The IES clearly kick-started your international career. What played a key role in your decision to leave for the UK?
From early on at the IES, I was interested in expanding my horizons at some university abroad one day and so I kept looking for the right opportunity. For that, the IES provided not only excellent academic training but also, more broadly, a very supportive environment with helpful professors and staff.
First, I spent half a year at Humboldt University in Berlin as part of the Erasmus programme. Subsequently, I was fortunate enough to win the Chevening Scholarship which allowed me to pursue an MPhil in Economics in Cambridge. The scholarship was really the key reason that I decided to head for the UK.
Honestly, had it been a different scholarship, for example for the US, I would have gone there and perhaps would be doing something completely different today. It was one of those random moments in life that sends us in some direction and we never look back. Nonetheless, after my return I worked at the Czech National Bank for a year and when I decided to pursue a PhD, I chose the same destination. So the second decision was quite deliberate and it was based on the quality of the university and, broadly, the way of life in Britain.
Apart from your IES studies, you also earned a PhD at the University of Cambridge. You even lectured there. What was the most interesting part about the university?
It was a combination of interesting classmates and professors from all around the world and also the history of the university and the city. Cambridge is really a smaller student town and so it has a different atmosphere from what one would experience when studying in the centre of London or New York.
The University consists of 31 relatively independent Colleges and each student is a member of one of them. I was at King’s College whose Chapel you may know as one of the symbols of the city, but most of my classmates at the Faculty of Economics were scattered around other Colleges. This system generally facilitates much easier and more frequent encounters of students across study programmes. In our system, it is much more likely that a student gets through university surrounded practically at all times only by people studying the same subject.
Another difference was the much greater individual attention that undergraduates receive through a system of supervisions, in which the subject matter presented in lectures is discussed and explored in small groups of two to five students. Each student has a much greater opportunity to express their ideas in discussions or ask questions about parts of the subject matter that they didn’t understand. I experienced this in the role of a supervisor and lecturer, and one of the most rewarding aspects of it was working with a large number of very talented young people. Now I meet some of them at work as colleagues or clients.
Regarding my classmates in the MPhil and PhD programmes, they were mostly excellent economists who now work at universities, central banks, international institutions and in the private sector all over the world. In principle, the experience was the same as at the IES, only more international.
You’ve worked as a credit strategist at Deutsche Bank in London for nearly 9 years. What does Brexit mean for your situation at work, is it affecting you?
Of course. Firstly, the risk of various Brexit scenarios is reflected in the prices of assets in financial markets, so I write about Brexit and discuss it with our clients. Secondly, Brexit means uncertainty for bankers in London because their jobs may move to Frankfurt, Paris or Dublin.
At the time of this interview (December 2018), it is unclear if Brexit is going to be hard, soft or none at all. Many banks, however, are not going to wait and have already started to move some jobs out of the UK. In reality, of course, most bankers want to stay. They like this international city in an English-speaking country where their kids go to school and their spouses have their own careers. For example, I have colleagues in the Sales department who service exclusively clients in the Nordics or Southern Europe. These colleagues have known for over two years that in the case of a harder Brexit, they would have to move their family to Copenhagen or Milan.
The regulator wouldn’t tolerate “letterbox” entities whereby banks establish subsidiaries with an EU banking license but really continue to conduct their activities out of London as if nothing ever happened. Key employees and decision makers would have to be physically present in the EU and once some people are moved for regulatory reasons, banks would have internal economic incentives to move additional roles.
In my view, most individuals have chosen the wait-and-see approach, if only because it’s not yet clear what will actually happen. Still, I know some people who have decided not to wait. In the last couple of years, some of my German colleagues have headed to Frankfurt partly to “front run” potential overcrowding in the housing market and to avoid the fight for spaces in schools for their kids. As another example, an American ex-colleague who is now working for a competitor recently jumped at the opportunity to transfer internally to a different role in New York, largely out of concern that his London position might be moved to Frankfurt.
Of course, much more important than these anecdotes is the fact that the uncertainty has discouraged many firms from investing in the UK. Neither individuals nor businesses like uncertainty.
What exactly do you do in your job? Is it mostly analyses or dealing with people?
It’s both research and marketing. In particular, my job is to analyse the global market with corporate bonds and credit derivatives, publish reports about it and discuss the findings with clients who trade those instruments. Our communication with clients takes all forms, from chats to emails to phone calls to personal meetings in their offices all over the world. Part of my role is also to help colleagues from the Sales & Trading department, to co-operate on internal projects and to answer questions from the management.
What are your future plans? Can you imagine yourself moving back to Czechia or is the market “too small” to offer you any career opportunity?
I can imagine absolutely anything.
Firstly, in investment banking one can never plan too far ahead. When my former boss was hiring me into his credit strategy team in 2010, it was a top team in the Street and it was being expanded by nearly 50% based on the expectations of the firm that more profitable opportunities were ahead. From New York to London to Singapore, there were ten of us in the team including the boss. Five years later it was just me and my boss, and a few months after that, I was alone. Since then I’ve merged with a different team that has been stable for a long time, but this experience illustrates quite well that even the best intended plans in banking can change very rapidly.
Secondly, one day I may simply feel like doing something different, be that in the UK, Czechia or anywhere else. Several of my colleagues from Research have made a transition to our clients’ firms where they manage assets as portfolio managers. I also have many colleagues who have, after many years, decided to return to smaller European countries and found a way to utilise their experience. Of course, most of the time it means that one needs to adjust to the fact that local markets may not offer as wide a range of opportunities and instruments as international markets, but one always loses something and gains something else. If the latter prevails, there’s nothing to think about. Moreover, I believe that in the age of globalised markets, the difference between the needs of local and global investors has diminished quite a bit.
At the moment, I like my current job and I’m not planning a career change; I just never say never. I’ve also thought many times about doing some part-time teaching again, but given how little time I have, it’s unfortunately out of the question for now.
How do you spend your free time? What is the job of a London banker like, does it offer enough work-life balance?
I admit I don’t have much free time because I’ve taken on quite a few interesting projects at work. On the one hand, I like the work, so that’s not a complaint. On the other hand, one of my resolutions is to find a bit more time to relax than in previous years. My wife and I like to travel, both in the UK and abroad, and we have neglected it recently. Otherwise, I don’t pursue any exotic hobby or adrenaline sport, so I doubt anyone would be interested. I like swimming, jogging and relaxing with my wife while taking walks, going to the cinema or cooking.
Regarding the work-life balance of London bankers, I think the situation has improved in recent years. We even have some internal information campaigns which try to convince employees to use all their holidays and not burn out. As the labour market and employee preferences change, banks try to respond by offering more flexibility. Last year, some banks here even gave employees an extra week of annual holidays.
Of course, this is true for most but not all bankers. If some employees who are in positions which allow them to create their own commercial opportunities decide to take on more work in order to increase their revenues or expand future options, they will have less time left. However, this is no different from anyone who is trying to keep their small firm afloat or from an academic who thinks all day about their research. It would be odd to try to dictate to them how much time they can spend working.
Generally, I’d say that at some point in one’s career in banking, one spends a lot of time at work but it improves over time. Young people still have an enormous interest in getting jobs in the industry, partly because the starting salary is the same as what one gets paid in other sectors of the economy after ten years of experience. So a little bit of determination not to leave until things get done is part of the deal.