By | June 24, 2020
  • Europe’s biggest bank, HSBC, has restarted plans to slash 35,000 jobs.
  • Many banks had pledged they wouldn’t slash jobs during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Boutique firms without a strong restructuring practice are “dead in the water,” one investment banking executive recruiter told us. Bankers in the upper-middle ranks at these firms may be most at risk.
  • Perella Weinberg’s restructuring practice is up 100% this year in terms of revenue, yet the firm this month laid off 50 bankers.

Many Wall Street giants made pledges to keep jobs safe during the pandemic. But promises of job security can only go so far.
Some global banks have already resumed massive cuts they’d put on pause.
Europe’s biggest bank, HSBC, last week restarted plans to slash 35,000 jobs. Most cuts of those will be back-office jobs in investment banking and trading; senior bankers in Britain; and support staff around the world, according to media reports. Deutsche Bank is also moving ahead with layoffs it put on ice in March, CEO Christian Sewing said at the firm’s annual general meeting in May.
What remains to be seen is how things will shake out for US bankers once the world moves past peak crisis, and what, if any, backlog of cuts could be unleashed.
To be sure, many North American banks have been stronger performers overall than European peers. Banks may be reluctant to make any rash decisions and lose their grip on top talent — especially if a backlog of deals could also be waiting on the other side of the pandemic.
Equity capital markets and debt capital markets activity has surged during the pandemic, with even IPOs starting to roar back in recent weeks. Still, announced M&A volumes have dropped, and banks are constantly under shareholder scrutiny for ways to cut costs — particularly as ultra-low interest rates crimp overall profits.
But compared to other business lines that have long been under pressure — asset management, for example — even M&A advisory may remain relatively attractive. As Business Insider already reported, life-insurance giant Transamerica told all its salaried workers they need to take a one-week unpaid furlough, and investment manager TIAA is offering 75% of US employees buyouts.
“It’s a cyclical business, and we’re in a downcycle, which is normal but it’s being further exacerbated by pandemic related headwinds including the inability to travel and meet with potential M&A targets in person, which we think is more important than in some other capital markets businesses,” Devin Ryan, an analyst at JMP Securities, told Business Insider in an email.
But M&A advisory is a great “non-commoditized” business, he said, with strong long-term growth potential that is more attractive than many other areas of finance.
“While M&A is clearly one of the more challenged businesses at the moment, which will weigh on overall industry results, we don’t think these difficult near-term dynamics will have a big long-term impact for most companies, ” he said.
Here’s a look at how things are shaping up across Wall Street:

What Wall Street banks are saying about job security

Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman has said the bank won’t cut staff during 2020. Bank of America chief Brian Moynihan has gone on record saying there would be no coronavirus-related cuts this year, and a spokesperson for the bank told Business Insider that remains the case.
Citi has said at the height of the pandemic that it had “suspended new reductions for the time being,” and a spokesperson told Business Insider that there was no update to that guidance.
Still, those kinds of pledges may mask planned cuts that could resurface down the road. And headcount had already been shrinking across Wall Street.
RBC had been planning to cut staff in its US investment bank in March, according to sources familiar with the matter, but as the pandemic gripped the country those plans were shelved. The company said it now has no plans for cuts in US investment banking in 2020.
According to data published in May by research firm Coalition, headcount across trading and investment banking shrank at the fastest pace in six years in the first quarter. To be sure, certain firms can sway the overall rankings — Deutsche Bank, for example, announced plans to quit equities trading entirely last year. Investment banking jobs were flat from a year earlier, but headcount has generally been shrinking in recent years.
While highly-paid bankers are prized for landing deals and generating lucrative fees, compensation costs a key lever that banks can pull to improve their profitability. The amount of money earned per each front-office banking job rose across the board in the first quarter, according to the Coalition data.

