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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Catholic masters of the universe


“Masters of the universe” is how Tom Wolfe referred to them in his book about Wall Street, Bonfire of the Vanities. “Baldfaced liars” is how one former female investment banker described her erstwhile colleagues. “Polymaths obsessed with the art of the deal,” said portfolio manager Michael Hardie.

Investment bankers may be any or all of these things, but are they Catholic?

Last month Harvard University President Lawrence Summers indirectly raised the question when he speculated that the scarcity of women in math and science could be due to a lack of intrinsic aptitude in those subjects. Summers compared the shortage of women in the sciences with whites in the NBA, Jews in farming and Catholics in investment banking.

Summers’ remarks elicited national headlines, a cover story in TIME magazine about the gender gap in science, a public statement made in response to Summers’ comments by the presidents of Stanford, MIT and Princeton (the latter two both female scientists), and stormy faculty meetings at Harvard. Finally, the furor may be dying down. Still, questions linger. Among them: Do Catholics hover outside the portals to the palaces of finance?

Statistics on the subject are elusive, and investment bankers today call to mind the Tao Te Ching. Those who know do not speak.

A call to the chairman of Morgan Stanley, rumored to be Catholic, led to the media office, which led to a spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley in New York who declined to comment. Not even her name. Lehman Brothers, a well-known investment bank that traces its origins back to the 1840s, has a diversity initiative aimed at supporting minority employees. If you’re Latino, African-American, Asian, female or gay, Lehman Brothers wants you on its team. But Catholics? Kerrie Cohen, a media officer at Lehman Brothers, said the bank is not allowed by law to ask employees their religion. Ditto Merrill Lynch. Officials at Goldman Sachs did not return phone calls.

Some observers say Summers’ comments are off-base.

“It’s absurd to imply that only a tiny fraction of investment bankers are Catholic,” said Robert LeClair, a professor of finance at Villanova University, a Catholic university in Pennsylvania. “We have an enormous representation of our graduates on Wall Street,” said LeClair, who added that Goldman Sachs recruits in the double digits from Villanova’s business school. “The message is clear that if you’re hiring substantial number of graduates from Villanova’s business program, a substantial number will be Catholic.”

Lee Svete, director of career services at Notre Dame University, said several investment banks recruit at Notre Dame. “We’ve had successful outcomes with Goldman Sachs in New York, Morgan Stanley, City Group, Deutsch Bank. It’s amazing,” he said.

“They don’t give a wing-ding about religion,” John Hotard, director of career services at the Fordham University Graduate School of Business, said of investment banks today. “If you’re very smart, you could be anything.”

Hotard said Summers’ comment about Catholics in investment banking may have applied two generations ago but not any more. “It’s like he’s not read a sociology book in 30 years,” Hotard mused.

Investment bankers are frequently paid millions of dollars to assemble and disassemble companies. Mergers and acquisitions are the heart of investment banking, but such deals don’t demand a large industry.

But if Summer’s comments are considered dated, some concede they’re not per se wrong.

“My experience is that actually they [Catholic investment bankers] are pretty uncommon,” Hardie said.

“Businesses tended to be dominated by one ethnic group or another just for historical reasons,” said Hardie. “It may be loosening up now with people coming from more heterogeneous business schools. Irish bond traders tended to come from the Catholic school system in Hoboken. There were just tons of them. A parallel experience was that you couldn’t go to any dentist in Chicago and not find a Loyola graduate. In finance, the more aggressive [investment banking] houses were built by ethnic minorities, particularly Jewish ones.”

At one time, Catholics were seldom players in investment banking, said John Caron, a retired textile manufacturer in Connecticut. “There were a number of firms on Wall Street that were Ivy League and a number that were Jewish. For years, that was out of bounds for anybody else. But in recent years that has changed. It’s more a meritocracy now,” he said.

Because investment banks charge large sums for the advice they offer corporate clients, being personable is essential. The shy, the inarticulate, the nerdy need not apply, said Hotard.

“Investment banks take very classy people, meaning buffed or polished. If there’s a black kid or a Jewish kid or a Catholic kid who’s buffed and polished, you’ll be fine,” Hotard said.

Ralph DeNunzio, a Catholic who retired as president and CEO of Kidder, Peabody and Company in 1987, considers the topic of Catholics and investment banking a non-issue.

“The fact that I could be the chairman of a well-known 100-year-old investment banking firm had nothing to do with whether I’m Catholic,” DeNunzio said.

What makes for success in investment banking has to do with putting together deals, Hardie said. He described a caste system in finance with the classic investment banker at the top of the pile followed by those in public finance or corporate finance followed by stock and bond traders.

“My experience was that traders all tended to come from the same kind of background. They were all Type A personality, aggressive personalities who needed to win, needed to take risks. Investment bankers were more ethereal, the conceptualizers, the ones who would be sitting at the golf club, bored, and suddenly think that Exxon should buy Shell Oil. And then the next thought, in a nanosecond, would be how much money they would make in the deal.

“The deal is the goal, and the money is the way they keep count of their goal.”

Semi-retired in Vero Beach, Fla., Hardie is still putting together deals. “To deal is to live,” he said.

Margot Patterson is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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