Tales From The Dark Side (Part 2)

Mummy landed what she thought was her First Big Break Job almost 3 years after she first started working. It was a huge, international bank and she was the youngest “experienced hire.” Save for a highly-credentialed China scholar of almost the same age as Mummy who was assigned to a completely different team, the average age of everyone else was a good 5-10 years older. Management Trainees (as opposed to “experienced hires”) were about Mummy’s age, made less, and back then had to have a 1st class honors degree to get attached to the dealing room of this bank.

Mummy is not a highly-credentialed scholar. All she has is an Accountancy degree from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore (and good A-level results and extra-curriculars). No honors (Great Grandmum passed away. Mummy flunked her first exam in her life.)

How Mummy ended up in her First Big Break Job:

During the first banking merger of Mummy’s career, she volunteered for all kinds of gofer jobs that other erm, more normal people would have felt beneath them. Most people took advantage. Some didn’t – they began to train Mummy when the market was quiet. Mummy lapped up anything she could learn, scribbling in notebooks, sticking post-its.

And she always said thank you.

People are not obliged to teach you:

“Do you know what time it is?”

Someone who wants to teach you: “9.55am. The HK stock market will open in 5 minutes. It’ll probably open up because you can see that’s where the pre-market is so stop eating your freaking breakfast and get ready to try and get as many of your orders done as you can before the freaking market runs. And don’t even think of going to the toilet after it opens.”

Someone who doesn’t want to teach you but is being forced by their boss to do so: “Yes.”

One of Mummy’s gofer jobs included printing financial statements off the Bloomberg and manually inputting the data for number-crunching into some New-Fangled Portfolio Management Thingy. Sometimes she was thrown a bone, she was allowed to sit in on the discussion meetings for New-Fangled Portfolio Management Thingy. She madly scribbled all kinds of things she didn’t quite understand and then googled them.

That’s how she found the research papers written about New-Fangled Portfolio Management Thingy (which has since been acquired by Moody’s.)

Several nights a week, Mummy would come back to the dealing room after dinner and read research papers until really late. She hadn’t received that much math / technical training in university, so sometimes it would take her the whole night just to make sense of a half-page of research. In the mornings, she tried to make every question she got to ask the seniors count.

The topics in the discussion meetings started to make more and more sense.

A bonus was Mummy’s The Emperor Has No Clothes epiphany – some of the seniors were simply regurgitating from the research papers. Word for word. It didn’t seem like some of the bosses noticed. But Mummy never said so. She did however start to make sense at job interviews.

The interview for First Big Break Job

Was a call out of the blue – Mummy has your father to thank for that because he convinced her to fax her resume to one of the dealing room fax machines (not the HR department) even though there was no indication they were hiring.

Daddy kept an inch-thick pile of rejection letters from his early bank interviews. He would flip it back and forth the way most people thumb through Marie Claire to spur either of us on. And he told Mummy never to ask for a low salary – because it signifies a lack of confidence. Ask for a high(ish) salary after checking the market, Daddy would say. Even if you don’t get the high salary, you will still be in the running for the job. Ask for the low salary, he went on, and you won’t even be called back.

The first time Mummy named her salary, she was terrified. Though she had already confirmed with reliable headhunters that it was an acceptable market rate, she would have been willing to work for this bank for much less. She gave a number about 60% higher than her original salary.

She was eventually paid some 65-70% higher.

Bullies:

(Barked at Mummy) “Pick up my calls by the third ring if you see me busy.”

“WHY are trying to speak to my clients?” (When Mummy picked up the phone)

“Before you learn to fly, you’ll have to learn to crawl. So <pause> start crawling.”

Mummy could go on. But bullies are everywhere, this isn’t news.

At the next big team meeting, Mummy humbly volunteered to write the minutes. When they were winding up Any Other Business (AOB), Mummy raised (among others) the issue of picking up seniors’ client calls. Was she supposed to pick up the seniors’ client calls on the third ring, or was she not supposed to be fielding their client queries please? Because she would like to record the instructions she is given – if she is screwing up she would definitely expect to be yelled at same as everyone else, but otherwise she should probably not. Be yelled at, she means. With all due respect, of course.

It was like Mummy had pushed a flaming rag into a bottle of kerosene:

“How dare you question when you deserve to be yelled at”

“How ungrateful can you be, when seniors are trying to teach you” (Mummy politely inquired what the lesson was supposed to have been. Strangely, she received no answer.)

“I HATE the way you dress.” (No, Mummy is not kidding. And for the record, like most star-struck eager beavers, Mummy often wore suits back then).

Mummy minuted everything. She had after all volunteered – it was her responsibility to do so.

Mummy’s poor direct boss looked like he had a splitting headache after the ~90 minute meeting. He was of course aware of the bullying, but some of the bullies were his top performers – they not infrequently yelled at him too. Mummy was a little nobody who had yet to prove herself. But then the seniors weren’t exactly giving her the chance to do so (of course they weren’t – if Mummy got the chance and her value went up, she might yell back).

When Mummy was asked to hold off on circulating her minutes, she respectfully complied. But when her direct boss still allowed the bullying, she printed a copy for the other boss responsible for her hire – her boss’ boss. The bullying stopped, but not without cost.

