LONDON (Reuters) - In a small French village, nestled deep in Languedoc-Roussillon wine country, Gary Langton is putting the final dabs of paint to his bed and breakfast before the first guests arrive.
It’s the type of pet project many Britons dream of, though the opening of the restored 18th century silk farm, complete with heated swimming pool, is not without its stresses.
Less than 18 months ago, Langton, 58, faced an entirely different type of pressure as Italian bank UniCredit’s global head of loan syndications and a top UK boss.
He is one of a growing group of London investment bankers either turning their backs on the industry for good, switching to smaller finance boutiques or setting up their own, put off by what some see as the greater demands and diminishing rewards of their jobs at big banks.
While recruitment specialists say the financial crisis has not dimmed the industry’s allure for graduates, it’s the fallout from 2008 and the wave of new regulation that is mainly frustrating those in senior ranks.
For Langton, it was the “scare management” post-crisis, and the pressure on staff to make money despite taking less risk, and with fewer people, that prompted his departure.
“There was a period of time when management teams were running around like headless chickens,” he said, speaking by phone from his chambre d‘hotes near the town of Uzes, surrounded by Roman ruins and some of the Mediterranean’s most scenic wilderness.
“There were across the board decisions that everything had to be cut by 30 percent for example, rather than a strategic look at the business.”
In the past year, most top investment banks, from Switzerland’s UBS to Germany’s Deutsche Bank, say they have embarked on precisely that: deeper, more strategic reviews of their models.
But that doesn’t mean the outlook is any rosier.
Stricter rules on capital are forcing banks to retrench drastically in some areas like bond trading, and the end of debt-fuelled banking is also hurting returns, meaning cost-cutting is key to getting firms back on track.
Return on equity at investment banks, a key measure of profitability, will drop to 6.8 percent in 2013, JPMorgan forecast last week, compared with 13.6 percent before new rules on capital and trading were introduced.
This bigger picture is adding to the various smaller irritations which Langton, for one, said were already gnawing at him: years of 5:30 a.m. starts and a financial crisis that suddenly turned bankers into “the worst people in the world”, causing him to pretend at dinner parties that he was a teacher.
Ajit Madan, 39, a former leveraged finance banker who left Societe Generale in 2010, said the souring atmosphere within banks also made work tougher.
“There was a lot of politics within banks, people knifing each other in the back because they all wanted to survive. I hear it’s even worse now,” Madan said.
He said running Camellia’s Tea House, a specialized tea shop in London’s fashionable Carnaby Street set up with his sister, could be as tough as banking in terms of hours and challenges. But the attractions of that world changed post-crisis.
“We were still working very, very hard but bonuses were being sucked up by strategic issues in the banks,” he said.
While more expensive executives further up the banking food chain leave, graduates are still drawn to the sector often by the high levels of pay on offer that might allow them one day to strike out alone.
The crisis, and recent scandals like an explosive public resignation letter by a former Goldman Sachs employee last week which criticized the firm’s “rip-off” culture, have done little to put applicants off.
Competition for places is hotting up, though this is partly as a result of cutbacks - vacancies in investment banks and funds could be down more than 40 percent for 2011-2012 compared with 2010-2011, according to an Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) survey.
Starting salaries at investment banks and funds are still much higher than elsewhere. They stood at a median level of 38,250 pounds ($60,600) a year in the 2010-2011 recruiting season, according to the AGR, well above the 24,750 pounds on offer at accountancy firms.
Cambridge economics student Marc Ramelet, 25, said a third of the 100 people on his masters course wanted to be academics, but another third were aiming for banking jobs.
Pay was a key consideration.
“We speak quite often about it, like ‘this company did badly, they cannot pay their bonuses’. It’s something that comes into the conversation quite often,” Ramelet said.
Even at some of the firms most obviously damaged by the crisis, like Britain’s part-nationalized Royal Bank of Scotland, applications are up year on year, said its head of graduate recruitment, Mike Maddick.
“We believe we pay well, and there is also a huge emphasis on the fact we train well ... we progress graduates quickly. That really counts,” Maddick said.
“Graduates are practical. With unemployment as it is, they are just focused on getting jobs.”
RBS, which implemented large cuts at its investment bank this year, may reduce intake in the division by 10-15 percent, although the bank’s total graduate intake of about 700 people a year would most probably be stable in 2012, Maddick said.
Where the younger generation of graduates and those leaving their more advanced banking careers find common ground, however, is the increasing pull of the smaller, specialized investment banks or funds.
More of these firms are scouring universities for post-graduate students to fill one or two positions, career centre directors said. Since 2008, it’s these types of boutiques that many investment bankers have also left to join, or to set up.
The exact number of moves is hard to track. But the more than 130,000 job cut plans announced last year by major U.S., European and Asia banks have been an added catalyst.
Regulations have a bearing too: small partnerships are not always subject to stricter rules limiting upfront bonus cash payments, like bigger banks are. Funds can also bet with their own money, which banks in the United States will be banned from.
A different mindset and focus outside the big banks is often cited as a reason for joining small firms.
A new breed of merger and acquisition specialists that cropped up in the past decade, such as Moelis or Perella Weinberg, are attracting more staff, and those now setting up similar firms praise the appeal of a pure advisory model.
“Within a full-service investment bank there is a temptation to use M&A advice as a marketing tool for bringing in debt or equity mandates that pay higher fees,” said Kevin Pakenham, a founder of Pakenham Partners, a boutique focused on advising asset managers.
Pakenham, who co-founded the firm with colleague Krzysztof Owerkowicz, said bureaucracy in larger organizations could also be “distracting and frustrating, eating up a considerable amount of emotional energy”.
He set up the firm last year after leaving advisory business Putnam Lovell, bought out by U.S. firm Jefferies in 2007.
While Pankenham’s three person operation in London’s smart Knightsbridge area may seem far removed from the world of big investment banks so many have grown up in, it’s still not quite as dramatic a leap as that made by Langton or Madan.
And while those with an exotic entrepreneurial calling are in the minority, many more are starting to share the desire to never go back. “It’s so liberating compared to what I did before,” said Madan. ($1 = 0.6307 British pounds)
Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary; editing by Elizabeth Piper