Inside the doors of an investment bank

A walk-through of the key revenue-generating areas of a 21st century investment bank

Many people still rely on the popular stock image of the investment bank portrayed the 1980s cult classic Wall Street – but is that what it’s really like to work in one?

To help separate fact from fiction, we take you on a tour of some of the key revenue-generating departments of a typical investment back. We’ll look at the kind of work these institutions are involved in, and how they really make money. 

Location, location, location

Many of the London offices of the world's major investment banks are located in the City, close to financial landmarks like the London Stock Exchange, the Bank of England and insurance market Lloyds of London. 

A significant number of banks, however, have made the leap eastward to Canary Wharf on the site of London's former docklands, most notably Morgan Stanley, which owns a portion of the Canary Wharf estate. 

A few banks can be found further afield – leading French investment bank BNP Paribas's London headquarters are in leafy Marylebone, and a handful have chosen to base themselves in West London hedge fund-land, Mayfair.

In truth, however, location is of little importance to the business that goes on within the walls of these global financial institutions. Whether you're talking corporate acquisitions or commodities trading, the vast majority of what happens takes place through electronic trading systems, on conference calls, or by email. And the ubiquity of smartphones means that bankers don't even need to be at their desks to get their business done.

Screens and beans

Once you get past reception and, inevitably, some rigorous security and elaborate floral displays, you'll be able to take a close look at bankers in their natural habitat. Whatever the department, you're likely to find that things are open-plan, as swift and easy communication is critical in most banking roles.

You'll also notice that many workstations have two or three screens, and sometimes many more. This allows bankers working on complex spreadsheets, acquisition models, or financial product structures to look at several data sources at once. 

Traders, who usually have to monitor data from various exchanges as well as sending emails, keeping up with news and referring to documents like everyone else, are likely to have the largest number of screens – perhaps as many as six or eight.

You'll notice that some of these screens look a little different to your standard desktop interface. It's a Bloomberg terminal – the access point for Bloomberg's vast financial and corporate information library that uses its very own specially designed monitors and interface.

You're also likely to see cups of coffee and sugary snacks on bankers' desks – working hours here are often long and intense and a quick break to source an energy fix from the firm's canteen provides a chance to stretch the legs. 

Team games

One of the key zones in most larger investment banks is the trading floor. It's here that, as you'd expect, the traders are based, and you're likely to find the sales and structuring teams here too, with the research department not far away.

Work here is all to do with using the sale and purchase of shares, bonds, commodities and derivatives to assist clients with their business objectives and to protect their interests. At some of the biggest banks you'll also find proprietary trading teams on the trading floor who work with the bank's own capital to make profits, and to protect the bank against risks it might face.

Popular culture likes to portray the image of the trading ‘pit’ – where floor brokers scream and frantically wave bits of paper at each other. 

In reality, pit trading has long been replaced by electronic trading platforms, where buying and selling is done via computers. The floor can still be a pretty noisy place, though.   

The other main section of an investment bank is its corporate finance and advisory division. Bankers here assist and advise businesses, helping them to raise money, to buy and sell other companies, or to restructure their financial affairs in the most advantageous way possible. 

Here you'll find bankers specialising in different types of fundraising. Some will focus on assisting companies with raising money through the capital markets, usually either by issuing shares or debt products, while others will help companies who want to borrow money directly from one or more banks. 

There'll also be bankers working on corporate transactions, particularly the sale and purchase of companies.

At most larger banks, teams in both of these key divisions – that is, those based on the trading floor and those focused on corporate finance and advice – will typically concentrate on a particular financial product or service (such as equity derivatives, or restructuring), a specific industry (such as energy, or retail), or a particular region (such as the Middle East, or Latin America).

Different teams will often work together, depending on the scale of the assignment. However, it's worth noting that communication is limited by law in certain ways between the trading floor and those advising clients on transactions to prevent the bank's trading teams unfairly benefitting from inside information on a deal.