Punishment:

Mummy’s direct boss suggested she was ready to cover a much more senior person going on vacation. It would be her first time ever quoting live option-embedded products – 5-8 different currency pairs – to all the bank’s retail branches in that region (and there were quite a few). She was given just about 2 hours to learn the pricers before she went live.

That first day, the foreign exchange market was crazy volatile. Options knocked out repeatedly and had to be repriced quickly before someone came back and hit the old (no longer good) prices. Mummy had a senior with her, pricing for the private banks (ie larger sizes) but with the market movement Mummy’s mentor was so busy she could barely glance in her direction.

The market is only open for that many hours a day. This means that regardless how many freaking trades you have to price and execute – you only have that many hours to cram everything in and make budget. Sometimes it feels like blood is going to start pouring out of your nose and ears.

People usually don’t want to do anything, or they all want to do many, many different trades at the same time when they think it’s a good time. Flow usually smells opportunity when the market is moving. And people get really upset if you are slow.

A bank makes very little profit out of each flow trade (they count on many, many “very little profits” to make budget). Which means you have very little margin for error before you start losing the bank’s money if you make a mistake.

Someone brought Mummy lunch that day (while she priced her eyes out) but she ate maybe 3 spoonfuls. There were too many pricing requests – she had only one mouth to either chew food or field branch calls. A dealer board has 2 handsets, which means you can take 2 calls at once, but even then the calls were overwhelming.

The same seniors who had bullied Mummy helpfully picked up still more branch calls and yelled across the dealing room for Mummy to field, when both her handsets were tied up.

Mummy’s direct boss walked over with a scribbled pricing request, standing behind her wordlessly as he timed how long it took her to price it up. Satisfied, he called off the dogs – cut out the heckling.

After clearing her own (substantial) load, Mummy’s senior checked thru all her trades at the end of that first day. There were many. Then the senior went for a much-needed drink while Mummy slunk over to your father’s apartment and sobbed in his arms. It was simply pure reaction after the stress of holding it together in front of people, some detachedly curious to see if she would break, some hoping she would.

The next day was a public holiday. Mummy went in and sat at her (eerily quiet) desk. She went thru everything: for this currency pair vols, call this trader in Hong Kong for a quote. Then square it with this other desk in Hong Kong. This other currency pair vols are quoted by a Singapore trader sitting several rows away. Update this spreadsheet. Use this pricer. And so on. It was her most effective 90 minutes, thereabouts.

Then she stocked her desk with power bars and those chewy Horlicks tablets and left to enjoy the long weekend.

Mummy thinks she was expected to cave on that one. But if she swam, not sank, it would be a great way of cutting her teeth.

It was the fitting, professional wrist slap that wasn’t quite.

A Twist In The Tale:

That first day had been so volatile even the seniors were horribly swamped. Mummy’s hedging/ squaring timing was barely this side of acceptable. (Though she has always been blessed enough to stay virtually error-free despite crushing trade volume). A hedge is a double-edged sword – it cuts both ways, limiting your profit as well as loss.

When the dust settled, Mummy’s senior calculated every single trade (except for a tiny-sized one) had moved in her favor – the slow hedging had maximized her profits. She believes much of the money she made had little to do with her own abilities.

This would be one of many times when Mummy learned one can do everything right in the market and still end up with devastating consequence. (Or vice-versa. A non-Christian might call this Market Karma.) This would strengthen Mummy’s resolve to be as godly as she could – she believes to do otherwise would be to distance herself from God and she can achieve nothing without Him.  (She would later learn that many people in dealing rooms are religious for similar reasons as herself.)

Lesson Learnt:

Mummy doesn’t consider herself bullied badly, she considers herself trained well. As she likes to say, perception is everything. A person bullied badly might not have the energy to put up with more nonsense from people whose behavior is beyond their control, but a person trained well would rise to that challenge.

This experience would prepare Mummy for the crazy, breakneck speed that is the Hong Kong equity flow market.

Mummy would learn later that in the Hong Kong equity flow markets people can demand compensation in the worse cases. If the trade is executed you also have to report it very quickly because many investors don’t only have an account  only with your bank – if you didn’t manage to get the trade done at their spot limit they may want to go somewhere else. Time is money – being slow can be viewed just the same as making an actual mistake because it costs the same.

The best salespeople Mummy dealt for would ask her who her counterpart was – and they would watch the market for hedges that could possibly be attributed to their trade. If you report substantially later  (say,  3-5 minutes) than when they see what is probably their hedge, they just blink or stare at you. But generally you never get 5 minutes anyway – they’ll yell over  to your desk every 20 seconds: “Aren’t we filled yet?”

“How about now?”

Mummy can still hear them. She loves it.

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About Aileen

I blog about living and raising my son in Hong Kong - where toddlers have entrance interviews, parents keep test score spreadsheets, private school debentures can trade for more than half a million USD. Raising Rockstar's the most important thing I'll ever do. We show our true colors by the choices we make in bringing up our children. My blog is a message to my toddler son, about what the world and his parents are like today - for when he becomes a teenager and knows everything.
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