$200,000 paychecks, exit opportunities and proximity to power: Why graduates flock to Wall Street

  • Tough conditions created by a boom in deals haven't dimmed the most obvious allure of Wall Street: money. Investment banking analysts at major firms can expect total compensation approaching $200,000 in their first year out of college.
  • JPMorgan received almost 50,000 applications for about 400 internship positions at its investment banking program this year. Goldman Sachs saw a 50% increase in applications for its investment banking analyst program this year, compared with 2018.
  • At top feeder school University of Pennsylvania, the percentage of graduates with full-time jobs choosing Wall Street has stayed at roughly 30% since at least 2015, beating out consulting, technology and health care.

When junior bankers at Goldman Sachs complained about what they called "inhumane" working conditions in an internal survey that made waves across the industry this March, one incoming analyst wasn't fazed.

He knew about the industry's reputation for hazing its recruits with 90-hour work weeks. But for him and many others, tough conditions created by a boom in deals combined with a still-raging pandemic haven't dimmed the most obvious allure of Wall Street: money.

The son of South Asian immigrants said he's planned for a Wall Street career since high school after seeing his parents struggle financially. He secured an internship at JPMorgan Chase in New York midway through his time at a prestigious Ivy League and started as a full-time analyst in June.

"I grew up in, not a super-poor family, but at points we were really struggling," he told CNBC. Banking will enable him to repay his massive student loans and support his parents, said the analyst, who asked not to be named discussing his JPMorgan role.

"The most important thing was financial security," he added. "You are willing to put in whatever hours, and at the end of the day it's totally worth it."

Despite the harsh spotlight the Goldman story put on the industry's treatment of young adults, thousands still flock to Wall Street. The industry remains a top destination for high achievers seeking outsized pay and broad career options, according to recruiters, campus advisors and more than a half dozen first-year analysts interviewed by CNBC.

More selective than Harvard

JPMorgan, for instance, received almost 50,000 applications for about 400 internship positions at its investment banking program this year, according to a person with knowledge of the company. (Interns typically return as first-year analysts after they graduate.) The acceptance rate of less than 1% makes JPMorgan's investment bank harder to get into than Harvard or Yale.

That level of interest doesn't seem to be isolated to JPMorgan, which is a juggernaut on Wall Street across advisory and trading businesses.

Goldman Sachs, the world's top mergers advisor, saw a 50% increase in applications for its investment banking analyst program this year compared with 2018, according to a person with knowledge of the bank. While banks don't typically disclose specifics about their programs, making it hard to know how many join Wall Street out of college, it's likely that a few thousand are hired at the top investment banks every year.

Meanwhile, the industry's best-known feeder schools say that demand for finance careers hasn't abated.

At the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, finance has been the top destination for students for the past two decades, according to Barbara Hewitt, executive director of its career services group. The percentage of graduates with full-time jobs choosing Wall Street has stayed at roughly 30% since at least 2015, beating out consulting, technology and health care.

"It's been the largest industry sector that our students at the undergraduate level have gone into for as long as I can remember," Hewitt said. "There's been surprisingly little change."

To be fair, the industry's reputation has ebbed and flowed over the years. Earlier rounds of angst and self-examination were caused by banks' role in the 2008 financial crisis and the 2013 death of London-based intern Moritz Erhardt. The rise of the technology sector over the past decade, as well as the growth in private equity and venture capital firms, have given young achievers other avenues for high-paying, rewarding positions.

Understaffed and overworked

But each time, despite headlines proclaiming that young people have soured on the industry, there is no shortage of volunteers willing to sign their lives away to a bank.

"I don't think investment banking has lost any of its appeal; it's still a phenomenal job in a great industry," David McCormack, an 18-year recruiting veteran, told CNBC. "It's just that you're asking people to work unprecedented levels without the support they would've had pre-pandemic."

Analysts on Goldman's technology advisory team involved in the now-famous survey were caught in a "perfect storm" earlier this year, according to Alan Johnson of New York-based pay consultancy Johnson Associates. Investment banks reined in hiring at the start of the pandemic because they thought the impending recession would limit deals activity, he said.

When deal flow and the IPO market boomed, thanks to the Federal Reserve's response to the pandemic, banks were caught understaffed. The companies resorted to hunting for junior bankers in unusual places including among consulting and accounting firms, offered perks like free Peloton bicycles and raised base salaries.

The motivations of the JPMorgan analyst recalls a phrase from an earlier era on Wall Street, showing that some things never change.

