Ranking of Investment Banks by Different Categories

1. Definition of Investment Banking: Boutique vs. Bulge Bracket vs. Middle Market

People can have as many types of investment banks as they want, but at the end of the day, a bank is either:

BBB

1.1 Bulge Bracket Investment Banks: The Superstars

Definition: Bulge Bracket is a slang term which refers to the globally largest investment banks operating on a multinational level. Their customer profile mainly covers top tier institutions, corporations, and also public sectors. These top-tier investment banks offer full-service ranging from M&A, underwriting services to sales & trading, wealth management, equity research to their clients. Bulge bracket is the father of many breakthroughs in financial fields such as mortgage-backed securities (MBS) in the 1980s, credit default swaps in the 1990s and collateralized debt obligations (CDO) in the 2000s.

Bulge bracket investment banks are the household names that everyone recognizes. They are the global titans of the financial world with thousands of employees and hundreds of locations distributed worldwide. 

Some really big names are:

  • Goldman Sachs
  • JPMorgan Chase
  • Citigroup
  • Morgan Stanley
  • Barclays
  • Credit Suisse
  • Deutsche Bank
  • Wells Fargo
  • UBS Group
  • Bank of America Merrill Lynch 

If you are a fresh finance graduate, getting a job offer from any of these 10 banks is definitely your dream-come-true. Multibillion-dollar deals and Fortune 500, if not Fortune 100, clients are the words you hear most often about them. Whatever financial service is desired, they can satisfy. 

1.2 Middle Market Investment Banks: Not That Big but Obviously Not Small

People usually want a clear-cut division between big and small, but the reality is not always just black and white. That is why middle market investment banks exist. 

Definition: A Middle Market Investment Banking is a segment of Investment Banking lying between a bulge bracket and a boutique bank. They offer more services than just Mergers and Acquisitions and Restructuring, like Equity Capital Market and Debt Capital Market,  but their deal sizes are worth less than that of a bulge bracket one (normally from $50 million to $500 million).

 There are some more distinguishable features:

  • Middle market banks have a firm reputation in their home countries with offices spanning across multiple regions, but their international reputation is nothing compared to bulge bracket banks.
  • The service range is wider than boutique banks, but the diversity and strength are not as good as bulge bracket banks either. Sales and Trading and Equity Research are their most significant services besides investment banking product groups. 
  • Exit opportunities, although brighter than boutique banks, are still somewhat limited with entry into small or mid-size private equity and hedge fund firms. Corporate finance, however, is a good fit for this category. 

1.3 Boutique Investment Banks: The Rising Stars

Definition: A Boutique Investment Bank can be broadly defined as a firm that DOES NOT offer FULL-SERVICE investment banking, but AT LEAST ONE investment banking financial service. Being an employee at boutique investment banks means you will mostly work on Mergers & Acquisitions or Restructuring instead of Equity Capital Market and Debt Capital Market

Turning down a job offer from JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs for a smaller bank? That sounds completely CRAZY! But it only sounds crazy until the ascendancy of boutique investment banks. 

ROIB

In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis in 2008, rising unemployment and dwindling faith in banking giants inclined numerous high-profile senior bankers in bulge bracket firms to leave and establish their own boutique banks. At the same time, the outsourcing of all non-core aspects thanks to technological advancements makes it easier for one or few individuals to run a boutique bank. 

Well, sometimes, LESS is MORE. Boutique investment banks:

  • provide fewer services, but they are more specialized and industry-focused
  • are small in size, but some of their deals are huge cash
  • are not international, but they are regionally recognized 

WARNING: They are going aggressively for a GREATER share of the M&A Advising market! 

Yet, in general, if deals of bulge bracket banks are usually worth $500 million or above, the majority of boutique banks often handle deals worth $50 million, with a few worth up to $500 million.

2. Distinguish between Three Types of Investment Banks

While bulge bracket banks are international investment banks with easily recognizable names such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, it is hard to have a clear-cut division between boutique investment banks from middle market investment banks. 

