It’s an industry often characterised by frantic flash, but an inside perspective tells another story
Illustration: Joe Watson-Price
I joined a stockbroking firm as a trainee straight from university. Always having had the gift of the gab, according to friends and family, I knew I was a natural salesman (and couldn’t face being an estate agent).
The stockbroker stereotype is a shouty, trouser-braced blowhard, juggling three work phones while simultaneously arranging cocktails, and performing mental arithmetic. Truth is, even a raised voice is unacceptable unless it’s the customer’s, no one wears braces, and hangovers tend to get in the way of superhuman workplace feats.
The daily workflow is mostly driven by information from the market. For instance, if the BP share price (or that of another major company) freefalls, you’d expect to mostly speak to people about that for the rest of the day. There were quiet times, and some absolutely manic ones. Trading shares in mining, oil, and arms companies, I wasn’t particularly engaged with the ethics of my work – and probably wouldn’t have survived if I had been.
When it comes to the experience of individuals trading frequently in shares, the old investment adage of ‘buy low, sell high’ is rarely achievable. Many of these retail customers use their smartphones to invest their cash during their lunchbreak. Brokers bombard them with marketing, but don’t always have their best interests at heart.
Brokers traditionally make money by charging a commission for their services and access to the markets. In some cases though they’re ‘on the other side of the deal’ – when they’re due to profit from a customer’s wrong spread-betting gamble. It’s tough for anyone to make rational decisions that way, and advisory stockbroking services are astronomically expensive.
Getting it right is hard. Current financial regulation is a double-edged sword; while rightly you cannot sell your general feel for the market, you also cannot even caution against a customer’s wild instructions without having done multiple advisory exams. This can lead to some interesting situations.
One former colleague described dealing with an uncle in charge of the family portfolio, who’d managed to lose thousands. One day my colleague returned his call and gradually realised he was being conferenced by the entire family in one room, while the uncle told them that the responsibility for the loss wasn’t his, but the broker’s. He duly received a surround-sound bollocking – for an hour.
I left six months ago; knackered by the hours, sick of customers’ greed (played on by aggressive marketing), losing them money, with regulation not allowing me to warn them, and then being blamed as a result. With many recruitment firms based in Bristol, there are plenty of young, confident replacements available in comparison with other cities. Lots of them will probably have the same experience as me.