Let the Wall Street talent wars begin

By David Ellis, staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Wall Street's long-standing fight for talent is starting to get nasty again.

With profits steadily recovering and deal activity on the rise, investment banks are back to their old, plundering ways.

Bankers that are well versed in dealmaking activity are being targeted by headhunters, according to experts.

"There is a constant war for talent in the financial services sector," said Gary Goldstein, president of the executive search firm The Whitney Group. "Is it heating up? Absolutely."

One recent survey of more than 1,400 financial professionals by the online job site eFinancialCareers.com revealed that nearly three-quarters of those polled had been approached by a headhunter so far this year.

Spring has traditionally been a busy period for headhunters in the financial services industry, as bankers and traders feel a little more comfortable about cutting ties with their employer after securing their year-end bonus.

This year, however, hiring activity for finance veterans has been particularly brisk, experts said. In fact, some say it is stronger than at any other time since the crisis struck in 2007.

John Rogan, a partner and head of the global banking and markets practice at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, says that banks are finally getting around to making the hires they never could when the markets were in turmoil.

More than that though, many are undertaking a hiring blitz in order to ride the wave of merger activity that has already begun and that many believe will escalate in the coming months and years.

The number of mergers and acquisitions announced so far this year is up 24% from a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters.

"M&A experience is at a premium," said Rogan, who added that bankers who've worked on energy and bank mergers are being the most heavily recruited.

Experts contend that workers in the advisory business aren't the only ones getting calls from headhunters these days. Equity and fixed-income traders are also of particular interest as of late as Wall Street firms try to nurture those parts of its business.

The hiring frenzy however has not necessarily resulted in a big payday for everyone though. Associates with only a year or two under their belt are not necessarily getting the call from headhunters, experts said.

Nor are some of newly-minted managing directors. Unlike some younger staffers, their services don't come cheap. At the same time, they typically don't have the same expertise that more senior-level directors have.

Official figures on employee turnover within the securities industry is difficult to obtain. But it appears Wall Streeters seem more willing to jump ship than they might have been only a year ago.

Interestingly, experts say it is not out of fear of financial regulatory reform efforts taking place in Washington or the numerous state and federal investigations facing firms like Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500) and Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500) over their dealings leading up to the crisis.

Rather, workers are feeling emboldened now that the brutal job cuts that took place across Wall Street appear to be in the rearview mirror.

So far this year, the securities industry has added about 5,000 jobs through the end of March, according to the latest employment numbers published by New York State. Figures for the month of April are due to be published later this week.

"Those folks who are still down there are breathing a sigh of relief," said Ken Goldstein, an economist with The Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, who tracks labor market activity.

Optimistic as industry employees might be, the outlook for Wall Street is hardly rosy.

Many of the top securities firms and investment banks are expected to show only modest growth in profits through 2012.

At the same time, employment levels on Wall Street aren't projected to return to their pre-crisis levels in the next three years, according to a report published in late March by the Independent Budget Office, a non-partisan agency that reviews the annual New York City budget.

So while rainmakers might enjoy feeling wanted again, chances are they won't enjoy multi-year compensation guarantees or other spoils by joining a rival like they did by during the go-go years.

"Wall Street will not go back to what it was," said The Conference Board's Goldstein. To top of page

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