't be the only broking house able to offer an opinion on this well-known company. Furthermore, if the investor cares about the stock and is any more than vaguely competent, he will have already interpreted the figures for himself (which the company will have made publicly available at 7am that morning).

Therefore when he wants a little more information and asks you, 'How does the valuation compare with that of the rest of the sector?'

Or,

'What like-for-like sales growth do you have pencilled in for the second half?'

Or,

'What is the present value of the lease commitments going forward?'

You'll need to be on your toes. What you do next is up to you. You can either a) look up the answer on your firm's comprehensive intranet, b) tell the client you'll get back to him or c) bluff.

Bluffing requires the least effort and is hence the most common response. The world of finance is built on bluff and counter-bluff.

Generally speaking, however, brokers get away with it when they read from the sheet. You'll be lucky to elicit as much as a grunt from an investor when you phone him early in the morning. In fact most fund managers with any sense don't answer their office phones before 11am. Some are still in bed while others are screening their calls, unwilling to encourage brokers they don't like, don't know or don't rate.


b) Call the investor and give your own interpretation of the morning meeting.

You don't always have to agree with your colleagues in Research. In most firms you'll be encouraged to deviate from the company line if it makes good commercial sense. Moreover analysts often get it wrong and, as we'll explore (see Equity Research), will sometimes say what they don't believe.

Let's use the Martin and Wellbourne example again. Here's what the analyst said,

'This morning we have Q2 numbers from Martin and Wellbourne. Revenue was in line with expectations but EBIT was 5% short of consensus forecasts as discounting took its toll on the gross margin. EPS was 8% light thanks to the higher tax charge. Going forward the company expects the positive trend in like-for-like sales growth to be maintained. Early indications are that Q3 like-for-likes have been in the region of 2%. We maintain our full-year forecasts and our outperform recommendation, believing that on 7x EV/EBITDA the stock looks good value versus the peer group.'

And here's what you might say (after you've dispensed with the small talk),

'I thought the M&W numbers were pretty uninspiring. The analyst thinks it's cheap and he's probably right, but I can't see the market getting too excited.'

At this juncture the client might agree and that will be it, and you'll move on to another subject, or he might say something along the lines of,

'Everyone's behind the curve. They're trading really well and margins are going to surprise everyone on the upside.'

What happens next? You are either

1) on top of your game and ready to debate all day long the whys and wherefores of Martin and Wellbourne without resorting to help from an analyst. It's safe to say many brokers will not be so well prepared.

or

2) unsure as to whether or not the client is right but ready to offer your support. You might make some spurious remark such as 'I think you've got a point there' or 'it makes sense – all the analysts have thrown in the towel'. You're now hoping he gives you an order to buy shares in Martin and Wellbourne.

Most phone calls don't translate directly into orders. Fund managers receive a barrage of ideas on a daily basis, a large number of which they consign to the dustbin. If an idea you come up with happens to fit in with the way they are thinking then they may well act on it immediately, but more often than not they'll go away and do their homework before forming a view. How much homework an investor does depends on the individual. Some will spend days or even weeks poring over facts and figures while others will quite literally flip coins or throw darts at a board.

It's not uncommon for a broker to phone an investor with an idea and for the investor to turn round and do exactly the opposite. What is more common is that you come up with one idea and the investor asks you to trade in a totally separate stock, or that he trades through your firm without you having phoned him first. What counts is how you and your firm service the client over the course of the year and not on a particular day.

What can also happen (and imagine how galling this can be) is that you give an investor an idea and he goes and executes the order through another broker. He doesn't necessarily do this to be perverse – the flood of information is such that he might easily forget which brokers gave him which ideas. A more common occurrence is that your client won't be responsible for the actual buying or selling of stocks but will delegate the process to a dedicated colleague or 'dealer' (see Trading). The dealer will have some (often too much) discretion as to with whom and how often he trades and should know which stocks to trade with which firms. Some firms will be more capable in certain names (stocks) than others, especially if that name is regarded as illiquid (hard to trade).


c) Call or email the client and tell him something relevant (ie about a stock/issue he has been following).

Let's assume that you know a particular client has an interest in Martin and Wellbourne. You might say,

'I'm hearing that M&W is going to surprise us all in Q4.

The analysts have all low-balled their estimates so the stock could easily squeeze from here.'

And he might reply,

'That's what the bulls want you to think. It's going to get worse before it gets better. I'm a seller at these levels.'

Or he might say,

'Thanks – I've been hearing that too. I think I'll increase my position [buy some more stock].'

The point is that every conversation has limitless permutations. What should also be becoming apparent is that every person working in the industry is engaged in a game of educated guesswork, or just plain old bluff. No one – neither you nor the analyst nor the investor – knows the truth, but you're all employed (and very well paid) to guess what it might be.


d) Call up the investor and give him a new investment idea.

Analysts tend to be reactive (as opposed to proactive) and so much of what they peddle is their reaction to a company's announcement. Investors will lament that analysts rarely come up with any decent ideas, and this isn't totally unfair. We'll have more on this in a later chapter (see Equity Research), but much of the time analysts are involved in games of political football and are not encouraged to speak their minds. There are other issues too – equity research is a crowded field with many firms chasing the same ball.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Game by Alex Buchanan. Copyright © 2010 Alex Buchanan. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Introduction,
Author's Note,
1 Stockbroking or Equity Sales,
2 Trading or Dealing,
3 Equity Research or Analysis,
4 Fund Management,
5 Corporate Finance or Investment Banking,

Customer Reviews