Awards for Excellence pitches 2018: The outtakes
What is said on tour, stays on tour. Unless it is part of an awards pitch. Here are some of the mixed metaphors, subtle and not-so-subtle jibes and some incomprehensible nonsense we heard during the pitches for this year’s Awards for Excellence.
We never comment on our competitors
Deutsche Bank “has been a slowly melting ice cube, but there’s been the hope that someone might be able to shut the freezer door. Unfortunately, they’ve now taken a blowtorch to it.”
Another firm is American “but with outposts”, or, even worse, “just a more international Wells Fargo”. You definitely don’t want to be the “co-manager of choice”.
Last man standing (or climbing) isn’t a bad place to be: “We’re probably about 70% of the way up Everest. The good news is that we have a lot of oxygen tanks and there aren’t many other climbers.” Rivals, meanwhile, can’t get their succession planning right: “I like our next 10 years better than their next 10 years.”
People can’t stop talking about Goldman Sachs: “It’s the world’s best chameleon.” “They’ve shifted their external perception from untrusted adversary to trusted adviser.” “Lloyd is a trader pretending to be an investment banker; David is an investment banker pretending to be a trader.”
JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon is “fatiguing”. Or as one banker put it rather bluntly: “He’s the world’s best banker at the world’s best bank and he has the world’s number one ego to go with it. Just shut up and run your bloody bank.”
The King is not yet dead, but long live the new king
Meetings with senior Goldman bankers had a new tone and content after the announcement that David Solomon would be sole president and chief executive-in-waiting. It seems as though some of his team can’t wait for the succession to take place.
“The great thing that David has done at this firm…”; “What David realized and we have executed under his leadership…”; “Looking forward under David…”
Lloyd Blankfein has been in the building his whole career, chief executive for 12 years and he is not yet out of the door, but a new history is already being written at Goldman.
How will Lloyd’s final chapter look? A Wall Street peer thinks that the push to rebuild markets is a “final, desperate swing of the bat to go out on a high”.
Asked if Lloyd might stay on as chairman, one senior ex-Goldman executive says: “Yes, just to torment David for a little longer.”
“Ecosystem” is the new “holistic”. Let’s just “table-set” for a moment while we take that in. Every bank is “uniquely” client-driven, product-agnostic, holistic, playing to its strengths, offering a unique proposition, seizing windows of opportunity, client-centric, generating alpha, globally relevant, “truly” global, delivering the firm, data-driven, relationship-led, silo-breaking, value-added, the first call, front and centre, best-in-class, inside the tent, iterating seamlessly and being transformational.
Sadly all the talk of relationships meant no one had time to admit to being client-agnostic and fee-centric, which must surely be closer to the mark.
Some claim to be “living with the client”, which sounds like a compliance nightmare. Putting clients first can get into your head: “I like to talk about ‘we’”. There are risks, of course: “The client-centricity of this bank is a real competitive advantage. We are ridiculously collegiate – we are almost too nice.”
One banker hit it out of the park in just one sentence: “We are agnostic and think about the client in a holistic way – it’s an organic dialogue”. Another was more baffling: he was excited to be “eating our own cooking”.
Why be limited to words that already exist? One of the advantages of co-locating different products is the scope for “cross-pollenization”.
Some franchises like to create heritage, boasting of the hundreds of years of experience in the room. Recent arrivals are taunted: “He’s only been here 18 years – he’s dragging our average down.” Long timers are not pitied but admired. “You were actually born here, weren’t you?”
One banker said his firm was fee-agnostic. Really? You don’t care if you get paid?
Every year every bank gets better at cross-business collaboration, especially between their investment banks and their wealth management operations. That is until we talk to them about it the following year, when they’ve finally, truthfully and honestly, knocked collaboration out of the park.
Not everyone buys it. One investment banking head in Asia told us: “If you go and ask the private bankers to bring us investment banking leads, they bring you a list of 50 companies with average revenues of $100 million. And you take those to the investment banking team and they just sigh and go: ‘Oh great, another bunch of shitty metal stampers.’”
And anyway, does it all matter?
“Funnily enough, I hardly ever meet a client who is worried about our internal organization,” deadpans one bank chief executive.
Know your own
It’s good to have a working internal directory of staff, even if they are based in another office. Five minutes of tapping away at the reception desk computer followed by “Does he go by any other name?” is not a good look.
On one occasion in Asia, the front desk flatly denied the existence of their own chief executive.
Can you hear me, major Tom?
Banks like to say they are technology companies, but you wouldn’t know it from their technology. Video conferencing is ripe for disaster – no audio, out of focus imagery and interference. One wonders how anything ever gets done. After all, pitch meetings are stuffed full of heroic tales of global senior management from across different products convening at 3am to make a complex risk call at short notice – what system are they using and can we please use it too?
Goldman Sachs has audio and video that works. No surprise. Elsewhere, cameras can be unreliable. One bank’s remote team pitched to a meeting room ceiling when the Velcro holding the camera in place failed at the end where Euromoney was sitting. Another struggled to even get an audio conference to work. A word of advice: if your firm announces a change to all your internal conference call hosting passcodes, you should read that email.
Success came at last, and before long people were dialling in from all over. Nothing had been heard for a while from one head of FIG before the silence was broken by a desperate shout of: “Can anyone hear me?” In banking, it turns out, everyone in the room can hear you scream.
Sometimes the technology connects but the people do not. Picture the scene: banker 1 invites banker 2 in the room to kick off. He doesn’t want to and pushes the invitation back to banker 1. No, he still doesn’t want to start, but fortunately there is another option – banker 3 dialling in on video conference from Asia. Perhaps he would like to start with some general themes?
