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Sunday, September 16, 2007

"The M.B.A. is a waste of money and time — time that could be spent making money."

The New York Times

September 16, 2007
Age of Riches

Hedge Funds and Private Equity Alter Career Calculus

MOST people who knew Gabriel Hammond at Johns Hopkins in the late 1990s could have predicted he would rise quickly on Wall Street. As a freshman, he traded stocks from his dorm room, making a $1,000 bet on Caterpillar. Soon after, he abandoned his childhood dream of becoming a lawyer and, upon graduation, joined Goldman Sachs as a stock analyst.

Three years into his new job, Mr. Hammond noticed something. Very few of his young co-workers were taking a hiatus from Wall Street to go to business school, long considered an essential rung on the way to the top of the corporate ladder.

So he, too, decided to forgo an M.B.A.. Instead, he raised $5 million and started his own hedge fund, Alerian Capital Management, in 2004. The fund now manages $300 million out of offices in New York and Dallas, and Mr. Hammond, 28, enjoys seven-figure payouts.

Like other young people on the fast track, Mr. Hammond has run the numbers and figures that an M.B.A. is a waste of money and time — time that could be spent making money. “There’s no way that I would consider it,” he says.

As more Americans have become abundantly wealthy, young people are recalculating old assumptions about success. The flood of money into private equity and hedge funds over the last decade has made billionaires out of people like Kenneth Griffin, 38, chief executive of the Citadel Investment Group, and Eddie Lampert, 45, the hedge fund king who bought Sears and Kmart. These men are icons for the fast buck set — particularly the mathematically gifted cohort of rising stars known as “quants.” Many college graduates who are bright enough to be top computer scientists or medical researchers are becoming traders instead, and they measure their status in dollars instead of titles.

Many of the brightest don’t covet a corner office at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Instead, they’re happy to work at a little-known hedge fund run out of a two-room office in Greenwich, Conn., as long as they get a fat payday. The competition from alternative investment firms — private equity and hedge funds in particular — is driving up salaries of entry-level analysts at much larger banks. And top performers at the banks make so much money today that they don’t want to take two years off for business school, even if it’s a prestigious institution like the Wharton School or Harvard.

The new ranks of traders and high-octane number crunchers on Wall Street are also a breed apart from celebrated long-term investors like Warren E. Buffett and investment banking gurus like Felix G. Rohatyn. What sets the new crowd apart is the need for speed and a thirst for instant riches.

“With the growth of hedge funds, you’re getting a lot of really smart people who are getting paid a lot very young,” says Arjuna Rajasingham, 29, an analyst and a trader at a hedge fund in London. “I know it’s a bit of a short-term view, but it’s hard to walk away from something that’s going really well.”

The shift has not gone unnoticed by administrators at some business schools. Richard Schmalensee, who was dean of the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management until June, chalked it up to the changing nature of money-making. In many banks and investment boutiques, traders with math and science backgrounds now contribute more to the bottom line than the white-shoed investment bankers who long presided over Wall Street. And traders tend to be less likely to go to business school.

“I don’t think you will see M.B.A.’s less represented in executive suites, but you may see M.B.A.’s less represented in the lists of the world’s richest people,” Professor Schmalensee says.

BUSINESS school has not fallen out of favor among the student population at large. The number of students who earned M.B.A.’s in 2005 was about 142,600, nearly twice the level in 1991. But as M.B.A.’s become more common, the degree seems to carry less prestige with people who land top-paying jobs in finance soon after college.

And recent upheavals in the financial markets don’t seem to be changing the thinking of these younger high-fliers and their employers.

Hedge fund managers are unlikely to punish their younger workers for any dip in returns this year, says Adam Zoia, managing partner at Glocap, a headhunter in New York. Management fees charged by funds — typically 2 percent — come in regardless of return levels and can more than cover large salaries for young employees at many funds.

“Most managers say, ‘If I don’t pony up a decent bonus, then I’m going to lose people,’ ” Mr. Zoia says. “It’d be short-sighted of them not to retain their good people.”

At funds that manage $1 billion to $3 billion, people with just a few years of finance experience will make $337,000 this year, Mr. Zoia says, and those with five to nine years of experience will average $830,000, up 6 percent from last year. These estimates include analysts and researchers but not portfolio traders, who can make much more because they sometimes share in profits.

