Amid Layoffs, a Financial Analyst's Survivor's Guilt

“I didn’t fear for my job. But I did fear my in-box”

Sept. 18, 2008: Layoffs mount: 432,000 jobs are lost in the U.S. during September alone

I was one of the lucky ones. Unlike the investment banks, hedge funds like Dune Capital Management, where I’d gone to work as an analyst, didn’t originate or package mortgage-backed assets, so when subprime went south, I didn’t immediately fear for my job. But I did fear my in-box. It flooded with goodbye e-mails from friends and former colleagues. “I’m attaching my personal contact information—please keep in touch.” Each one added to my guilt. Because I still had a job. Because there was no good reason it should have been a friend and not me. Because I’d made up my mind to leave Wall Street, only now I was afraid to follow through. It’s harder to walk away when you know there won’t be a job to go back to.

On the third morning of not hearing from a former colleague I’ll call Erica, I decided that maybe she hadn’t e-mailed because she was safe, so I called her hoping to be proven right. Lehman Brothers, where I’d gotten my start in 2003 and where I’d met Erica, had just filed for bankruptcy. She’d recently relocated to the firm’s London office. As soon as I finished dialing, an automated message clicked on: You’ve reached a nonworking number.

Over the weeks that followed, I began waking up in the middle of the night, convinced I’d made a mistake in one of my spreadsheets that was going to get me fired. I’d get out of bed and power up my laptop, because there was no way I’d be able to sleep until I’d checked my numbers. I went to the office an hour early, to show how committed I was, only to find that half the trading floor had the same idea. I lost weight. I got pneumonia. “Take a week or two off,” my doctor said. “Get some sleep.”

I worked from bed, triple-checking spreadsheets through the haze of cough syrup, my speakerphone propped on a pillow. I told myself things could have been so much worse: I could have stayed at an investment bank.

Much as I wish I could say I left Lehman and Credit Suisse because I knew the investment banks were doomed, the truth is that my jump had nothing to do with foresight. In 2007, when I switched, a hedge fund offered a quicker path to success than an investment bank. As I was deciding whether to leave Credit Suisse for Dune, my mentor, Seth, and I had coffee near his office at Lehman. Starbucks was the banker’s venue of choice for private conversations. If we’d really been paying attention, Starbucks could have been our early warning system, too. In July 2008 the chain announced it was closing 600 stores, four within five blocks of my office. We had to walk an extra minute to meet each other.

When I asked Seth (I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy) whether I should take the job at Dune, he chewed on his Nicorette. “It’s risky. Say the fund has a bad year—then what?”

In December 2008, when Seth called and asked to get coffee, I assumed he’d been laid off, too. I arrived at Starbucks to find him tearing little pieces off the cardboard sleeve around his cup. He reeked of cigarettes. I let out a deep breath when he explained that he still had a job at Barclays, Lehman’s acquirer.

“But in this environment, who knows?” he said. “None of the big banks are safe—I’m thinking hedge funds.”

“Hedge funds?” I felt guilty for even thinking it, but at 45, he didn’t have good odds. It’s an open secret that Wall Street worships the young. Hedge funds would assume Seth wasn’t hungry enough, wasn’t malleable enough. They’d assume he was too late.