Bankers Say Humbug to the Holidays

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of a booming RTS, it was the age of a global credit crunch, it was the epoch of President Vladimir Putin, it was the epoch of Dmitry Medvedev, it was the season of comfort and joy — and it was the season of the BlackBerry.

So might have written Charles Dickens, in describing this New Year's holiday. Yet while pretty much everyone else sees the end of the old year as a chance for fun, relaxation and relief, for Moscow's investment bankers the good news is, well, bad news.

"What do you mean by a real vacation? Are you suggesting it is time to retire?" said Ruben Agabegyan, the workaholic CEO of Renaissance Capital in Russia, in response to a reporter's question about how he would be spending the end-of-year vacation.

While most ordinary Russians go on a marathon 10-day New Year's holiday spree from the end of December through to Orthodox Christmas and beyond, the city's bankers are likely to continue keeping a vigil, watching the world's stock markets tick up and down — whether they are at the office, in the dacha, on the beach or off the piste.

The idea of temporarily parting with one's job is anathema to many such bankers, who simply find it nigh-impossible to wean themselves off of the peregrinations of the market, or to put away their crystal balls-cum-handheld devices, even for a week or two.

"Home Alone … and Bored," read the Boxing Day note to investors from one frustrated chief strategist for a Moscow bank, his Blackberry-thumbs no doubt twitching for lack of markets news to analyze.

And even when all is well over the holiday season, you can bet some investment banker somewhere is fretting — about the country's future, the appetite of the market for their latest IPO, or just the size of their bonus.

"When the economy is stable, it is the worst time for investment bankers because you have to run as fast as you can to seek out clients. But when there's volatility, clients go out looking for you," said Igor Lojevsky, chairman of Dresdner Kleinwort in Russia and the CIS.

Lojevsky says he is not allergic to resting between jobs — a little like taking a brief nap on a plane, he says — but "flights are very difficult and it's not fun to stay in hotels even when they are fancy."

But Lojevsky said doing away with the vacation altogether could be devastating, even catastrophic, for young investment bankers and their families.

"In my own case, it is easier because I have a grown-up son and daughter. They lead separate lives, so it's just my wife and me."

And there are other occupational hazards, such as being completely disconnected from the office or making a vacation too much of a real break from work.

A period of relative calm can, therefore, be worse than storm clouds looming on the economic horizon.

Agabegyan, of Renaissance Capital, said he loved to rest in faraway places, go skiing in the winter or sunbathe when it's warm. But his carry-on baggage always includes a laptop, cell phone and BlackBerry, which he schleps around with him — even to the beach.

"Of course, yes, I always take my work with me. Mobile phone, computers, nothing is left behind," Agabegyan said. "A booming stock market and political stability are just as bad a state of affairs as economic crisis. They complicate the economic instruments. Things looking calm means we have to work twice as hard and maybe cast a wide net for new professionals."

Even though bankers' vacation time can be measly, sometimes a two-week stretch once a year, whenever Nikolai Kravtsov, head of trading at Dresdner Kleinwort's Moscow office, gets some downtime, he is always eager to travel.

"I love the Mediterranean, Greece and the Black Sea. Although Sochi is a beautiful place, for me the picturesque coastline of Greece is the ultimate," Kravtsov said.

But along with his wife, 7-year-old son and grown-up daughter, Kravtsov says his BlackBerry always goes with him.

"My vacation cannot be strictly described as a full vacation," Kravtsov said.

"The thing is, quite often, you feel guilty about missing work. I think about work practically [all the time] and automatically check my BlackBerry and flip open my phone for messages."

Kravtsov says he receives about 300 e-mails daily while on vacation, and always tries his best to respond to at least 10 of them.

"Even though the political situation is stable and there is a feeling that the general economic course will remain the same, bankers do not have the privilege of relaxing," he said, adding that he would be "sticking around" during this New Year's holiday.

For Vladimir Tikhomirov, chief economist at UralSib, the best way to unwind and relax is to hide in faraway places "where communications are sufficiently unreliable to afford bankers some time off.

"I am going to the Maldives with my whole family this year. It is not a place where you can easily establish a connection with the office," he said.

But that trick comes with a caveat: Turning off the phone comes at a price.

"An investment banker cannot afford to wear earplugs," Tikhomirov says. "I always try hard not to carry a phone and laptop with me, but it doesn't usually work out. If you shut yourself off from news for say, a week, the situation in the market can change radically — and not always for the better."