Dozens of young people (mostly male) who want to be, or already are, successful traders said in interviews that they relished the challenge of their jobs, in addition to the lofty paychecks.

But they also spoke as if a money-clock were ticking: many said they wanted to make as much money as fast as they could so that they could live in style later in life while doing less lucrative things like running a charity, working for the government, spending time with their families, or inventing new technologies. Some, of course, plan to stay in finance their entire careers, and they, too, are very focused on earning fat bonuses fast.

“The sales pitch of these private equity funds or these hedge funds is, ‘Come here, and you’ll make a million bucks in two years,’ ” says Gregg R. Lemkau, 38, managing director and chief operating officer of investment banking at Goldman Sachs, who passed up business school to stay at Goldman in the early 1990s when that choice was more rare.

And because today there are more self-made millionaires — and billionaires — than ever before, 20-something traders seem bolder in their monetary ambitions. Business school often does not fit into these plans.

“If you want to make the most money in the shortest period of time, you can’t be away from work for two years,” says Vitaly Dukhon, 30, who recently left the Fortress Investment Group in New York to join another hedge fund.

While in college at Harvard, Mr. Dukhon thought he would go to business school in his mid-20s, but in his first job on the Treasury desk at Deutsche Bank, he realized that the smartest people just a few years his senior were staying put. “I saw that people that had been working for 20 years did have M.B.A.’s, but people five to six years older than me were not going,” he says. “Going to business school is a way for people to try to open the door, to try to get into a company or hedge fund. But if you’re already there, it doesn’t make sense to go.”

Mr. Hammond of Alerian noticed the same trend while he was an analyst at Goldman Sachs. His co-workers who went to business school either wanted to change careers, or they were not doing well in their current jobs, he says.

Part of the shift comes as investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse have changed their tune on business school. Instead of pushing all their young employees into M.B.A. programs, banks are telling the best ones to stay put.

“We are the perfect training ground for people who want to have careers in finance,” says Caitlin McLaughlin, director of campus recruiting for Citi, the former Citigroup. Just 15 years ago, Ms. McLaughlin estimates, 85 to 90 percent of Citi’s analyst classes ended up attending business school. Now, she thinks that figure is closer to 50 percent.

Samir Ahmad, 25, has worked at Citi since college. This summer, he was promoted to associate, an M.B.A.-level position, in the fixed-income, currencies and commodities division. Despite advice from his older brother that he should attend business school, Mr. Ahmad says he cannot see what he would gain to justify the time. “If I were to spend two years at business school, I’d get an M.B.A. degree, but I think learning a different product or a different group here at Citi would be more valuable,” he says.

To be sure, business school can still be a valuable investment, especially for those who want to change careers. Most schools teach a well-rounded curriculum that exposes students to the full picture of the way the business world works. They are great places to make friends and connections that can help throughout a career. And the top business schools serve as a useful filtering system, placing a seal of approval on graduates that can help them find jobs.

“Most banking — and that includes private equity — is about deals and about relationships,” says Timothy Butler, director of M.B.A. career development programs at Harvard Business School. “That will always be M.B.A. territory.”

YET even some students at top schools like Harvard say the decision to go is tougher now than it likely was two decades ago. “We all struggled with it,” says Katie Shaw, 28, who is in her second year of business school there. “It’s not only, ‘Where do I go to business school?’ It’s also, ‘Do I go?’ ”

Ms. Shaw worked in private equity before business school and plans to return to a position in finance. In private equity, she says, an M.B.A. is valued because buying and selling companies involves relationships and company analysis skills. Still, most private equity firms used to require their young hires to leave to go to business school, and some are now letting talented ones keep working instead.

Headhunters for hedge funds and private equity firms say hedge funds, in particular, do not value an M.B.A. “I have some clients that will legitimately say, ‘An M.B.A. means absolutely nothing to us,’ ” says Tim Zack, principal of In-Site Search, a headhunting firm in Westport, Conn., that is a division of Chaves and Associates.