Cue a small delay while he comes off mute: “No, why don’t you guys kick it off in London…”
Take me out of the ball game, please
Bankers are bizarrely referring to each other as “athletes” this year. Baseball remains the preferred sporting analogy among New York bankers. Euromoney was told that we were variously at the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th inning of the current credit cycle. There was a lot of pitching and stepping up to the plate and even one instance of a mandate being compared to a particularly good “at-bat” – definitely one for the purists there.
Some prefer the rough and tumble of ice hockey, however, with one FIG banker desperately trying to show his firm’s forward-thinking credentials.
“We skate to where the puck is going,” the banker said.
It is to be expected that bank-brewed coffee will be abysmal. Most get around this by having at least one real coffee shop in their building, but up in the meeting rooms one usually has to make do with in-house. Well done to the firm that was memorably honest, wall-crossing us with the warning that “this is awful” while pouring our cup.
How was it, they asked later.
“Right up there with the conference call tech,” was our verdict.
Goldman Sachs’s elevators are bigger than most meeting rooms at most banks. The voice telling you which of Morgan Stanley’s elevators to get into sounds like a demented mosquito trapped in a metal bucket. Citi’s Greenwich Street building work has another two years to run.
The truth slips out
Volatility is a beautiful thing: “Clients are a much more receptive audience when volatility goes up. Before that they would say: ‘I don’t need that. In fact, why am I paying you for anything?’”
Taking risk is also a beautiful thing: it can go wrong, but who cares when it can also go right?
“The nightmare is scary, but the dream is attractive.”
One firm knows just what would improve its franchise: “We need more clients.”
Another is looking to ramp up its presence in high yield. There’s just one problem: “Our client base is 80% investment grade.”
Another is confused about whether or not size matters: “The good thing about us is that we are big. The downside is that we are big.”
Sometimes the truth is just really boring, though it can be dressed up as lifting the veil from a secret world: “Off the record, the next two years will become more challenging.”
Regulation has got easier but not easy: “It’s maybe at eight or nine instead of 10. It’s not at four.”
We’re number one in something, perhaps everything
Some bankers could barely contain themselves about their own achievements: “If there were a league table for that thing, we would be at the top of it.”
“It’s difficult for clients not to call us,” said another.
“We see being on the right as almost a loss.”
And finally, who said banks only have alpha employees? “5% of lending, 5% of wallet, that’s beta. 5% of lending, 15% of wallet, that’s alpha. That’s us.”
We’re not number one
Sometimes humility is a good thing: “This year was an excellent financing year. It was not such a great M&A year – do not give us the advisory award.”
One bank, having spent the lion’s share of the pitch extolling the extent to which it is client-centric but has both its issuer and investor clients’ best interests at heart, is asked about the Argentina bond.
The reply is truthful, if painful to hear: “Investors knew the credit – they knew what the risks were.”
“I only found out about the deal when I read about it in the FT,” admits one banker of one of his firm’s key trades this year. “The problem was that when I read the word ‘blockchain’ I just passed out.”
Diversity in action
Our corporate responsibility award provided ample opportunity for fabulous double standards. One bank took an entire morning in Hong Kong to present its pitches, including for the regional award for corporate responsibility and did so without featuring a single woman.
Another banker pitched with might and main about CSR and diversity for an hour and a half without allowing the head of that function, a woman, to get a word in. And it’s always interesting to ask banks domiciled in Singapore about their support for LGBT employees, since male same-sex sexual activity remains technically illegal there.
“That’s not really an issue here,” we were told.
Our corporate responsibility and sustainable financing categories also give banks a chance to present as social leadership a change that they were in fact bullied into making by Greenpeace in the first place.
Strangely, we didn’t get any corporate responsibility pitches from banks in Australia this year.
It doesn’t look good on paper
One big global bank spent a good 90 minutes having one of its senior executives – an investment banking specialist – talk to us all about corporate responsibility. It was an impressive pitch, full of information that other banks don’t or can’t provide.
Especially informative was the way that paper usage had been assessed and dramatically cut at almost every geography under his purview. He even knew how many pages his PR head had printed out over the last six months. The removal of waste-paper bins had been transformative: “Even I don’t have one and have to walk across the office to bin paper.”
It all went a bit pear-shaped at the end of the meeting when said executive slid across two copies of the bank’s ESG credentials. Each ran to almost 500 pages.
After digesting the entire report (honestly), we popped it into the recycling bin at Euromoney.
Getting in before the ordure
They say comedy is all in the timing. A new sport in Asia this year involved picking the precise moment to stop being involved with HNA. As a rule of thumb, it was great for a while to advise on selling things to HNA but not advising HNA on buying them. Then, at a certain inflexion point, it became OK to start advising on buying things from HNA but not advising HNA on selling them.
The inflexion point in question is the moment when it became apparent that HNA was vastly overloaded with debt and had become something of an embarrassment to the Chinese state. That was, roughly, September 2017.
It meant we got some remarkable boasts about closing an HNA acquisition before the whole thing turned to custard; work presented as a triumph of timing and execution.
Followed through to its logical conclusion, the boast is therefore that a key Singapore logistics asset has been sold to a company that the advisers already knew to be debt-addled and unsustainable.
Good work, noble advisers!
Our favourite pitch meeting in Asia was with a very senior banker in Hong Kong whose policy it was to disagree with absolutely anything the previous person said, even if doing so meant demeaning one’s own bank.
“You’ve had a good year in Australia this year.”
“No we haven’t.”
This represents an interesting switch in pitching technique. It might catch on.