Last night, I was in Canary Wharf meeting a few friends for a drink. But it wasn’t just any old Thursday evening – 10 years later, the “unluckiest” graduate class ever got back together to catch up, reminisce, and reflect on the very unique start of our careers. Being a graduate at Lehman feels like a lifetime ago. And yet, it feels like yesterday.
I still vividly remember the weekend before. Sunday 14th September – my desk decided to go into the office that evening because we couldn’t relax, for obvious reasons. We just sat around the trading floor, watching the headlines and gossiping.
We saw two options – 1) get bought by Barclays. 2) get bought by BofA. No one expected Option 3. We all went home that evening, but at just after midnight EST on the 15th September, the bank filed for Chapter 11. By the time we were back on the trading floor at 6:30am the next day, Lehman Brothers had fallen.
I remember seeing our Head of Fixed Income pacing the floor, telling us that he was still trying to get in touch with the HQ in NYC to hear the details, but the only thing he knew was that we weren’t allowed to trade. It was a shame – my desk had been well positioned, short the crisis. But with nothing else to do, by 9am, we were all down in the pub, and spent the day drowning sorrows and getting shaken down by journalists and recruiters.
We all know the headlines that followed. But, on a personal level, some very inspiring experiences emerged from the chaos. Even when the institution disappeared, the bonds of our team endured. Some of my best friends today hail from the Lehman graduate class of ‘08. Most of my trading desk stuck together over the next few years at Nomura, and we all still keep in touch.
The most amazing thing is how many people who were affected by that period are now thriving. In late 2008 and early 2009 it felt like the world was about to fall apart, but we humans have an incredible ability to adapt and change when circumstances force us to. It is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned and I was very lucky to learn it at age 22.
After two summer internships with Lehman, when I started on the grad programme, I was fully expecting to become a “Lehman lifer.” You know, one of those MDs who’s been there for 30 years, boasting about how many job offers from competitors they’ve turned down. Going through the bank’s bankruptcy was an acute lesson in how you can’t take anything for granted. Things that seem certain can change overnight. I fully believe that the experiences of 2008 made it a lot easier for me to “hang up my trading boots” in 2015 to become an entrepreneur.
Of course, it’s now fairly commonly accepted that in today’s economy, people need to be lifelong learners, and adapt to change in order to thrive. But while it might seem like we’ve now moved to an economy built around individual mercenaries who job-hop every few years, the other thing that I’ve learned is how powerful culture and team spirit are in doing good work.
The culture at Lehman was one of the driving forces behind its success, going from an upstart spun out of Amex in 1994, to one of the biggest and best in the business. That portrait of the “Lehman lifer” isn’t a trope, Lehman was filled with them and they were incredibly inspiring. (Tragically, those Lehman employees were also some of the largest holders of its stock). Unfortunately, in the years that followed, Wall Street and the City lost that sense of culture because the world was in such a volatile state. People had to focus on themselves, rightly or wrongly so.
This meant that dynamism, innovation, and progress in the industry slowed. Having had the opportunity to start our own company, we recognise the importance of that tight-knit culture, built around fulfillment and loyalty to a team. Not only does it make work that more enjoyable, it’s how we’re able to perform beyond our abilities with a tiny team and limited resources.
The anniversary of Lehman’s demise has brought with it a lot of talk about history repeating. Can fintech prevent the next crisis? I’m not so naive as to assume that. Our species’ collective greed and fear existed long before 2008, and it will continue long after, regardless of the technological era we’re in.
But in many cases, “fintech” is just finance starting over. The ability to press the reset button means finance is able to rebuild its reputation, albeit slowly. In time, I hope that “finance” will cease to be such a dirty word amongst the general public. It is so important to our society and economy, and it needs to function well. But, it doesn’t matter if the firm is based in Canary Wharf or Shoreditch, as long as it’s treating customers fairly and delivering good service. As a former investment banker and one who believes in finance as a force for good, it’s nice to see that the people who were once trying to “Occupy Wall Street” in 2011 are now evangelical customers of Monzo, Robinhood and Transferwise.
And of course we hope that in some small way, Origin can pave the way for that new generation in the capital markets, too.