Let’s take a look at the table below to see the difference, bulge bracket, middle market and boutique investment banks are distinguished from each other by the following attributes:

Criteria Bulge Bracket IB Middle Market IB Boutique IB
Deal Size usually over $1 billion $10 million – $500 million or above

RBIBs: $50 million or below

EBIBs: $1 billion or above

Services

M&A

Financing

Restructuring

Asset Management

Wealth Management

Sales & Trading

Equity Research

Corporate Banking

M&A

Financing

Restructuring

Wealth Management

M&A 

Restructuring

Industry Multiple Multiple Multiple
Location a strong international presence A strong local presence but far less of international exposure

RBIBs: Less than 5 offices

EBIBS: 5 or more offices

Headcount 30,000 – 200,000 employees or more 100 – 3,000 employees or more

RBIBs: Under 50 employees

EBIBs: 50 – 250 employees

Hours 80 – 90 hours or more 65 – 75 hours

RBIBs: 50 – 70 hours

EBIBs: 80 – 90 hours or more

Salary Very high Medium

RBIBs: Lowest

EBIBs: Very high

Exit Opportunities Private Equity firms, Hedge Funds, Venture Capitals, Mutual Funds, Corporate Development, Corporate Finance Medium-sized firms (Private Equity/ Hedge Fund), mid-sized companies

RBIBs: Limited/Unclear

EBIBs: Highly prospective (Private Equity/Hedge Fund), big corporations

3. How to get into Investment Banks?

3.1 Common Pathways to get into Investment Banking

Classification: Investment Banking Division (IBD) as Tier 1, Sales & Trading (S&T), Equity Research (ER) as Tier 2

The step-by-step guide created with 6 steps (embed a link to 6 steps) gives you the best shot possible at landing one of the most lucrative careers in finance. However, in this article, the pathway to get into Investment Banking is summarized with 4 main steps as follows:

  1. Resume / Cover letter
  2. Networking
  3. Internship / Relevant Banking Experience
  4. Interview

If you want to learn about your specific chance of breaking into investment banks, you can check our Wall Street Career Planning Tool. The tool examines the chances of getting into Wall Street for different backgrounds. It provides the big picture of Wall Street’s job market and acts as a career guideline for you to land your dream job.

For undergraduates:

For freshman and sophomore: 
  • Tier 1 summer analyst internships at Bulge Bracket banks are getting more and more competitive. If you have little to zero relatable professional work experience, applying for an Bulge Bracket internship in your freshman and sophomore year is infeasible. However, freshman and sophomore year are golden times to secure a summer analyst in junior year. You should start early and apply for an internship / part-time position at wealth management firms (most realistic if you don’t have a strong network), or ideally boutique investment banks & small private equity funds – this takes a lot of smart networking and some relevant finance course / experience though.  
For junior and senior: 
  • If you are unable to secure a Tier 1 IBD, S&T internship at Bulge Bracket banks, you should focus more on Tier 2 positions at Middle Market & Boutique banks or Sales & Trading and Equity Research. These are considered less competitive, yet still require a lot of smart networking and selling your relevant banking experience on your resume (link to our product). If you are struggling to land an investment banking internship, then internships in Private Equity, Hedge Funds, Venture Capitals, Corporate Development, Management Consulting, Big 4, and Valuations can be viable options. These industries provide a significant overlap or deals directly with investment banking. After equipping yourself with relatable experience, you can apply for full-time analyst roles whose recruitments happen annually. 

For graduates:

Top 20 MBA programs:
  • Associate roles at Bulge Bracket Banks are highly sought-after targets by MBA students. Top 20 MBA students have a decent chance of getting into both Tier 1 & 2 careers given the school’s prestige and strong alumni network. They are often approached by Bulge Brackets’ recruiters right at the campus. The key to win a full-time associate role upon graduation is to grab a summer associate internship right after the first year of MBA. You will need to bankify your resume and know how to sell your background, especially if you did not work in Finance before your MBA. 
Outside-top-20 MBA programs:
  • Though students outside-top-20 MBA have less competitive advantages than highly achieving top 20 MBA students, they have certain chances of landing jobs at Bulge Brackets. Provided that you have strong finance-related work experience, and do a crazy amount of networking through LinkedIn or professional connection, you can stand a good chance of breaking into Bulge Brackets. In addition, you should consider Middle Market banks and Boutique banks since your chances there are higher.

Professionals:

  • Professionals with several years of relevant work experience in Big 4, Consulting, Valuation firms, etc can apply for associate roles and some customized professional programs. Over the past few years, Bulge Bracket banks have offered many slots to experienced professionals. A lot of recruiting programs and events are designed with the aim of diversifying the workforce. The programs vary from firm to firm. For example: Goldman Sachs has Neurodiversity Hiring Initiative, Career Pivots series for professionals who want to learn about the firm and get into the banking career. For this category, your chance will be more decent if you apply for associate roles at Middle Market banks and Boutique banks. The key to win a job at large banks is always sticking with having relatable practical work experience and an extensive network.

