Despite giving up all my portfolio gains for the year and then some, I’m thankful for the incredible recovery we’ve had since 2009. Without the bull run, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay unemployed since 2012. The value of money comes nowhere near the value of time.
It’s sad the good times are going away. For so long, it’s been so easy to make easy money. Unless you’re Juggernaut, it’s probably not a good idea to step in front of a bus. The stock market is clearly telegraphing a slowdown in corporate earnings, and the economy by extension. The housing sector usually takes several years to work its way through a funk.
The Fed has also made it clear it will continue to raise rates, no matter how much carnage there is in the short term. You would think they’d slow down their pace of rate increases in 2019, but I wouldn’t count on them being rational. With the yield curve resuming its flattening as investors find safety in longer duration treasuries, we need to seriously be careful about how much risk exposure we really want to take. Flat or inverted yield curves have seldom ever signified good news for the economy. Build your CD step stool folks.
Enough of being a measured voice through times of volatility.
During this Thanksgiving holiday, I wanted to share one extremely lucky event that occurred in my life. During times of difficulty, it’s always good to reflect and be grateful for what we have. I hope you will use the holidays to reflect on some of your fortunate events as well and share.
The Secret Phone Call
The year is 2001 and the Nasdaq, down 50%, just celebrated its one year anniversary of hitting its peak. I’m finishing up the second year of my analyst program, paranoid that I won’t be getting the invite back for my third year.
I always knew my chances for getting a third-year analyst role were slim-to-none since only superstars get to continue. But I kept the faith, much like cryptocurrency investors have erroneously kept the faith all year. I was truly a subpar performer who didn’t belong at the best investment bank in the world at the time.
I dressed poorly because I didn’t know better as a public school kid who never had to dress up. Once, my VP barked at me, “Get that dog collar off your neck!” referencing a Hawaiian shell necklace my girlfriend had given me. I guess there is a benefit of going to an expensive prep school after all.
I annoyed people. Another time, as I was humming something indistinguishable while reading some research material, an MD on the Latin America sales desk told me to keep quiet. She was the same MD I had had to get permission from to buy an MCI Worldcom call option, which had quickly gone to zero after purchase. I’m sure she thought I was an idiot.
There was a reason why I had to go through 7 rounds and 55 interviews to get my job. No desk wanted me. I was an outsider who was forced into their vaunted club by an African-American recruiter named Kim Purkiss who never gave up on me. I owe her so much.
As a junior analyst on the sales trading floor, one of my jobs was to pick up and screen phone calls for all our senior colleagues. Our desks were arranged in I-formation, with my boss sitting at one base of the I and me sitting on the side. His face was always obscured by a couple Bloomberg trading monitors. We communicated by shouting.
At 9am, my boss’s phone rang and I hit his button on my large 20 line turret as quick as lightning. The trading floor was buzzing with activity in anticipation of the market open at 9:30am.
“Hello, can I speak to Tom, please? It’s Jim,” said the man on the other end. Jim was calling from Hong Kong, where it was 10pm. Jim was the Head of the Asian Equities business at the time. He was the big, big boss.
“Hi Jim! It’s Sam. Nice to hear from you. It’s late there. Hope all is well. Let me see if Tom is available. One sec.” I blurted out like a middle school boy trying to talk to a girl for the first time.
I zoomed in between Tom’s monitors and saw he was staring at his screen while pounding away at his keyboard.
“Tom! Jim is on line one!” I yelled as the buzz on the 49th floor of 1 New York Plaza started to crescendo.
Tom didn’t acknowledge my call, but he picked up the line by saying “hello.” Not wanting to hang up on big bossman Jim in the middle of the night in Hong Kong, I stayed on to ensure they connected. In the past, I had sometimes accidentally hung up on the caller before a teammate hopped on. Our phone turrets were confusing as hell.
Jim immediately blurted out after Tom said hello, “I need to talk to you about Sam. We need to make a decision on whether to keep him or not.”
My ears perked up! Ethically, I should have hung up. But out of sheer curiosity and survival, I pressed mute instead. My future depended on it.
