Friday, February 21, 2014

Not Worth Dying For

Paying the ultimate price for ambition

This SCMP article provides further details of the 33-year-old JP Morgan FX trader who jumped to his death in Hong Kong earlier this week. Sources cited “work stress” as a prime reason for the young man’s action. Thoughts and prayers go out to his loved ones.
(R - E) = H, or Reality minus Expectations equals Happiness. This is a handy formula to measure mental well-being; both variables need to be present in proportionate quantities to get a positive result. The banking industry is at a crossroads where that formula is falling out of whack far too easily. On the one hand, expectations remain high. Movies such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” don’t help. Despite depicting the obvious ills of debauchery, the movie and book evoke a nagging sense of “those were sure good years” for many now chasing their fortunes. Banking is still regarded as one of the most lucrative professions in the world.
In Asia (particularly China), the lofty expectations are further amplified by cultural and economic pressures. In the past two decades, values have become skewed towards material and professional success, away from life balance, spiritual well-being and physical health. It’s a sad fact that China and Japan rank highest among countries where overworked workers commit suicide. Korea is no doubt close behind.
However, the reality of the banking industry is that its best years are clearly in the past. Fees have been falling across all business lines. Regulations and compliance issues have stiffened over the past few years, limiting risk taking and profit opportunities. The public and media continue to vilify banking practitioners without differentiating between the vast array of businesses that bankers undertake. Hiring practices in Asia have come under close scrutiny, despite the fact that hiring well-connected professionals who open doors in local markets is a marketing strategy deployed by companies in every industry.
Globally, banks have been taking steps to address the issue of overwork, trying to mandate maximum working hours per week and change the hell-bent culture of their institutions. As laudable as such intentions may be, much else needs to be done (and some time inevitably needs to pass) before the industry’s evolution can settle down to a point where the (R - E) = H formula produces results that are more consistently in the black. In the meantime, let's hope that all young professionals, even bankers, keep their lives in perspective.  

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