Investment Banking Vs. Hedge Funds

Financial professionals view Investment banks and hedge funds as the most desirable employers in the industry. Both offer excellent career prospects, high compensation, and attractive exit opportunities.

While investment banking is a highly competitive space where only stellar candidates are hired, the hedge fund space is even more competitive. There are a number of reasons. There are far fewer jobs available and very high hurdles even for entry-level positions. While both careers require strong academic credentials and an aptitude for numbers, candidates are also expected to demonstrate solid communication skills. However, not everyone who joins a hedge fund has a degree in finance. Expertise in other sectors, for example, commodities or technology, can help land a position that demands specialist sector knowledge. Degrees in mathematics or physics are also attractive, given the highly quantitative nature of many investment strategies. Whether investment bank or hedge fund, don’t expect a 40-hour work week. Double that figure is common, but in return, the earning potential is significant, especially with hedge funds. In addition, both offer excellent exit opportunities when professionals decide to move into other areas.

Key Learning Points

  • Both career paths have some of the highest standards of any industry and require an aptitude for numbers, financial literacy, and strong interpersonal and communications skills.
  • Investment banks serve their clients by offering support, advice, and execution across IPOs, M&A, debt financing and broker execution.
  • Hedge funds invest client assets, and must generate investment ideas in order to construct and manage portfolios.
  • Hedge funds can offer eye-watering salaries, but only the most talented investors achieve that level of compensation. However, even junior hedge fund positions are extremely well compensated. It comes at a price though, with 60+ hour weeks the norm.

What is Investment Banking?

Investment banks raise capital for a diverse set of clients, ranging from public and private companies to institutions and governments. When an investment bank structures a stock offering for a client, they may underwrite the issue (buying the stock from the company and reselling it in the market) or sell the stock through best efforts. In this case, the client bears the risk. Banks may structure bond issues, give advice on mergers or acquisitions, value companies, restructure businesses, or raise capital through initial public offerings (IPO) or secondary offerings. Investment banks typically have a brokerage arm through which they trade for institutions and private investors.

The day-to-day activities in investment banking are diverse and depend on the function and seniority of the role. Some positions include in-depth security research that serves as a basis for stock recommendations while others connect buyers and sellers and provide liquidity. The hierarchical structure varies across institutions, but typically new graduates start at the analyst level, while MBA graduates start out as associates. It takes a lot of hard work and 80-hour weeks to progress to vice president, senior vice president, and finally managing director. The work is challenging, the deadlines are tight, and analysts and associates may be tasked with working on specific deals on top of their regular workload.

Investment banks are classified according to size based on several factors, including trading volume, number of employees, and number of offices around the world.  Banks fall into four categories – regional boutiques, elite boutiques, middle-market, and bulge bracket investment banks (smallest to largest). The latter include familiar names such as JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley, as well as HSBC and Barclays in the UK, French BNP Paribas, and Societe Generale, Switzerland’s UBS and Credit Suisse, and Germany’s Deutsche Bank.

What are Hedge Funds?

Like asset managers, hedge funds manage money for their clients through pooled vehicles (funds). However, unlike mutual funds, hedge funds employ sophisticated strategies and invest in complex products. Their objective is absolute return, regardless of the market environment (market neutral), and they do not measure performance relative to any benchmark index. Hedge funds are part of the alternative asset class and are riskier than mutual funds. They are available only to institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals.

Despite performance challenges in recent years, institutional money managers have significantly increased investment in hedge funds. Although hedge funds are considered high risk,, they can actually help reduce portfolio risk since they typically have a low correlation to the broader market and offer diversification benefits. They invest in a broad variety of asset classes and use varying strategies like long/short equity, fixed income arbitrage, global macro, and more. They may invest in traditional asset classes such as equity and fixed income, but also in commodities, derivatives, private and real assets, art, and more. Common hedge fund clients include sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, insurance companies, wealth managers, and charitable organizations.. They are also known for charging high fees, often following the ” two and twenty models,” or 2% of assets under management plus a 20% performance fee. A thriving hedge fund can prove to be lucrative.

The hedge fund hierarchy resembles that of asset management firms. The structure is relatively flat. Portfolio managers are responsible for the overall management of the strategy and are supported by a team of analysts who generate investment ideas. Team sizes are normally dependent on assets under management, so the larger the size, the more employees are needed. However, hedge funds that invest based on quantitative models tend to require fewer employees.

As with asset managers, hedge fund managers meet clients on a regular basis and discuss the investment process, portfolio construction, positioning, and performance. Hedge funds are not subject to the same regulation and disclosure standards as mutual funds so the risk and compliance function structures may vary across different organizations. Some of the largest hedge funds include Bridgewater Associates, Man Group, Renaissance Technologies, and Millennium Management.

Education and Skills

When it comes to education and skills, both investment banks and hedge funds look for talented individuals who are numerate, articulate, knowledgeable in finance, and offer strong soft skills as well. While a bachelor’s degree is considered a prerequisite for both, many analysts choose to pursue postgraduate degrees such as a Master’s in Finance or an MBA after a few years of experience in order to advance their careers.

Notably, most hedge funds require previous experience in investment banking, asset management, private equity, or another adjacent area. Even junior positions at hedge funds demand candidates with some experience. Take our online investment banking course, and get the same training as new hires at the top 4 investment banks. The course covers accounting, financial modeling, and valuation. Enroll in our online private equity course to master core technical skills, from in-depth financial statement analysis to structuring complex add-on acquisitions in a leveraged buyout.

Another way to demonstrate a higher level of competence is by obtaining professional qualifications. This route is popular with hedge funds as they require robust investment knowledge. Typical qualifications include the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and the Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) designations.

In terms of specific skills, both roles require financial modeling, financial statement analysis, risk and performance analysis, as well as strong market knowledge. Hands-on experience with financial software is also often required, depending on the role, as is familiarity with popular data providers such as FactSet, Bloomberg, Morningstar, and Thomson Reuters.

Last, but not least, strong communication, presentation, and writing skills are essential. Our online business toolkit course will help you develop your presentation and writing skills to communicate effectively and build your brand.

Hours and Salary

Lifestyle and work-life balance are a challenge in both careers. Investment bankers may work anywhere from 60 to 80 hours per week or even more, and often work at least one day on the weekend. Work hours at hedge funds vary and depend on market conditions. A work week of 50-70 hours is typical, although hours can vary.

Compensation for both career paths can be high. Entry-level positions for analysts at bulge bracket banks typically start from $90,000 with bonuses ranging (based on performance) anywhere between 50% to 100%. However, hedge funds typically offer starting salaries in the range of $80,000 – $120,000, depending on experience. Bonuses are highly dependent on the fund’s performance and may range as high as 2-3 times the base salary. After a few years of experience, investment bankers earn approximately $150,000 in base salary, while compensation at hedge funds may be significantly higher.

Exit Opportunities

Since both careers are intellectually demanding and recruit only top professionals, it is not surprising that there are attractive exit opportunities available to them. The financial expertise acquired working in investment banking is applicable in areas such as asset management, private equity, venture capital, and hedge funds. Investment bankers looking for a better work/life balance might consider asset management, while those seeking higher compensation may look toward private equity and hedge funds.

Turnover in the hedge fund industry is relatively high and can be attributed to the fund’s success.  Many hedge funds fail to meet their objectives and shut down. Exit opportunities for hedge fund managers and/or analysts, apart from finding a role at another fund, include joining a long-only asset manager or venture capital firm, becoming a sell-side equity research analyst, or undertaking entrepreneurial projects.

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