by Brian DeChesare Comments (2)

Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking: Career Deathmatch

Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking

If you want to read angry comments and long threads with plenty of insults, you can’t go wrong with the wealth management vs. investment banking debate.

It’s one area where people on both sides tend to talk past each other:

  • Bankers say that wealth management roles pay less, offer less interesting work, and lack good exit opportunities.
  • Wealth managers say that investment banking requires crazy hours, has mostly dull work, and is ridiculously competitive to get into; also, the “compensation ceiling” may be similar in both fields, so why kill yourself in banking?

The truth is that both claims are correct but incomplete.

To illustrate the problem, I’ve created two “career ladders” for these fields:

Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking Careers

Now let’s dig in, starting with a Table of Contents if you want to skip around:

Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking: Job Functions

Wealth managers advise individuals on their investments and may provide other services, such as tax and estate planning.

These individuals are usually “high net worth” (HNW), meaning an average of $5 – $10 in assets, but it could be as low as $1 million. And wealth managers at large banks may advise people with as little as a few hundred thousand to invest.

Some of these client differences relate to the distinction between private wealth management and private banking; for more on that, you should review the the private banking article.

By contrast, investment banking is more about advising companies on transactions such as M&A deals, equity and debt deals, and restructuring.

In wealth management, you advise the same clients over long periods, but in IB, you hop from deal to deal – though some groups do operate on more of a “client service” model.

When a deal becomes “active” in IB, you dive into it and go in-depth into all aspects, from the financials to the buyer/seller outreach to the presentations and more.

You can think of it like this:

  • Wealth Management: Broad and long-term/continuous client coverage.
  • Investment Banking: Deep and short-term coverage (just until the deal is done!).

There is some overlap because at the large banks, wealth management clients often get early/privileged access to investment banking products, such as upcoming IPOs, equity/debt offerings, or new investment products.

The Nature of the Work: Markets, Analysis, Sales, and Interpersonal Skills

Wealth management (WM) requires broader knowledge of the financial markets since you may have to advise clients on everything from their portfolio allocations to upcoming tax changes.

(Note that the scope is more limited in “pure” WM roles; you’ll do more non-portfolio work in private banking.)

Wealth management also requires more sales and interpersonal skills even at the entry level because it is a sales job from Day 1 – and you need to start bringing in clients early to succeed.

There’s much less technical work because your analysis tends to be very high-level. Think: benchmarking portfolios rather than modeling companies.

You will very rarely get exposed to the type of financial modeling that bankers complete: 3-statement models, DCF models, M&A models, LBO models, and so on.

Investment banking eventually turns into a sales job, but only when you reach the VP level or above (roughly 7-8 years into the IB career path).

At the Analyst level, it’s more about grinding away in Excel and PowerPoint.

As you move up in the early years and become an Associate and early VP, it turns into “project management” and making sure your team delivers.

Knowledge of the financial markets is helpful, but you don’t need it like wealth managers do because you just need to understand the deals you’re currently working on.

One final note is that in wealth management, there’s a split between relationship managers and investment professionals.

This split doesn’t exist in quite the same way in IB, so you can get a very different experience in WM depending on your role.

Recruiting in Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking

You should know all about IB recruiting from reading this site, but it’s insanely competitive and starts very early.

To get an IB internship that leads to a full-time return offer, you need to get “pre-internships” in Years 1 – 2 of university, prepare for recruiting by the middle of Year 2, and do a good amount of technical prep – while earning high grades and doing something to make yourself look interesting.

If you miss undergrad recruiting or change careers, you can also get into IB via lateral hiring or from a top MBA program, but these paths take more time (and money!), and your odds are not spectacular.

By contrast, wealth management is much less competitive to get into.

If you have good sales skills, you could break in with a middling GPA (3.0 – 3.5) and without a target school or great internships.

Like any sales job, they hire lots of candidates because it’s impossible to know in advance who will succeed.

The philosophy is to hire many candidates and let them “sink or swim.”

Interviews are broader than IB interviews and require knowledge of asset allocation, economics, and and financial markets, but far less specific technical knowledge.

For example, they might ask you how to use a DCF, what bond yields are, or the trade-offs of debt vs. equity – but but they won’t ask you to build a DCF model or calculate Unlevered Free Cash Flow.

As with the job itself, the theme is breadth over depth.

Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking: Careers and Promotions

At a high level, the IB and WM career paths seem similar: it might take 10 – 15 years to reach the top (Managing Director), and you start out doing analytical work but shift to sales as you advance.

However, the “sales shift” starts much earlier in wealth management, as it’s pretty much a sales job from Day 1 (with some analytical work mixed in).

The first few years are very tough because you start from nothing – but if you build a decent book, the job gets easier since you’ll have consistent revenue from long-term clients.

By contrast, the first few years in investment banking are tough in a different way: tons of work, crazy hours, and an unpredictable schedule.

You don’t need to be good at sales to make it to the VP level; you can grind your way up if you’re good enough at executing tasks and following instructions.

To advance and move beyond the VP level, you do need sales skills, which not everyone has – this is why the more analytical candidates often leave for private equity and hedge funds in the early years.

Investment banking careers are also less stable than wealth management ones, and mid-level bankers often get laid off because they’re expensive and do not yet directly generate revenue.

I would summarize the careers like this:

  • IB: Tough-but-grindable early years; the mid-level roles become less stable and require more real-world skills to advance.
  • WM: The early years are painful because you need real results to advance, but it gets easier as you move up and gain “sticky” long-term clients.

Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking: Compensation and Hours

Salaries and bonuses change each year and depend on the firm and group, but in both careers, you’ll start in the low-six-figure range (e.g., $100K to $200K) and advance from there.