For a detailed assessment of your chance of getting into these Tier 1 & 2 division/ careers, leverage our Wall Street Career Tool. 

3.2 Resume

Make your resume stand out and finance-oriented

The investment banks generally look for two key differentiators on your resume.

  1. History of excellence (i.e. GPA / test scores, awards & honors, brand name, competition wins, leadership) – Quick fact: Goldman Sachs recommends applicants to submit their SAT scores to increase the chance to pass the application round.
  2. Interest for finance, specifically investment banking (i.e. school major, clubs, related coursework).
  3. Relevant Experience (i.e. past finance-related internships, past relatable work experience). – Investment banking internships (i.e. IBD internship) work best.

Mistakes: Candidates often just list their activities rather than putting their accomplishments. 

Beyond basic mistakes listed out above, what are some of the other common mistakes candidates make? If your resume is not “bankified”, it will be difficult to get past even the 1st screening round. BankingPrep Resume Toolkit (embed a link to resume product) is here to make your resume stand out among the piles of thousands of prominent candidates, and make it finance-oriented even for non-target backgrounds. Your profile will be proofed properly to make sure it has absolutely NO mistakes.

3.3 Network

Healthcare network

For undergraduates: 

Once you have finance-related experience, the most effective way to get an Investment Banking interview is to network with your school’s alumni. If there’s no alumni at your targeted banks, you better find current professionals in investment banks by connecting with them on cold calls, LinkedIn, or emails. (Need a template for this type of networking) 

You should start networking as soon as possible. The ideal time to start networking is 6-12 months before the application begins. 

For MBA graduates: 

You have to start networking as soon as you get accepted to MBA programs. Similar to the undergraduate group, you should reach out to your school’s alumni first, then current professionals who can give you the most insightful information source.

Mistakes: A lot of students reach out to investment bankers when they do not have any finance-related experience. It won’t look great. You still can connect with them, but it will be better if you can explain detailed plans for your upcoming internships and jobs, and you are looking for their advice. 

3.4 Internship

The internship is considered a prerequisite to land a place in bulge bracket investment banks. Although relevant finance internships in other financial corporations and firms are appreciated, investment banking internships always work best. 

For undergraduate: 

  • To improve your profile to break into large banks, you need to have at least 1-2 finance-related internships. If you do not have an internship from a bank or a financial services firm, activities such as student-run investment funds in college can be used to  support your profile. This is an example of a student’s resume without an internship (link to resume product)

For MBA graduates:  

  • Internship is particularly important. That’s why you definitely have to have one finance-related experience pre MBA or during MBA. If your pre-MBA full-time jobs are irrelevant to banking and finance, it will be very difficult to get into. Let’s equip yourself with at least one summer associate internship at investment banks/private equity firms/ hedge funds. Here, Investment Banking internships (summer associate programs) always work best. 

3.5 Interview

Healthcare InterviewThe interview process will include multiple rounds. Normally, there will be three rounds. The first round of application is to screen candidates’ resumes. The second round of application is to assess candidates’ practical abilities via short interviews. Specifically, if a resume is qualified, the candidate will be sent a link to complete a video-recording process – HireVue as some firms are deploying (i.e. two behavior/technical questions to test the analytical abilities, presentation abilities, etc) or phone screen, which is still popularly used by investment banking firms. The final round of application is Superday, when chosen candidates are gathered in the office or nearby hotel to meet interviewers in person. Superday (U.S)/ Assessment Centers (EMAM) are designed to assess both your technical capabilities and physical/mental stamina. Here, in order to receive offers, most highly-achieving candidates will have to get through an intense interview day (simulating the real working pressure) with a myriad of questions largely hinged on their respective division/industry preferences in their application.  

What do recruiters evaluate?

Investment banks will evaluate your skills, your technical knowledge, and how you are interested in the position you apply for. Many questions are designed to test these competences. Simply put, interview questions will be around 3 main parts:

  • Behavior questions (often asked in HireVue/Phone Interview)
  • Fit questions (Superday/Assessment Centers)
  • Technical questions (Superday/Assessment Centers)

In which, behavior questions largely resemble fit questions asked during Superday. Some say that HireVues/Phone screen just asks you behavior questions. However, as mentioned above, you can be asked both technical questions and behavior questions right after you proceed to the second round.  The full list of interview question samples and what you need to prepare, let’s check on investment banking interview questions. Presented below is the short version of what you should do to have an upper hand in the interview.

