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Making Japanese lemonade from other people’s perceived lemons

January might be the traditional time of year to make a fresh start but that will come as little comfort to the many in sell-side trading desk jobs already on the line in 2012 as weak economic forecasts and low trading volumes force major overhauls at British and French investment banks.

January might be the traditional time of year to make a fresh start but that will come as little comfort to the many in sell-side trading desk jobs already on the line in 2012 as weak economic forecasts and low trading volumes force major overhauls at British and French investment banks.

Rumours the Royal Bank of Scotland would shed more than 10,000 staff turned out to be almost half right, when RBS revealed on 11 January it would chop 3,500 jobs and close a number of its investment banking businesses, including cash equities.

It’s hard to imagine this came as any great surprise. The UK government – with an 84% share in the bank after bailing RBS out in 2008, essentially the bank’s boss – has been increasingly vociferous about scaling back its investment operations, which Tory chancellor George Osborne saw as too risky to be in such close proximity to Britons’ bank accounts.

To further win favour from UK punters angry at the role banks have played in the current crisis, Osborne has come out with the populist notion that the government will stop RBS paying large bonuses to its employees. Osborne knows he cannot dictate the pay packets of RBS staff but it plays well with the British public. Either way, those left standing at the Scottish bank may simply be happy to keep their jobs.

Even before RBS’s cuts, the market was going to struggle to absorb the glut of talent on offer following headcount reductions at all three major French banks. Earlier this year, French bank Société Générale confirmed plans to slash 1,580 jobs from its corporate and investment bank, while last month domestic rival Crédit Agricole said 2,350 heads were on the block, including 1,750 from its investment banking operations. France’s largest bank – BNP Paribas – in November revealed 1,396, or 6.5%, would be axed from its corporate and investment bank.

Now, many of London’s headhunters say they’ve been inundated by equity trader CVs. But where can an out-of-work broker find gainful employment in this slash-and-burn climate, particularly in a sector widely acknowledged as suffering from long-term over-capacity?

While the CVs pile up on one side of the desk, recruitment agents say there aren’t a lot of equities jobs to fill. Fixed income, however, is a different story and it seems certain employment agencies have been very busy plugging gaps and helping expand various bond teams around the City. But any good headhunter will tell you square pegs don’t fit into round holes, so perhaps that well-travelled path from the sell- to the buy-side beckons for some equity sales traders.

For those brokers looking for a quieter life who are not yet ready to trade the square mile for a country mile, it appears some global institutions are creating opportunities from London’s destruction. Andrew Breach, a director at recruitment consultant Michael Page, says he is still placing traders on both the buy- and the sell-side. And some of his latest customers had been Japanese institutions snapping up newly-released traders.

It seems these Japanese institutions realise you can now find amazing talent that you wouldn’t normally see in a more buoyant market. And when you’re staring down the barrel of forced redundancy in foggy old London, a less hectic life under the banner of the rising sun may seem more appetising. Anyone for sushi and Japanese lemonade?

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