International College of Economics and Finance

"Role of individuals in My Life Story"

Denis has studied BSc Mathematics in Economics at NRU-HSE Nizhny Novgorod, and after that entered the ICEF Master’s programme. In his interview he explains how he made that decision, talks about his work in Merrill Lynch and shares his opinion regarding the difference between Russian and European investment banks.

You studied in Nizhny Novgorod for your bachelor’s degree. How did it happen that you entered the Master’s programme in Moscow after that?

My way was not an easy one, and it took a long time to make this decision. Approximately at the end of my third year I understood that I wanted to continue my studies in Moscow and not in Nizhny Novgorod. On the fourth year I visited all HSE open days in Moscow. Almost after the first open day I was choosing between two Master’s programmes: Strategic Corporate Finance of the faculty of Economics and “Financial Economics” of ICEF. It was based on the fact that by that time I wanted to develop myself in the sphere of Finance only. By that time I did not think of exact career way, I only had the direction. Almost at the same time I was ready to make my choice in favour of ICEF. That was simple to explain: my undergraduate programme Mathematics in Economics in Nizhny Novgorod was like a “small family”. There were only few of us, we did not communicate a lot with the students from other programmes, were very close to each other and to our professors – they knew each of us in person. I did not want to lose such a format of studies. I was expecting to get something similar at ICEF, and as a result my expectations were satisfied.

Was it difficult for you to make a final decision? What influenced your choice?

As I have said, I was making my choice between two programmes only: SCF and ICEF. The second option was the first best but I was in doubt whether I could stand the high standards of the programme. I did not have illusions and understood that the requirements of ICEF programme for the students are very high.

The turning point was the meeting with Olga Balakina, graduate of HSE (Nizhny Novgorod campus). After her bachelor studies she entered the ICEF Master’s programme, and now she is doing a PhD at Bocconi University. I still remember that meeting which was held in Izmailovskaya Hotel which at that time served as a dormitory. The meeting was crucial. Olga helped me to realize that I could enter the ICEF programme and succeed. After that I was doing all my best to be admitted and to make a good portfolio.

What did you include in your portfolio?

My bachelor thesis, on which I worked hard for quite a long period of time under the supervision of my professor Andrey Aistov. Due to his professional recommendations I managed to make a good academic paper that won the HSE competition. Also I attached some certificates, diplomas and letters from scientific conferences, including two from MSU conference.

What was the topic of that scientific works?

My thesis was about the so-called signaling theory on labor markets. It turned out to be a much applied topic and I am still using its results. The main idea is that the higher education serves as a signal for future employers regarding the “quality” of an employee and his ability and willingness to work. I illustrated this fact by a huge volume of statistical data using econometrical methods.

Did your wish for a career in investment banking affect your choice to enter the ICEF Master’s programme?

To say the truth, while studying in Nizhny Novgorod I knew almost nothing about IB, since nobody was telling us anything about it. And at that time, to speak about the role of individuals in my life history, human factor played its role again. On my fourth year of studies a graduate from our university (and currently an employee of UBS bank) Alexander Nagornov came there with a small master-class about the career in an investment bank. Those events are quite typical for HSE in Moscow but by that time were very rare for HSE in Nizhny Novgorod. Many things he said were obscure for me, but I was very interested and decided to learn about this field. I believe that it was after that meeting when I started to think about a career of investment banker. However I made the final decision to start a career after I had entered the programme and done a course of Vyacheslav Ivanov.

Speaking about the ICEF programme, how far were your expectations fulfilled?

Very far indeed. I did not have illusions. When I am invited to the ICEF Master’s open days I always repeat a phrase (it is not mine, but I believe it is true): “It would not be easy, but it would be interesting!” And it all was exactly like that. I did not have illusion that it would be an easy faculty to go through. There were several difficulties. The first was the deepness of knowledge. The second was the fact that all the material is given in English. English was a challenge which makes work being more difficult, however when you overcome it you get an access to a huge base of knowledge. You stop worrying about applying and making an interview in “top” companies.

What I want to stress (and what is realized only when some time has passed) is that ICEF changes your way of life and thinking. Studies became to me a certain life “filter” which puts away all that does not really matter and determined the direction of my further personal development. Going back to my bachelor thesis, it could be said that ICEF diploma became a serious signal for employers. That was a good school of hard work and self-development – one of that steps which are essential for making a successful career. But of course, apart from that, it is important to choose what you are interested in and do what you really like.

You mentioned studying in English. Did it take a long time for you to get used to it?

Yes, it was a difficult step. I would say first several months were spent on adaptation. I have never complained about my level of English, I had been participating in language Olympiads many times, but I have never lived abroad, so the total immersion in foreign language was a certain challenge for me.

You mentioned the course of Vyacheslav Ivanov. Which other subjects did you find useful for the future career?

