(Bloomberg Opinion/Allison Schrager) — I remember the exact moment in 2007 when I knew the financial industry was headed for a reckoning. There was no data point that tipped me off, no great insight about the housing market. It was a conversation with a man who worked in finance. He had no real interest in his job and didn't seem particularly knowledgeable or curious about financial markets; he had studied English in college. But he was making a lot of money, and he was the first person who told me about "the number."
The number is the amount you need to earn before you turn 40 so you never have to work again. This man, who was about my age, was close to his number. The economist in me, who finds markets fascinating but was then a poor graduate student, saw this as a warning sign: If an industry is paying high salaries to people who aren't great at what they do, then something is wrong. It is a bubble — a bubble in human capital.
I was reminded of this conversation last week when I read this anonymous account of a technology entrepreneur worried that he may never hit his number. The crowd chasing big, fast money has moved on — to the tech industry. But the gold rush is just about over.
Consider what has happened in the financial industry in the last 16 years. Columbia Business School, based in Manhattan, traditionally attracts people interested in finance. In 2007, more than half its graduates went into financial services; its annual employment report did not even list technology as a category. Just five years later, "tech/media" was attracting 8.3% of its graduates, and in 2022, the share was 16%. Meanwhile, only about one-third went into finance.
The trend is even stronger among undergraduates at elite universities. In 2007, 47% of Harvard undergraduates went into finance; in 2021, just 21% did, while 17% went into tech. Of course by definition only a small slice of the population attends elite schools, but it is illustrative because these are the students with the most job options.
To be fair, the tech industry seems a productive place for students to take their talents. It is full of innovative companies claiming to make the world a better place, and some graduates will inevitably start their own businesses, creating jobs. But there is a limit to how many people an industry can richly reward.
That anonymous tech entrepreneur, for example, started a successful company — but he's still looking for his big exit and probably won't be able to retire young. Part of his problem is he is too late. Tech's outsize rewards depended on nascent firms getting lots of venture capital and eventually going public or, more likely, getting acquired by a larger company. But the number of deals and IPOs has fallen off a cliff, and this trend will probably continue. Higher interest rates make financing harder to come by, and big firms have less capital to buy startups.
The tech industry will probably shrink, too. It will still be an important part of the economy, but employing fewer people and offering more normal returns.
Now the question is where young people seeking wealth will turn next. From the Age of Discovery to the actual California Gold Rush to Snapchat, it is human nature to chase fortune where you can. It is a large part of what moves an economy forward.
But these modern settings for this quest — the finance industry and the tech industry — are unusual in that they attracted many people who expected to get rich even if they lacked two things normally associated with extreme wealth creation: creating lots of value for the economy, and taking smart risks.
The fact that anyone thinks things should be different is simply the result of the historically low interest rates of the last few decades, which helped make capital incredibly cheap. The price of capital is the price of risk, and if it is effectively zero, then it stands to reason that easy fortunes can be made risk-free.
Of course that was never true. Even in a world of near-zero interest rates, risk does not disappear. It is just shifted to other people, sometimes unwillingly. Lots of the venture capital money that funded tech came from public-sector pension funds. So the risk was being borne by retired teachers and firefighters (or taxpayers on the hook for underfunded pensions) — just as the froth in the financial markets in the 2000s ended up costing low-earning homeowners.
Will higher rates make it harder for the next generation, now entering the labor market, to pile into the next new thing? Not necessarily — but the migration may be smaller. I suspect, based on my conversations with the most opportunistic people I know, that the next boom will be in green tech. Even if interest rates stay high, government money offers capital without much risk (at least to people in the industry).
As with finance and tech, the boom in green tech will on balance be good for the economy. But there will lots of waste — of talent and capital — in the process. Like finance and tech before it, the new industry will attract its share of obnoxious people in it just to hit their number. Such is the price of progress.