UncategorizedFebruary 28, 2002 at 12:00 am

Feature: Masters of their universes

This is how Sherman McCoy describes himself in Tom Wolfe’s 1980s novel Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy: the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant with the aristocratic chin; the owner of a $48,000 Mercedes roadster and a Park Avenue co-op; the St. Paul’s and Yale man with both the high-society wife and the frisky, Southern mistress; and the cheap, rotten liar of a bond trader with a salary that could run a small country. And he, like the characters on the Fox network’s short-lived sitcom The Street or Charlie Sheen in the movie Wall Street or Giovanni Ribisi in Boiler Room, makes tons of money in minimal time by making a few calls and by being an egotistical, heartless hardass. This is the image that approximately 46 percent of Wharton undergrads, 20.9 percent of Engineering undergrads and 18 percent of College undergrads will inherit next year when they enter the financial services industry. This industry — the most highly sought-after by the class of 2002 — expects them to work weekends and come into the office on call, to be able to sleep on a significant loss from a trade and be able to bounce back the next morning, to do what the guy who sits next to them does, except faster and better. And, ultimately, Wall Street will judge their performance not by how hard they work or how much they care, but solely by how much money they can make for the firm.

But these, the driven young of America’s future financial elite, are not quite the soulless Sherman McCoys that people imagine them to be.


8:00 p.m., Saturday night, at his off-campus house on Spruce Street, Matt, a Wharton senior, is lying on his couch, legs stretched out on his coffee table, arms behind his head, watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

He just got back from dinner at New Deck with friends and is relaxing during that awkward time when it’s too early to go out, but too late to get any serious work done. He starts flipping through the channels on his digital cable and talking about how he used to caddy, remembering the “good times,” when the older caddies would be up at 8 a.m. sluggin’ beers, and the young ones would be doing dip.

Matt is 6-foot-1 and 178 pounds, with dark hair and brown eyes. He’s attractive in a wholesome, boyish sort of way. The second of four brothers from Chestnut Hill, he opens the door for girls and looks you in the eye when he shakes your hand. His mother is a professor of nursing at Villanova, and his father holds one of the top positions at the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. When Matt was young he didn’t know what it meant to be a businessman, but he knew his father loved his job. Matt goes out four to five nights a week, during each of which he’ll have 10-15 drinks. He sleeps until 12:30.

He has a guilty conscience about how he’s not really started studying this semester. Maybe he’ll start Monday, maybe never. He’s been playing golf for six years. He loves kids. He finds the financial markets and the way they operate fascinating. Matt lives in a house with 13 other guys — 11 are on the lease, one of them lives in the kitchen. While his personal space reveals the rigor of near-obsessive neatness, the hallway outside his room is home to a half empty 40-ounce of Old English, a handle of Captain Morgan’s, the keyboard of a computer, a toilet plunger, Tostitos, some hangers, the plastic container that once held a down comforter, a dog’s chew toy and an empty case of Nattie Light. His mom has seen the inside of crack houses and thinks her son lives in worse. Matt will be working for Goldman Sachs’ Investment Management division next year. He’ll be making $55,000 base, a bonus of $5,000 in options and $5,000 in cash, plus a year-end bonus.

Standard really, for Wall Street.

Matt, however, was paid nothing last summer. Over the break, he worked all 16 weeks; 10 in Washington, D.C., six in Philly. Let’s review his summer schedule: He had his last exam on a Friday in May. The next day he drove to D.C. for a policy internship with the White House National Economic Council — 60-hour work-weeks, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and one weekend. While he was there, he developed a theory — Matt’s Competitive Theory on Interning. You get there first, you make your ins, and then you’re at the top of the hierarchy so you can delegate authority down the ranks of interns. It’s a territorial thing.

The Saturday after his last day of work in D.C., Matt drove home to Philly and started work volunteering for “People for People.” In the mornings, he tutored underprivileged Philadelphia kids for three hours a day, and in the afternoons he helped develop people’s business plans to get funding for their community. He also helped develop a credit union to give housing loans to people who can’t afford a mortgage and financial advice to people who don’t know how to handle their investments. As Matt says, “that was only 40 hours a week so it wasn’t a big deal.” Matt picked Finance as his concentration because he believes “it gives you a very good, broad analytical understanding for anything [you do].”

According to Matt, if you’re interested in a career in finance, if you’re passionate about it and you’re intelligent, entering the industry immediately after college is the best thing you can do. Of his 13 housemates, four are in Wharton and all four are going into banking next year. “The firms invest a great deal of money in training you,” he explains, “and the learning curve is steep. [Plus] the contacts you make and the things you learn can be applicable in other fields.” You see, Matt only expects to stay in the industry for a limited period of time. He’d be disappointed if in 15 years he’s still working for an investment bank.