I would be pragmatic here. I am thankful to all professors, because one subjects, mathematical first of all, serve to structure your way of thinking, make it more systematical, however my attention, as of a person who was concerned about a career in private sector, was concentrated by more practical courses which were taught by people directly from business. Those are already mentioned Vyacheslav Ivanov, also, Alexander Zaporozhskiy, who reads a course of Strategic Analysis, and also Mikhail Moshkov, whose course, in general, repeats the courses mentioned above, but does it from a slightly different point of view. There were other interesting subjects, risk-management for instance, but by that time I have already chosen the certain direction of development so I paid my attention mostly to subjects connected with corporate finance.

Did you get a grant for study at ICEF?

A good question…I got a place at the programme without any discounts. For that time it was a very serious challenge for me, because I did not have enough money base. Then a hard and determined decision was made: I took a loan for studies. At first I wanted to use the credit program that HSE offered, but then my friends and associates helped. At that time the sum seemed to be very big and I still had a chance to enter SCF on a granted place, but the more I got acquainted with ICEF through communication with current students and professors, the less I wanted to enter any other places. Actually, that was the time when my investment project “Master’s study” was launched.

If you consider your study at ICEF as an investment project, what was the result of it?

The NPV of this project was high above zero.

Did you have a granted place for your undergraduate studies in Nizhny Novgorod?

Yes, of course. I had a granted place because I was the winner of an Olympiad.

Now you are working at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. How did you get there?

It was a hard way. At the beginning of my studies I received a circular email from ICEF to my personal address with information about an open position of intern in the Investment Bank Merrill Lynch. It was Research-department in the sector of Metals & Mining. I responded to the vacancy and passed the selection process, unfortunately the position was canceled at last. I remember clearly that call and the final phrase of HR worker: “We would not forget about you, and would come back to you”. At that time I thought of it as of a gentle refusal but it turned out to be that they really meant it. Almost two years later, when I was an employer of Alfa Bank research department, they kept their word. They called me, reminded me about that conversation and offered me a full-time position at the research department, in a key Russian economy sector: gas and oil.

Does that mean that you worked in Alfa-Bank during your studies at ICEF?

No, I worked in Alfa Bank after the graduation from ICEF, since September 2012. During studies I did an internship in Deutsche Bank. I worked there from April until September during the time between my first and second years on Master’s programme. After that, I tried myself in industry since February 2012. I did not work for long there: I understood that it is simply not my thing. I think it is very good I realized that during the studies and by that saved a lot of time. Since September 2012 until April 2013, after graduation, I worked in Alfa-Bank.

What is the full name of your position at Merrill Lynch now?

The position is called “the analyst of oil&gas and electric power sectors” because I am responsible for both sectors of the economy.

How does your regular day now look like?

Intensively. I think that the day of an analyst in any investment bank is more or less standard. Work starts quite early. In the morning I analyze the news, communicate with Russian and London sales departments, execute clients’ orders. By 3-4 o’clock in the afternoon, when USA “wake up”, we make calls with our American team. Apart from that we constantly communicate with other companies, have meetings with top-managers in order to better understand the market. Work day usually finishes after 8 o’clock in the evening. “12+” is a standard schedule for investment bank, however during our studies at ICEF we were busy almost the same time, so that time schedule does not scare any more.

Last year a story about one employee of an investment bank who died tragically after he worked several days without stop was very popular…

Yes, I heard about it. Still you have to understand that human beings are working in IB. And I think that was not the problem of bank, but the problem of that man. Even I saw a lot of interns who were ready to do anything just to get a full-time position, thinking that they would get piles of gold and some incredible happiness, after watching movies about the Wall Street. They could do just anything to achieve that: make bold attempts, work hard without taking care about the health and ignoring their personal needs. I guess that story was an example of how a person wanted to make an IB career and lost himself on his way to this goal. It is absolutely important to understand what exactly you want, but is even more important to evaluate your personal strength and means to achieve your goal.

It is said that work in Russian and foreign investment banks is very different in the terms of workload. Is it true?

I worked in London and could say that there is some difference, but not huge. Just the working time is moved: You have to be in the office by 6 o’clock in the morning because of the time difference with emerging markets. However, those who do not work with emerging markets and are responsible for the Europe and “the rest of the world” have an opportunity to come later. But since London is the financial capital of Europe, the competition on the labor market there is much higher than in Russia. However, from the words of my colleagues, the competition in Asian financial centers (Hong Kong and Singapore) is even higher. In Russia it is little bit easier, at least in terms of emotional comfort. Here you compete mostly with graduates from local universities or from foreign universities who wish to come back home after graduation. In Europe the competition is global.

Where do you see yourself in the future, in Russia or abroad?

I am a patriot, and I think that my career would be connected with the work in Russia in any case. Our Economy is only 20 years old and, despite all the difficulties, we are having a huge potential for growth.

This interview was conducted by Nikita Krylnikov and translated by Maria Ovcharova