Investment banking may look glamorous from the outside, but the mundane reality of spreadsheets and slide shows is hard to dramatize. Industry, a new series from the BBC and HBO, tries. It follows a class of recent graduates working their way through Pierpont & Co, a fictitious London investment bank. While the series fails to make finance exciting, it accurately reflects how little the industry has kept up with the changing world of work.
Industry, whose directors include Girls creator Lena Dunham, was written by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, who worked in finance about eight years ago. At the beginning of the series, some of the new recruits, of diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, join the division that advises companies on mergers, while the others, including the protagonist, Harper, take their positions on the floor.
Like many fictional portraits of finance, the series struggles to tackle its jargon-laden theme. Harper trades with credit default swaps and almost lost a lot of money in a single transaction. Instead of confessing, he keeps his position open, waiting for the dollar to strengthen. Against all odds, the loss turns into a gain and Harper strengthens his relationship with his mentor. It is a sequence that any non-expert viewer will find difficult to follow.
The biggest problem, however, is the unrealistic degree of autonomy the series grants its young leads. While the look and feel of the sets is eerily accurate, Industry overlooks how regulated investment banking teams are.
I worked as a recent graduate investment banking analyst at the time of the last financial crisis. Even minor contract offers are passed from one hand to another in a multi-person chain before closing. Even the most promising young man will have a hard time making an impact, let alone spending time with a client.
The series is very similar to other series about young people, but with the occasional forced reference to Margaret Thatcher. Attempts to introduce more up-to-date stories (for example, portraying a client as a predator who abuses Harper), fail. The abundance of drug use seems gratuitous.
An outdated business
However, the series does capture the outdated nature of the inner workings of the industry. While those on the trading and sales floor roughly adjust to market hours, analysts in the advisory division work all night on deals. As shown in the series, the fact that a set of presentations, laminated as it has been for decades, needs a reprint for a minor mistake is the last straw for a night’s vigil. While it is true that the culture of long hours at the office has softened a bit in recent years, it is still very present in banking. This approach seems all the more jarring given the pandemic-induced shift toward working from home.
Also, in the trading business, Harper saying a price to a haughty customer over the phone is something that smacks of a bygone era. This world may attract impressionable graduates who want to wear Hermès ties and hang out at nightclubs in London’s West End, but it is far from edgy. The representation of the banking diversity vision, which resembles ticking off boxes on a list, also sounds authentic: the characters joke about two people of color they’ve never met who have been photoshopped into a brochure.
The disconnect between the high-octane image of investment banking and everyday reality is little new. Like the characters on the show, I thought a career in banking would mean taking luxury trips to emerging markets in designer clothes. In the end, my only business trip was a tourist flight to the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, where I spent five days writing loan records in a smoky data room. The fact that the work paid so little per hour made me reluctant to spend the money.
The search for staff
Today, investment bank graduate recruiters compete for talent with industries such as technology or consulting. The tech startup discourse may be more credible for 21-year-olds seeking autonomy in a modern work environment. They also have more opportunities to offer work that seems more ethical to intelligent young people concerned about their purpose in life.
In comparison, the analog banking world of laminated papers and landlines that Industry portrays lacks dynamism. If you want to keep attracting the brightest recruits, this industry could use a facelift.