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Wall Street sees a wave of layoffs as big banks face pressure to shrink payrolls

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Goldman Sachs just laid off more than 3,000 workers. Big job cuts are jarring. But on Wall Street, they're part of the way of life. Banking has always lured people with the promise of a big payday. But there's also the understanding that, if there's a bad market or you have a bad performance review, you could be out of work, and it's nothing personal. NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Goldman Sachs has a lot of prestige, and competition for a job there is fierce. Emma Alexander started in May, a couple years out of grad school. And although it wasn't her dream to work in finance, she grew to love Goldman's fast pace and the pressure. Well, a couple of weeks ago, she had to deal with a new stressor - reports there would be layoffs.

EMMA ALEXANDER: There were more rumors going around and more people whispering about it, so everybody started to get a little paranoid - me included.

GURA: That fear kept building, Alexander says. And by last Wednesday, everyone was on edge. That morning, she went to work, caught up with colleagues, and then she got a message from her boss.

ALEXANDER: It said, can you come meet me in this conference room? And I kind of was like, OK, great. It's - I guess it's me. I guess it's happening right now.

GURA: Twenty minutes later, Alexander turned in her badge, and she left her office for the last time. She'd been swept up in the largest round of job cuts at Goldman since the global financial crisis. Like other big banks, it's under pressure to shrink its payrolls. For Alexander, it was a rude introduction to something that's a part of Wall Street life - layoffs. According to David Stowell, a finance professor at Northwestern, they're an annual ritual banks paused during the pandemic that are happening again.

DAVID STOWELL: There is expected to be some cuts every single year at most Wall Street firms.

GURA: Where so much revolves around exhaustive annual performance reviews that assess how much revenue you've brought in and how well you work with your bosses, your colleagues, your subordinates, they have two purposes. They determine how big your bonus is going to be, Stowell says - which is a huge part of your compensation - but these assessments also help determine if you'll keep your job. It's a powerful tool.

STOWELL: Well, in my experience, a little fear is good. It motivates you to do better.

GURA: But Stowell notes there is something high-achieving bankers can't control - what happens when the economy sours and there's a drop in business across the board.

STOWELL: The financial markets are unpredictable and cyclical, and so you live and die with the markets.

GURA: But knowing that doesn't make layoffs any easier. In 2016, John Gooden (ph) was commuting to his job at Bank of America when he saw a report on his phone. The firm had started laying off some of his colleagues. A few hours later, he met the same fate.

JOHN GOODEN: You know, it kind of knocked the wind out of me, and I didn't know really what to do.

GURA: Gooden says he staggered around, called his wife to apologize. He knew the prospect of job cuts was a reality, but it was hard not to take them personally.

GOODEN: They were a part of life. I just didn't think at that point it would have been me.

GURA: Gooden licked his wounds. And although his career has had other twists and turns, six years later, he is still in finance. In fact, many people who are laid off on Wall Street bounce back. And recruiter Tom Ragland doesn't expect it'll be any different this time around - although the landscape has changed.

TOM RAGLAND: I mean, the market's, like, not dead. I mean, there's still hiring going on.

GURA: But now it's an employer's market. In recent years, big tech has attracted talent from financial firms. But now, companies like Amazon and Microsoft are also scaling back. Still, Ragland says these newly laid-off bankers do have options.

RAGLAND: With these Goldman people, you know, people will interview them just because they worked at Goldman.

GURA: Another part of this ritual of annual layoffs is lesser-known banks get an opportunity to pick up talent they might not have had a shot at poaching, according to Ragland. And his advice to bankers who have been laid off is not to wait, but to jump back in to find their next jobs. That's what Emma Alexander is doing. She's networking and sending out resumes, but she's also having a dilemma about her future in finance.

ALEXANDER: I'm in it now. And I love it, and it's great. But I'm also wondering if maybe I should be taking some time and thinking about going back and doing something that I maybe studied for.

GURA: Alexander was a sociology major. She has a master's degree in public policy, and she can't help but wonder whether this layoff is an opportunity for her to try something different.

David Gura, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.