Bankers at boutiques without big restructuring practices

Advisory boutiques could be especially hard-hit in 2020 amid the M&A drought.
Unlike bulge-bracket competitors — who have an array of business lines that are firing even in the absence of megadeals, including red hot debt and equity underwriting operations — their revenue streams rely heavily on deal activity.
Many of these firms have built out an important counterweight since the last financial collapse — restructuring and debt advisory services for troubled companies, a business that has flourished amid the economic chaos wrought by the pandemic.
Firms have been coping with the decline in deals by deploying junior bankers and senior bankers with relevant experience to help with restructuring work. The influx in debt advisory mandates provides a salve against losses, but even top-tier restructuring practices don’t compensate for the dropoff in deal fees.
Firms without a strong restructuring practice are “dead in the water,” one investment-banking executive recruiter told Business Insider.
Perella Weinberg’s restructuring practice is up 100% this year in terms of revenue, according to a source familiar with the matter, yet the firm this month laid off 50 bankers, or 8% of its staff.
That included a handful of bankers in the firm’s underperforming media and telecom group. Woody Young, who led the team, stayed on in as a chairman of M&A and remains involved with major accounts, but is no longer running the group day-to-day, sources told Business Insider. Perella Weinberg declined to comment.
To be sure, if the economy reopens and deals roar back in the second half of the year, the fee losses could be tempered.

Some boutiques made pre-pandemic cuts after rapid growth

Some boutique firms had trimmed their numbers even before the pandemic hit. Lazard closed several offices and cut 200 jobs in late 2019. Evercore, meanwhile, announced company-wide layoffs in January — the first broad-based reduction in force the firm has undergone — with plans to cull 6% of the staff.
Evercore CEO Ralph Schlosstein said in his first-quarter earnings call that the firm had no plans for further layoffs, but headhunters said cuts may prove necessary if deals don’t rebound.
The company has significantly expanded its senior ranks in recent years, and it’s known for paying-top dollar to bring elite bankers into the fold, including lucrative guaranteed payouts during new bankers’ ramp-up phase. The firm added 31 senior managing directors in 2018 and 2019 —  more than half of them recruited from the outside — bringing the total for the firm’s advisory group to 112.
“Evercore has a solid team, but they have hefty guarantees,” one executive search consultant said.
SMDs at Evercore typically earn a percentage of the revenues they generate so as to align compensation with performance, according to people familiar with the matter.
Earlier this month, Evercore offered $25,000 to incoming analysts to defer their start date for a year.

Upper-middle ranks are in no man’s land

Bankers in the upper-middle ranks — like directors and non-partner MDs — may be most at risk. While VPs and associates are coveted, since they have execution experience but come with comparatively cheap salaries, these bankers take in big paychecks but don’t yet have the same kind of Rolodex and book of business as senior bankers.
These staffers can get stuck in banker no man’s land, according to recruiters, if they are working for a rainmaker but don’t yet have much opportunity to develop clients of their own. One escape valve is to jump to a firm still building out its M&A platform, including bulge-bracket banks that are expanding.

After the last crisis, banks could be more inclined to keep senior talent 

But if job cuts do materialize, they’re unlikely to be among senior bankers, according to several recruiters, as at most boutiques their comp is weighted toward performance.
Moreover, one of the lingering lessons of the last crisis, when large investment banks cut their ranks only to have M&A surge in subsequent years, was to hold on to senior talent.
“The banks drastically cut their bankers and the markets came roaring back in ’09 and ’10 and they were left flat footed,” one headhunter said.

Areas that are heating up

Banks are now looking to beef up areas in high demand, like distressed debt-trading, one banking and financial services-focused New York-based recruiter said.
“They’re going to need to hire in those areas,” the recruiter said, referring to distressed debt units as where it’s “all guns blazing” inside firms right now.
For live roles particularly within the distressed space and for restructuring-focused firms looking to staff up, some have met for interviews face-to-face, though still from a distance. Banks are also staffing up in risk and compliance roles, he said.
“I’ve had interviews where they met for a socially distant meeting, for something like a walk along the beach,” he said.