The simple solution to the recruiting war between banks and private equity

22 years old and in demand.
22 years old and in demand.
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Banks and private equity firms have always been competitors for talent. But the competition has reached absurd levels, the New York Times recently reported (paywall). Freshly-minted bank analysts on two-year contracts are being offered private-equity jobs up to 18 months before they’re free to take them.

Nobody benefits from this: Young analysts are pressured to take job decisions early, banks lose people they just hired, conflicts of interest arise with clients, and PE firms hire people with no real track record.

But the fix is pretty simple, and it lies with the banks: End the two-year contract that produces the yearly frenzy, as Goldman Sachs already did in late 2012.

This year’s hiring war broke out after small PE  firms started recruiting earlier than usual, breaking a détente agreed by the bigger firms and forcing them to join the fray. That pattern isn’t likely to stop. “Traditionally the banks work their analysts pretty hard,” Patrick Curtis, founder of Wall Street Oasis, an online finance forum, told Quartz. “Though the pay is really good for someone right out of college, It’s seen as more of a salesman job. The buy side, private equity, is typically where you see the crazy pay packages at the senior level, so it has the sex appeal.”

The two-year contract originated in the 1980s to help recruit bright people who didn’t necessarily want a career in finance relatively cheaply. It offered the promise of being able to leave after two years without looking bad. But because the analysts are there for so little time, banks often work them late into the night and through weekends.

Private equity isn’t easy work, but it’s less intense and with far bigger potential rewards. Thus, the short-term nature of the analyst job has turned banks into a recruiting apparatus for PE firms. ”Private equity almost uses the investment banking recruiting machine as a screen for themselves,” Curtis says. “Whatever Goldman and Morgan Stanley, the bulge bracket banks decide are the best kids, that’s who they go after.”

Moreover, when people already have their next job a few months into their current one, they don’t exactly have much incentive to outperform. The two year program has institutionalized what Curtis refers to as “the golden path”: two years at an investment bank, two years in private equity, then a top business school.

Private equity has little incentive to change this system, since it gets the better end of the deal. Banks, on the other hand, are so concerned about losing talent that they trumpet their vast numbers of applicants and have color coded spreadsheets to identify people who work too much. Some have made moves to reduce their workloads after health scares and worries about the competition for talent. Others, according to Curtis, are trying to be more supportive and open, with managers calling private equity clients to recommend particular analysts.

But ending the two-year program would move banks away from tacitly endorsing the quick path to private equity, and send a signal that analysts are taken seriously as career employees rather than thought of as more meat for the grinder. Banks might lose some people before two years are up. But then they wouldn’t be keeping on a swathe of employees who only give their full effort and attention for the first few months.