In earlier decades — when investment banks were more likely to be staffed with the well-connected offspring of wealthy families — young, hungry outsiders were known as PSDs. The acronym stands for Poor, Smart, with a Deep desire to become wealthy. That phrase was born at Bear Stearns, the training ground for future industry titans including Citigroup's former CEO Sandy Weill and Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon.

'Sell my soul'

If anything, rising levels of student debt owed by recent graduates have made them more risk-averse and less likely to gamble on careers that might not pay off financially, according to some of the bankers. More than 40% of U.S. adults who went to college took on debt, while outstanding student loans totaled $1.7 trillion by the end of 2020, according to the Federal Reserve.

"If I have to basically sell my soul to this bank for a few years, I need to be paid for it," said a first-year banker at Citigroup. "There are a million students who are all deserving, but there just aren't enough spots; they would kill for this opportunity."

(CNBC withheld her name and the names of the other junior bankers in this article because their employers prohibit them from speaking to the press.)

Besides starting pay that is higher than virtually every other industry – top analysts at major firms can expect total compensation approaching $200,000 in their first year out of college, according to McCormack – junior bankers often cited "exit opportunities" as a reason for joining a bank.

That is Wall Street-speak for the types of careers that await after a successful stint at investment banking, whether it's in private equity, hedge funds, fintech, consulting or venture capital.

While she considered roles at technology and venture capital firms as well as graduate school, the Citigroup analyst ultimately placed her bet on investment banking because it offers the most exit opportunities, she said.

"It really came down to the fact that I felt strongly that I could pretty much go anywhere after I do two solid years of investment banking," she said. "People make this assumption that if you can survive investment banking at a top firm, you can handle anything."

'The best people'

Another first year, this one at Goldman, reiterated that sentiment. Many of her peers are motivated by the cachet of the firm and the possibilities it opens up, she said.

"It's very simple: Goldman picks the best people," she said. "It's like a boot camp for being the best professional."

Young employees like her join Goldman not necessarily out of an innate interest in finance, she said, but for the security of knowing she will have opportunities at the end of her two-year program. "It's what you can do after Goldman that's a big motivator for people," she said. "It's the launching pad into whatever you want."

Still, others were attracted to banking itself and its proximity to the powerful. Those who make it past the analyst and associate levels can begin doing more substantive work, and managing directors are often tasked with bringing in multi-billion dollar deals, basking in glory when a merger closes.

Glory of the deal

"If you show that you're a really strong player at a younger age, you get more responsibility and more autonomy, and then — boom — you're sourcing your own deals," said a male Citigroup analyst. "Being a trusted advisor to these really powerful, really influential, really intelligent people who put their faith in you to guide them through a process" is tantalizing, he said.

He and others said that while technology jobs like coding also pay well, they often have relatively limited career ceilings compared to banking.

Most of the analysts said they were aware of the industry's reputation for grueling work, an assertion backed up by the University of Pennsylvania's Hewitt: "They know it's going to be a lot of work for a couple of years," she said. "They're pretty open-eyed about that."

In recent years, banks have begun recruiting as early as freshman year, probably due to competition for top students from big tech and other firms. They have also begun leaning on testing and interviewing software platforms to help pull from a broader array of schools as part of the industry's diversity push.

Many students prefer the security of knowing where they will land after finishing their expensive educations, according to Emma Rasiel, an economics professor at Duke University who mentors finance students. The two-year analyst program often leads to interest for two- to three-year stints in private equity, she said.

"Especially in investment banking, there's a really clear drawn-out career path," Rasiel said. "My students are saying, 'I won't have to think about finding a job for myself until I'm 27.'"

Demand for investment banking among Duke students has stayed at roughly the same level for most of the past decade, Rasiel said. Further, about 70% of students headed to Wall Street decide to go into banking over trading roles, compared to a 50-50 split before the financial crisis, she said.

No illusions

But being courted by banks so early in their college tenures can lock out other possibilities and contribute to peer pressure to join finance, according to another Goldman analyst.

"I never really heard of banking before, but during freshman year, it's like this whole wave of everyone saying 'banking, banking,'" said the analyst. "I was like 'Wow, that sounds awful. Why would anyone want to work those hours?' But then it's kind of like a herd mentality."

In the aftermath of the Goldman junior bankers' survey, banks declared a renewed push to set boundaries, enrich analyst programs and develop technology to automate the more mundane aspects of the job.

But few junior bankers are under the illusion that the core nature of their jobs will have changed. So long as graduates scramble to join investment banks, the industry has little incentive to fundamentally change a system fueled by overworked 22-year-olds glued to Excel spreadsheets, one of the junior bankers said.

"They want the best people, and they need the best people," she said. "Once those people aren't available anymore, then they'll start to change."

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