Sitting in his room, in which every poster, every rug, every book, even the Business Week magazine on his coffee table is positioned at a perfect 90 degree angle, Matt talks about starting his own business or even going back to school — the fact is, Matt doesn’t really know what he wants to do.

But, as he says, “I would never do anything I didn’t think I could be completely successful at.”


12:00 p.m. on Tuesday, in the hour between his classes, Billy sits on a stone wall in the Perelman Quadrangle eating a beef saut‚ dish from Houston Hall and enjoying the unusually fair weather for a Philadelphia January.

Wearing a red visor, blue button-down shirt, black cargo pants and black, high-top Nike Shox, he is glad to be back in the United States. Billy spent last semester studying at the Tsinghua School in Beijing. It was the first time he had ever lived abroad. He got homesick. But, he says, “it was really worth it. I grew from it, even though I didn’t completely enjoy myself all the time.”

Billy is a 21-year-old junior of Taiwanese descent in the Huntsman Program. He’s lanky and lean, and his hair is short, buzz-cut. He took Econ at UCLA when he was in high school. He speaks fluent Chinese. Billy’s father owns a company that manufactures clothes for department stores and football teams. In middle school, he took Billy on trips and told him that his personality would be good for “I-Banking” or venture capital.

Then Billy came to Penn and found that everyone wanted to be an investment banker. He says he feels lucky to have lined up an internship with the High-Technology group of Goldman Sachs’ Investment Banking division; getting the job was “kind of a crap shoot.”

Billy is a Joseph Wharton Scholar and a University Scholar as well. He’s also a Trustee Scholar and was on the Dean’s List for the 1999-2000 school year. He studies two to three hours per day. He has a 3.8. In high school in San Marino, Calif., he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Most Likely to Become President”. He likes to dance. Three or four nights out of the week, he’ll go out to Smokes. Last Friday the group Devotion came to play for the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, and he planned the after-party with some of his friends.

Billy writes very little. He only takes notes in class to pretend he is paying attention. He lets me know he scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT. This semester, Billy received offers for summer employment from Goldman, J.P Morgan, CSFB and Deutsche Bank.

When Billy speaks about his upcoming summer internship at Goldman, his words fall fast, and he pumps his hands. One thing he’ll be sure to mention is Goldman’s role advising Hewlett Packard in the HP Compaq deal; the deal flow is so thin right now, you know. But Billy is still expecting to work 70 to 90 hours a week building models, evaluating companies, preparing potential pitches. He doesn’t mind the time commitment as long as the “people are smart and the work is challenging.” Last summer, the summer after his sophomore year, Billy worked 65 hour weeks on Deutsche Bank’s Global Equity Derivative Trading Desk. Instead of attending the intern luncheons, scavenger hunts and even Bowling Night at the Chelsea Piers, he chose to stay working on the desk. He thinks it’s necessary to make these kinds of choices to succeed.

On a Friday afternoon at Starbucks, Billy admits that he doesn’t understand why some people hate bankers. Leaning forward in his chair, he explains how his job contributes to society by being a major part of the economy.

“Banking makes the economy more efficient. It’s putting capital where it can be most efficiently used, and finding inefficiencies in the market and putting capital to better use. If someone has a good idea, it is investment banks that raise money.” It’s investment banks that create the funds to bring projects to fruition. One of Billy’s long term goals is to encourage rich nations like the U.S. to invest more in third world countries like those in Africa and Southeast Asia. He started a club called Develop LDC to promote that.

“I’m really excited to be doing [banking],” he tells me as he twists his baseball cap in his hands. “It’s good work, hard work, demanding.”

Unlike most, Billy doesn’t plan to move on after just two years. “I expect to stay in the industry until I’m 30 — I could keep doing it until 45.” If he doesn’t burn out, that is. Billy’s 21 now. He can still pull all-nighters and skip meals, and he doesn’t mind not seeing the sun in the winter Monday through Friday or lying to his doctor about the unhealthy number of hours he works. But each new crop of Goldman recruits brings a batch of kids willing to work harder and longer than the next. It’s tough to keep up.


12:30 a.m., Sunday, Sandra talks to a couple of her sorority sisters at a Penn Law School party in an apartment on Sansom Street. She’s dressed in jeans and a tight black shirt and wears the silver Tiffany’s Heart Tag charm bracelet on her right wrist.

