The Bad Old Days at Merrill Lynch

Sexist managers, tedious bond funds, and six weeks working for minimum wage on Wall Street.

Illustration by II

Illustration by II

I am not quite old enough to have personally known Messrs. Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, or Smith, but I did have a brief flirtation with the firm that once bore their names.

The recent Bank of America rebranding announcement came as no surprise to me — in my checkered past I was acquired by the mouthful of a firm known 10 years ago as Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Two years later, the “Smith Barney,” hanging onto its acquiring firm like an ugly barnacle, was expunged. So I guess one question is, why did BofA wait so long to get rid of the ML?

But I digress.

I came to Merrill Lynch through the back door the summer between my first and second years of business school. I’d frittered away the first six weeks of the break in swampy Washington, D.C. on a fellowship at Georgetown studying the relationship between government, business, and public policy. Sounds prestigious, right? It was the perfect program for clueless losers like me who didn’t realize until it was too late that they should have been hustling from Day Minus One of B-school for a summer internship. When I showed up in New York City on Bastille Day, jobless and penniless, my sister generously took me in.

That Monday I applied for work though a temp agency. The next day, I reported to One Liberty Plaza to work as a ‘sales assistant’ in the bond funds department at Merrill Lynch.

With one year of business school under my belt, I had a vague idea of what a bond was, even though Liar’s Poker wasn’t yet a twinkle in Michael Lewis’s eye. (I beat him, technically speaking, to Wall Street by about 15 days.) I might have been able to calculate the price of a bond, if pressed, or explain the difference between duration and convexity, but those skills weren’t necessary. My temp job was not the cushy internship that half a dozen of my classmates were enjoying on the floors above and below where I was stationed — as well as at Windows on the World and in boxes at Shea Stadium. They were earning an astonishing 600 dollars a week to my $3.35 an hour.

In the trenches, I was learning a whole lot of nothing: I failed to find any fun in bond funds. I answered phones and watched weather systems roll in from New Jersey. The managing director I worked under was referred to by everyone in the department as the “Father of the Bond Fund.” He was in his mid-60s, straight out of central casting, and had a girlfriend, a nurse named Pippa, who would sashay across the trading floor into his wood-paneled office for midday closed-door visits. He would holler into the squawk box dictates like, “Ashley, get your pretty ass in here NOW.” Ashley got called in a lot that way.

This managing director had a secret, which he shared with me early in my tenure: He had no idea how to use a computer. He was terrified to turn the monitor on in his office, fearing he’d bring down the entire trading system if he hit a wrong key. He asked if I would come into his office every morning to turn the computer on, and then turn it off at the end of the day. I said yes. He also asked if I would give him private lessons on the setup Merrill Lynch had installed in his Park Avenue apartment. I said no.

One other incident sticks in my mind. On a hot day in late August, the Bond Fund Daddy called me into his office to ask a “special favor.” My mind reeled with the possibilities. He pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and peeled off a dollar. He wanted me to go to a newsstand and buy him a lottery ticket for the midweek New York State Lotto drawing. The prize had swollen to a record $30 million and he wanted a piece of the action. Yes, I did this for him, standing in line for nearly two hours. No, he did not win.

After that summer I swore I would never work at Merrill Lynch or, for that matter, on Wall Street. And I said I would never invest through Merrill Lynch, either. These turned out to be hard promises to keep. I actually did a small, delightful writing assignment for the firm a few years later, and, as previously mentioned, took a spin around (and through) the Citi Smith Barney/Morgan Stanley Smith Barney revolving door. And in 2005, I opened a letter from the brokerage firm I’d parked my paltry fortune at to discover it had been acquired by... Merrill Lynch. There was just no getting away from it. Until, of course, now.