Introduction to the financial markets

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Efficient, well-functioning financial markets lie at the heart of every successful modern economy.

To the student, whose knowledge of the financial industry may have been coloured by the criticisms of the anti-globalisation protestors, this could sound like a tendentious statement.

Apart from anything else, the financial industry appears to newcomers to be a world of bewildering complexity, shrouded in the kind of impenetrable jargon of the kind one might associate with a character like Subtle, the smooth-talking fraudster in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist.

Bankers talk knowingly about collateralised debt obligations, equity-linked products and synthetic options. They take up greenshoes and draw up volatility smiles. They measure client wallet-share and when it comes to managing money they do it in everything from vulture funds to long/short hedge funds.

However, stripped of the jargon and the bells and whistles, the basic function of the financial industry could not be simpler, more fundamental, or more important. The industry exists primarily to channel money from savers to borrowers, from those who have surplus capital to those who need capital to finance trade or expand businesses.

Take the various financial markets in shares, bonds and derivatives. Some markets are organised and regulated by a central body such as the stock exchanges for trading shares or equities. Some derivatives are also traded on organised exchanges.

Other markets are informal and operate over-the-counter with participants communicating by telephone or the internet this is how the bond markets work and many complex derivatives are also traded in this way.

But all markets share the same primary function of channelling capital from those who have it to the companies that need it. Their other very important secondary function is to provide a market for people to exchange securities so that the original investors in a company or a bond can sell on the shares or bonds they own to other investors and are not locked in.

Most of the jobs in the financial industry described later in this publication are related to these core functions of channelling capital or intermediating between investors and companies.

Indeed securities firms and banks are often described as financial intermediaries for this very reason. Within the industry there are numerous people employed in gathering together money together from individuals or other big financial organisations such as pension funds to invest in companies.

Numerous others spend their time researching and evaluating companies to decide which are a good bet for investors to put their money. Others work out the best financial structures for the companies to use in order to raise money.

One of the reasons the financial industry is such an exciting place to work and there is such competition to join the best firms is because bankers and financiers are invariably involved in the great moments of the corporate lifecycle: the corporate equivalents of birth, marriage and death.

Bankers raise the money for companies to start up, they advise them on mergers or takeovers - this is the corporate warfare to conquer and acquire that the dealmakers of the investment banking industry are involved in - and when companies fail, the bankers are often there dismembering them or breaking them up and selling off the pieces.

As a place to work, the investment banking and securities business is intensively competitive. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The work is hard and the hours are long. Working weekends is all part of the job and when a deal is happening, it can mean working throughout the night. And those who do not live up to the exacting standards required, do not survive for long.

However, in return for the long hours and intense work, the industry offers a stimulating environment working with highly intelligent colleagues. And for those who succeed, there is the prospect of both wealth and power.

There is no other business where it is possible to earn such spectacular sums at a relatively young age. Although the industry has been going through one of its periods of cost-cutting and falling bonuses after a long period of expansion, the pay packages are still enormous. Many bankers earn more in a year than much of the population will earn in a lifetime and the best in the industry are rewarded on a par with soccer stars.

As for power, the top bankers and fund managers can wield enormous influence over the fate of corporations and sometimes governments. The top players in the business have access to the captains of industry and sometimes prime ministers and finance ministers.

However, for everyone who gets to the top there are dozens who make up the foot soldiers of the financial industry. And despite the exacting standards, things do sometimes go wrong and mistakes are made, sometimes of seismic proportions.

Take the great speculative bubble in dot-com and technology companies, which finally burst in the spring of 2000. Numerous bankers and investors made huge misjudgements. Without exception all the big financial players were caught up in the frenzy, which will go down in history as one of the great speculative financial manias of all time, alongside the South Sea Bubble and the Dutch tulip mania in the 17th century.

Because of the important role banks play in the economy, banking has always been a tightly-regulated industry and in many European countries there has been a great deal of government intervention and involvement. But in recent years the industry has undergone big changes in many parts of the world.

The privatisation trend and globalisation of the financial industry have driven many of these changes, forcing mergers and restructurings that have changed the face of the business.

The arrival of the single currency in Europe has been another important catalyst for change and has had a dramatic impact on the financial industry in continental Europe. Investors can now invest across borders, markets have been liberalised and opened up and barriers to foreign entrants have disappeared.

One important result of these trends is that financial power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the big players, many of them US-owned. The big investment banks have become giant, multinational organisations employing thousands and the old distinction between commercial and investment banking has become increasingly blurred.

As the organisations have become bigger, the pressure to generate business and cover the enormous overheads has become more intense. Some of the older hands say this has changed the culture of the firms and the industry is less fun to work in that it used to be.

However, there is no shortage of younger people keen to join and for those who do not want to work in the large integrated investment banks or the big fund management firms, there are many alternatives.

Despite the concentration of power, there are still plenty of medium-sized firms and many new boutiques have sprung up in recent years.

Sometimes they are filling a particular niche or they are boutiques that specialise in a narrow field. Sometimes they are small organisations run by like-minded people who want to re-capture the old partnership culture that used to be so common in the financial industry.

It means that there is plenty of variety for anyone looking for a career in the world of finance. And those who join the financial industry can be sure of one thing. It is a world that is constantly changing and evolving and a career in the financial industry certainly will not be boring.