Every now and then she takes a sip of her vodka tonic and glances across the room. A second year law student who calls himself Goose and doesn’t drink beer pulls aside one of her friends to ask who she is.

“Who is that girl? Is she in your sorority? I see her at the gym a lot. I think she’s really hot. Can you introduce me?”

Sandra works out everyday, running and the gym — it varies. She’s a senior in Wharton from New Jersey with a concentration in both Finance and Management. Both of her parents went to Penn. She was a cheerleader in high school. “Embarrassingly” 5-foot-3, she has big hazel eyes and parts her long, straight, brown hair down the middle. When she speaks she twirls thin locks around her long slender fingers. Her voice is soft and elegant. She is not just one of the guys.

And yet she gets along with them. Next year she’ll be entering the competitive, male-dominated world of investment banking, working for Salomon Smith Barney in New York. According to Sandra, she gravitates towards that kind of world. “The people are very confident, and everyone I’ve became close with in Wharton is doing it. And I think that says something.”

Among the girls she lives with in her house on Beige Block, two will be doing banking work at Morgan Stanley next year and another will be working in sales and trading for Goldman Sachs. A fourth will be attending Georgetown Law in the fall, and a fifth is applying to med school. Her friends are a source of motivation, but sometimes the house can be stressful.

Sandra is a Management 100 TA and a co-chairwoman for the Wharton Dean’s Advisory Board. Last summer Sandra interned for the Media & Telecom Corporate Finance Group of J.P. Morgan Chase. She was at the office from 9 a.m. to midnight just about every day. Every so often she’d get out by 10 p.m. The summer was a good test of how she would take the demanding lifestyle. She still had time to work out, not quite everyday, but she tried make it to the gym at seven in the morning.

She couldn’t go out very much, and her friends didn’t understand when she had to cancel at the last minute because of work. The biggest loss was her boyfriend. They had been having problems, but when she was tired from long hours, he couldn’t understand, nor could he deal with her being so busy. She says it was really hard getting over their breakup being so stressed all the time about her job.

And now, she fears the effect of her job on her relationships. She knows that next year the people she’ll spend the most time with are the ones at work. Friends are one of the reasons she picked Salomon; a lot of Penn grads work there.

So why would she choose to re-enter this world? “When you think of Wall Street,” she says, “the truth is, you know when I was little I’d watch Working Girl, or whatever movie it was, and I was like, ‘I want to be on Wall Street.’ To me this is the definition of Wall Street.’ But they make the biggest deals, they know how to work hard and play hard, And they make a lot of money in a short amount of time. I guess it’s prestigious.” Sandra knows she is going to have to make the same, if not more, sacrifices next year; sacrifices she says she is willing to make. And Salomon is more than willing to compensate her with dollar signs. Like Matt, Sandra will also be making the $55,000 base salary. She’ll get an $8,000 signing bonus and a year-end bonus determined by her performance.

Sandra is not sure it will be fulfilling, but it’s the next step as a Wharton Finance major, and it’s the necessary step towards her long-term aspirations of being the CEO of a media/telecommunications company. But that won’t be until she’s 50. And to get there, she will probably have to postpone a family and kids. And to succeed, she may have to compromise her femininity to become the aggressive, cutthroat bitch who has invaded the boy’s club.


Matt, Billy, and Sandra want to prove themselves in the high-end, capitalist world mytholigized by Bonfire of the Vanities. There is, however, a difference between the greed and arrogance of Sherman McCoy and the basic motivation of professional success. Whether or not Sandra, Billy and Matt will remain who they are and accommodate the demands of Wall Street or be forever changed by it remains uncertain. For sure, Matt will not be able to wake up at 12:30, Billy will face tougher competition, and Sandra will at times feel alone. Furthermore, beyond with the pressure of long hours and high-risks, they will have to try to balance 90 hour weeks with some kind of personal life. And then there’s the a suffering economy, where layoffs are a recurring reality, and opportunities for long-term success have become limited. Faced with such pressure, one of them may burn-out, and another may become disillusioned. Yet, if they are successful, the two or three years they will have spent doing the grunt work at a top-tier investment bank will be an affirmation that they can compete and win in the towers of Wall Street. Presentable, organized, competitive, driven, Matt, Billy and Sandra are clearly the new potential “Masters of the Universe” that Wall Street seeks. But will they be masters of their own universes? As they make or lose money for their firms, they will no doubt gain for their careers but may perhaps surrender something of themselves.


College senior Liz Ketels will begin working for Deutsche Bank in New York after she graduates.

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