Chinese students want to know: How do i get rich?
A good article written by a professor in Wharton Business school.
Take a look and think seriously about what you want to achieve.
A business school professor asks himself what he hath wrought.
In February, three Wharton faculty colleagues and I had the pleasure of dining with 19 visiting students from one of China’s most prestigious universities. The students were young. They were charming. They were very intelligent. And they were very, very goal-directed.
My colleagues and I had each prepared brief opening remarks, but the students were having none of it. They had elected a delegation leader, and the delegation leader, as quickly as possible, got to the question the students all wanted to address: What are the implications of the current financial and economic crisis?
A colleague in the accounting department gave them a careful, scholarly, even-handed explanation of how firms’ decisions on the repricing of assets in their portfolio could perhaps have been used, perhaps unintentionally, to create false expectations in the marketplace, and could have been done in a way undetectable to auditors, leading to over-investment in toxic subprime assets.
No, that’s not what the students wanted to discuss. With much less tact, I explained that, indeed, mispricing of assets at an inflated price could have been deliberately used to create the illusion of value, and this could then have been used to create the very real rewards of wealth for the financial engineering wizards responsible for the scheme.
This got us much closer to the questions that the visiting students wanted to address. Their first round of questions were basically, How can I get that job? How can I get a high-paying job in investment banking now?
My colleagues and I attempted to convince them that those jobs simply will not exist again, at historical levels of compensation, in the months or years before these students’ graduation.
This led to a second round of questions, like, What can I do while working as a desk drone in an audit firm in China to ensure that I can get into Wharton, Harvard or Stanford, and get a job in investment banking later? The students were patient. They did not need a job with a $10 million bonus now, as long as the prospect of receiving it later would still arise.
I then suggested that perhaps they might work for companies that made things. Actual things. With a burgeoning middle class that would soon be larger than the entire population of the U.S. or Western Europe, surely there was going to be a huge domestic market for things in China. The students could pursue careers with companies that were working to develop and to sell appliances fit for a Chinese home, or mass-market, branded consumer package goods for the new middle class Chinese consumer.
This was met with stares from the students. Another colleague from the management department suggested that Chinese retailing and distribution offered two other growth opportunities for a bold young entrepreneur. Again, we got mostly stares.
I then explained that there are really only three ways for an individual to earn tens of millions of dollars a year:
–Create a company that creates real wealth and keep a piece of the company. Bill Gates did that at Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT – news – people ), and he is, probably, still one of the five wealthiest men in America. Vanderbilt (railroads and shipping), Carnegie (U.S. Steel (nyse: X – news – people )) and Rockefeller (Standard Oil) did it, too. These men played hardball, seeking to crush commercial competitors, but they did successfully transform America and the world.
–Facilitate the creation of real wealth by others and keep a piece of each transaction. J. P. Morgan convinced European investors that they would earn far more investing in the fastest-growing industries in the United States than they would investing in their more developed, more mature and more slowly growing domestic markets. He directed the capital that led to the industrialization of the United States. American industrialists got rich. European investors got rich. America was transformed, and his share of each transaction ensured that Morgan became wealthy as well.
Venture capitalists, early round investors in new companies and firms that underwrite their initial public offerings all facilitate the creation of new companies and the creation of jobs and wealth, and profit from it. Early investors in Microsoft,Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ), Oracle (nasdaq: ORCL – news – people ) and Apple (nasdaq: AAPL – news – people ) all profited quite handsomely from it.
This used to be the principal function of Wall Street firms other than those principally in retail brokerage. But it produces individual Wall Street executive wealth only slowly, and only when Wall Street produces increases in national wealth. Patient men like Warren Buffett still facilitate wealth creation, and Buffett may be richer even than Gates.
–Steal it. Stealing money is much more reliable than earning it. You can steal wealth slowly, the old-fashioned way, buried within the operations of trading for the house account. Or you can steal it quickly, by using obscure and poorly understood financial artifacts to produce the illusion of wealth creation. Then you take a piece of the illusionary wealth, as personal cash, now. Then you exit and duck for cover before the entire game blows up. Better yet, you can sell your private equity firm to naïve investors for one final twist of the knife into the carcass of your nation. (Deliberate fraud, like those allegedly committed by Bernie Madoff or Robert Allen Stanford, is too crude to be of interest to young financial engineers, and too likely to result in extreme punishment.)
I then suggested that if students were not interested in earning their money through entrepreneurship (too risky), then investment banking in China offered the next best alternative for personal wealth creation. Facilitating investment in, and growth of, companies catering to the wants, needs, cravings and longings of China’s growing middle class, offers Chinese investment bankers a path toward personal wealth by creating national wealth, much as J. P. Morgan did for America.
The students, though, were uninterested in banking in China. After the students left, it took my colleagues and me a couple of hours to figure out why this was so. I-banking in China is about improving China. The students saw i-banking in America as being about improving their own personal wealth, first and foremost; if the client could be assisted without too much personal inconvenience then and only then did they see American i-banking as also being about value creation.
I asked myself, What have we done? When I thought that the craze for private equity careers and investment banking careers among the brightest Western students was the fault of Western business schools, I felt both shame (for perhaps having contributed to this) and fear (for how we as a nation could possibly compete with foreign nations where the best and brightest young students sought real careers).
Perhaps the fear was unwarranted. Perhaps the best and the brightest students of other nations also wish to transform their homelands from economic dragons into paper tigers, following the Western model. Interestingly, our own students are indeed learning to manage, learning to market, learning operations and production planning and logistics; they are working hard to get ready for a world of things. Perhaps America doesn’t have as much to fear from foreign competition as we thought.
Eric K. Clemons is a professor in the Information Strategy and Economics Group at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.