Mr. Hammond of the Alerian hedge fund recently hired someone from Carnegie Mellon’s business school because of that person’s engineering talent, not the skills he learned in business school. While Mr. Hammond says he understands why his new employee went to business school to move into finance, he would look less favorably on someone in an M.B.A. program who had left finance to go to business school.

If he were looking at someone who went to Harvard Business School after the two-year analyst program at Goldman, “I’d be suspicious,” he says. “I’d be saying, ‘What was it you were doing wrong that you couldn’t get a promotion at Goldman or did not pursue an opportunity with a private equity or hedge fund?’ ”

When young people on Wall Street consider the benefits of business school, Mr. Hammond says, the upside no longer outweighs lost salaries and bonuses they would have earned. He calculates the cost of going to a two-year business school to be at least half a million dollars for the average bank employee — $250,000 or more each year in lost salary, plus $50,000 a year in tuition and living expenses. For hedge fund employees, Mr. Hammond says, the number would be considerably higher.

The result, headhunters say, is that many of the best people in finance are no longer entering the M.B.A. pipeline. “If someone is doing well at a hedge fund, they absolutely do not encourage their employees to go off to business school,” says Mr. Zoia of Glocap.

Some young people are pursuing alternatives that can be completed without leaving their jobs. Some take the certified financial adviser tests or study part-time at night at schools like N.Y.U. that offer master’s degrees in subjects like financial engineering.

“There’s a real shift in assumptions as to what is going to make you a better applicant or a prospect for a job,” says Art Hogan, chief market analyst for Jefferies & Company, noting that he had seen an increased interest in young people pursuing a degree as a certified financial adviser at night rather than leaving their jobs for an M.B.A.

At the banks, there has been a push in recent years to keep top performers around after their time as analysts, the most junior position, ends. “Strong performers we want to keep at the firm for as long as possible,” says Julie Kalish, 28, head of United States recruiting for Credit Suisse. “The amount of analysts that we try to keep for the associate promotion process has grown over recent years.”

Admissions officers at top business schools say finance firms always try to hold onto their best employees when the economy is good. They say interest from applicants working in finance is not declining and their graduates still land a large number of top finance jobs. What administrators at business schools do not know — largely because their admissions and career placement offices are separate — is whether their students with a finance background are staying in that industry.

Recruiters at banks say a large number of the students that they are hiring from business schools are from an international background or are changing careers. These students are valuable, they say, but they come in with a different background from someone who has been in finance since age 22.

Jeffrey Talpins, chief investment officer at Element Capital Management, a small fixed-income hedge fund in New York, says he likes to hire people fresh out of school so he can teach them himself. Mr. Talpins attended Yale as an undergraduate but did not go to business school. If a young employee asked his advice on business school, he says, he would tell them not to go if they wanted to stay in finance. “I’d say, ‘You already have a great platform for a job in finance,’ ” he says. “If you’re a superstar, and you’re very good, you’ll grow very rapidly in this field.”

Eventually, these young people may want to raise money and start their own fund, suggests Thomas Caleel, director of admissions at Wharton, and that’s where an M.B.A. and the connections that come with it could help. “If you are trying to raise money for a hedge fund, you will need that network,” he says.

Mr. Talpins of Element said he had no trouble raising money for his hedge fund without an M.B.A. After all, he had a track record from Citi and Goldman Sachs to show to potential investors. In his corner of the world, where math equations are likely to be scrawled on white boards around the office and young people hold the purse strings to millions of dollars in investor money, it seems there is no point in going to business school just to punch a ticket.

In 2005, Trader Monthly named Mr. Talpins one of the top 30 traders under 30. “Youth is not wasted on this crop, any of whom could be a billionaire by 40,” the magazine said. “Or, then again, they could be belly up and bust.”

Mr. Hammond of Alerian, who was featured on the magazine’s list last year, said he has seen people go to hedge funds and get fired in six months “because they couldn’t hack it.”

But he says the risk is worth it.

“If you look at the really successful hedge fund managers — the Eddie Lamperts,” he says, “they’re all in their 40s now. They were probably making only low single-digit millions in their 20s.

“That’s why you do this,” he continues. “That’s why it’s so attractive, because the payoff of being the winner, the next Eddie Lampert, is so high.”

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