Expect something on the lower end of that range for WM roles at large banks and something in the mid-to-upper-end (or above) for IB roles.

At the mid-levels, VPs and Directors in IB also earn significantly more than the equivalent positions in WM (it’s maybe a ~30 – 50% discount in WM).

At the top, MDs in wealth management can theoretically earn $1 million+ year, just as many investment banking MDs do.

However, it might be more realistic to expect “high-six-figure pay” if you make it to that level and have a good base of long-term clients.

There’s less money to go around because the fees are lower, as most groups charge 0.5% – 1.0% on assets under management (AUM).

Investment banks also charge fees in that percentage range, but they’re charged on deals worth hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.

Some wealth managers eventually amass $100+ million in assets under management, but it’s a very slow process, and there’s a limit to how much in AUM any one group can manage.

As a result, the dollar volume of fees ends up being higher for a similar headcount in investment banking.

Compensation is also more individualized in wealth management, especially as you advance – if your clients generate significant fees, you should still do well even if others in your group perform poorly.

This is not the case in IB until you reach a very senior level (for more on all these points, see the article on investment banker salaries).

Finally, the hours are significantly better in wealth management because you don’t do that much work outside of normal business hours.

So, you won’t pull all-nighters to finish pitch books, and you won’t be called in over the weekend to make last-minute changes to a model.

It’s usually a 50-hour-per-week job, which is significantly better than the 60, 70, or 80+ hours required in IB.

The Top Firms in Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking

Most people would say the top investment banks are the bulge brackets and elite boutiques, at least for entry-level roles.

They do larger, more complex deals and offer better experience, compensation, brand-name recognition, and exit opportunities.

Even as you advance, there isn’t necessarily a reason to leave one of these firms and move to a smaller one outside of very specific lifestyle/personal issues.

In wealth management, some people argue that it’s best to start at the bulge bracket banks for the brand name, compensation, and network…

…but they might also say that the better long-term roles in the industry are at the pure-play firms and boutiques, especially on the “private banking” side.

These firms tend to work with higher-end clients, and the work tends to be more varied and interesting, with less cold-calling and cold-emailing to chase leads.

I could not find data to confirm this one, but I would also assume that the compensation ceiling is higher at these firms because they do not necessarily use a standard fee schedule.

Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking: Exit Opportunities

There are some huge differences here, and it’s tough to argue with the quality of investment banking exit opportunities: private equity, hedge funds, corporate development, corporate finance, venture capital, startups, equity research, and more.

It offers the broadest set of possible exits within the finance industry if you leave early (in your Analyst years).

As you advance, your exit opportunities narrow because PE firms and hedge funds don’t want to pay for expensive VPs or Directors with no direct investing experience.

The corporate finance/development options and a few others remain, but you’re unlikely to exit into a PE mega-fund – or any sizable PE firm – as a seasoned VP in investment banking (for example).

The exit opportunities in wealth management are much more limited because it is an exit opportunity.

In other words, people don’t go into WM to leverage it into another job: They go in it to build up a client book and eventually earn a high income with a good lifestyle.

If you decide it’s not for you, you might be able to move into investor relations, fundraising, or sales jobs, but deal-based roles are highly unlikely.

Even hedge fund and asset management roles are unlikely unless you’ve had a lot of experience analyzing individual companies or doing very technical analysis.

You might have a shot at sales & trading if you’ve had experience with relevant products, such as FX hedges for international clients, but even that is a stretch.

Final Thoughts on Wealth Management vs. Investment Banking

The basic issue is that investment banking “wins” for entry and mid-level roles due to the higher optionality, higher pay, and the ability to grind your way up the ladder.

Yes, IB is far more difficult to get into, and the hours and lifestyle are much worse – so these points count against it.

But if you’re an ambitious student or you’re early in your career, you shouldn’t care too much about these issues.

At the top levels, WM and IB roles are arguably similar, and wealth management might even offer advantages in terms of reduced stress and shorter hours.

But it’s tough to get there, and the burnout/quit rate is very high.

In the past, many students used WM roles at large banks to get solid brand names on their resumes and become competitive for IB internships.

But I’m not sure how well this works anymore because of hyper-accelerated recruiting, at least in the U.S.

It would be smarter to get more relevant internships – anything involving deals, modeling, or individual investments – even if they’re at boutiques or other, smaller firms.

That said, I think the sheer hatred directed toward wealth management in some online forums is quite exaggerated.

From my perspective, yes, IB is “better” for most ambitious/analytical people, but not everyone has the same personality, skill set, or goals.

If you’re very sociable but not the most analytical person, wealth management could easily be a better option for you.

Similarly, if you do not want to work more than 50 hours per week, and you’re in it for the cushy lifestyle after 10+ years, wealth management could also be better.

But remember that it is a different career ladder – and you don’t want to change your mind and fall off when you’re midway up it.

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys lifting weights, running, traveling, obsessively watching TV shows, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Hi Brian,

    I was wondering on your thoughts of portfolio mangement into IB. Given that PM’s can either be in asset managaement or wealth management, could serving in this role versus, say, a CFP, be beneficial since its less sales heavy than traditional WM roles?

    1. Any type of move from WM / AM into IB is challenging because the skill sets are quite different. If you do get a lot of valuation experience for specific companies in the PM role, as opposed to mostly higher-level portfolio analysis, sure, you could make a reasonable run at IB roles, but it also depends heavily on your years of work experience in the role.

      Most people who get into IB from anything in WM do so very early (within 1-2 years) or after a WM internship. There are exceptions, but it’s not as easy a move as you might expect, even if the WM role is at a large bank.

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