“Jim, it sounds like we have a position open in Taiwan? But I don’t think Sam would be a good fit, despite his Mandarin skills. He’s unfocused because he’s always trading stocks while at work.”
Oh crap! I knew all my trading would come back to haunt me. I was already given a talk a couple times before about how I was spending too much time trading stocks, and not enough time focusing on my job. It would have been a dream come true to move to Taiwan to work.
“OK Tom, we’ll look elsewhere to fill these open positions. Guess that’s it for Sam. Goodnight.”
My heart sank. My boss didn’t like me and I knew my days were numbered. It was mid-April, 2001.
The Second Phone Call
Knowing my last day for employment would be sometime in June was depressing, like I was waiting for the electric chair. Plenty of people I knew were getting laid off and I was starting to panic mentally. Tom hadn’t explicitly told me I wouldn’t be asked back, but I wasn’t going to wait to see if he did.
Then another phone call came one early May afternoon. This time, there was no need for me to pick it up because the VP sitting next to me did.
During my job interview process, Elaine had been my harshest interviewer. A graduate of Barnard College and The Wharton School of Business for an MBA, she was a strong woman you did not want to mess with. Just when I thought I had gotten the job, she requested to interview me a second time over coffee and asked more grilling questions.
After about a minute of conversation, Elaine said while on the phone, “I think you might want to speak to my colleague here.” She turned to me, told me to pick up the phone and have a chat.
I was confused, but I did as I was told. On the line was a guy named Michael. He had a nervous stutter.
“Hi there. Your colleague said you might be interested in working for a competitor covering west coast clients in San Francisco. Are you interested?” Michael said.
Are you kidding me? Hell yeah, I’m interested! I thought to myself. But I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I responded calmly, “I’m not sure Michael. I’m in a really good spot here. The offer would have to be extremely compelling for me to leave.”
“Sure, I understand. Let’s talk more in private when you’re off the desk about what it would take to make you move.” Michael responded.
I was thrilled! I turned to Elaine after I had hung up and told her thank you. She was looking out for me because she also knew my days were numbered.
The Offer Package
I took a day off in order to fly out to San Francisco and meet the team on a Friday. They were a great group of fellas and I especially liked the guy I was going to work directly under. He was intelligent, hardworking, and loved to enjoy life. At Berkeley, where he went to undergrad, he was the Bud Light rep on campus. Everybody loved hanging out with him.
One thing led to another and the new firm offered me everything I had asked for:
* An Associate title, reserved for those who had gone to business school or those who continued to be superstars after their third year as an analyst.
* A 64% base salary raise to $85,000 from $55,000.
* A guaranteed bonus of $50,000 for the year, even though there would be only six months left if I joined.
* Subsidized housing for two months and $6,000 for relocation expenses
I went from being out on the streets in a month to getting a raise and a promotion in a new city with a new firm. This series of events was absolutely one of the luckiest turnarounds of my life.
For the next seven years, my boss and I competed against my old firm and often won. When my boss decided to leave to a large client, I ended up running the business and hiring a couple people to work for me for the next four years. Of course, since we had such a good relationship, I became a top 3 relationship as well.
It was a fantastic ride that culminated with me engineering my layoff at 2012 and preparing my junior colleague to take over. It was his time.
Embrace All That Is Lucky In This World
It’s easy to get down on ourselves. I’m my worst critic by far. But sometimes, we’ve got to look back and appreciate all the good that has happened to us. Let’s not take our good fortune for granted.
Being able to write about my time earning only $40,000 a year in Manhattan as a first-year analyst is a blessing. It reminded me of this lucky memory that had so long been shelved away. I’m telling you, writing will extend your life because you will remember more of it.
It’s painful to lose money in the stock market and real estate market. It’s terrible to lose a job you had no intention of leaving. Let us accept that bad things will happen all the time. And when they do, let us not forget all the good luck we received that got us to where we are today.
Readers, what are you thankful for this holiday season? Please share a lucky break that you may have forgotten or taken for granted until now.