How to prepare and ace an interview

You can visit our interview questions articles for analyst and associate roles for more details. 

#1. For fit/behavior questions, this is the part where you tell your stories with interviewers. Thanks to these questions, recruiters will learn how your previous academic and work experience fits into the division/industry you apply for.  

The questions in the first place always surround:

  • Introduce a little bit about yourself  / Walk me through your resume
  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • Your achievements and failures
  • Future plan and why Investment Banking?

What you should prepare here are crafting your own stories (reflecting your achievements, past experience, transferable skills and leadership), and backing up small personal stories to answer questions related to strengths and weaknesses. 

If you have some disadvantages in your profile such as low GPA, non-target background, fewer outstanding accomplishments, fewer finance internships, and etc., you have to prepare stronger responses to make up for these “real weaknesses”. 

#2. For technical questions, the interview always sticks with accounting, finance, valuations, and practical deals. 

  • Accounting: Financial statements (types of financial statements, links between different types of financial statements), revenues, operating costs, EBITDA, debt & equity, etc.
  • Finance: Equity Investments (stocks), Fixed Income Investments (government bonds, corporate bonds, commodities, currencies) , Derivative Investments (options, futures, forwards, swap), etc.
  • Valuation: Valuation metrics and multiples,  (Discounted Cash Flow, LBO modelling, etc.), knowledge about mergers and acquisitions, etc.

Beyond technical comprehension, investment banking’s recruiters also want to test your knowledge about the market, practical deals and companies. Your work is to keep abreast of news about markets, imminent IPO, bond issuances, and mergers & acquisitions on a daily basis. The questions largely depend on your experience shown on your resume. That means if you present your active involvement in transactions/deals, you might get many questions about it. Discussing the deals is considered the most challenging part in an interview. 

Capital Market Program

Ideal program for any student who wants to work in capital markets, whether on the buy-side or the sell-side.

 
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4. Advantages and Disadvantages of Working in Different Types of Investment Banks

ROIB

4.1 Advantages

Bulge Bracket Investment Banks:

  • Better Deal Experience : Compared with middle market investment banks and boutique investment banks (Regional boutique investment banks), bulge bracket investment banks work on larger and more complex deals along with more high-level financial modeling and technical work.
  • Better Brand Name: Those names are globally recognized as top-tier 1 in the financial world. 
  • Better Alumni Network: Tens or hundreds of thousands of people are currently working in these banks, with thousands of alumni, so you can build a large network and meet people in all aspects.
  • Better Exit Opportunities: It is a big competitive advantage of bulge bracket banks’ employees compared to others. You could move to various destinations ranging from private equity (including the mega-funds), hedge funds, corporate development, venture capital, to corporate finance, corporate development and more.
  • Better Compensation: While base salaries at most banks are not significantly different, the bulge brackets pay higher bonuses for their employees when compared with other banks’ bonus.

Middle Market Investment Banks:MBA

  • Timing: If you happen to be a late starter or change your mind during the career path at the last minute, recruiting of Middle Market Investment Banks is less competitive than that of Bulge Bracket Banks. You can win internships or full-time offers at these firms even if you do not have a great chance at larger banks.
  • Better Culture and Deal Experience: You will have to do more on each deal as an Analyst or Associate since there are fewer junior-level bankers. Middle Market Banks handle fewer deals, making them potentially more appealing if you want to pursue a long-term banking career.
  • Cash Compensation: In terms of cash bonus, Middle Market Investment banks pay bankers in all cash. While bulge bracket investment banks defer significant portions of your bonus until you move up to the role of senior levels or pay in stock, middle market banks pay all-cash compensation and bonus with no intention of using stock as payment. 

Boutique Investment Banks:

  • Timing: even though it is you must start early on your way to secure an investment banking position, boutique investment banks are more lenient if you happen to be late or change your mind during your career path. 
  • Working hours: the likelihood of having a deal that is due the next 24 hours is much less compared to big banks while you might even have the privilege of working more like a human with a 60 – 70 hours working schedule 
  • Culture: internal politics is something you hardly ever have to deal with in boutique investment banks. If you cannot stand the bureaucracy, this might be your place.
  • Exposure: early direct access to executive levels and clients are what entry-level employees can get as they usually take on more responsibilities and challenging roles than newcomers at a big bank. Sometimes, a whole project is YOURS!

4.2 Disadvantages

Bulge Bracket Investment Banks:

  • Working hours: it is intense in bulge brackets, you can expect 90 – 100 hours a week. It is impossible to seek work-life balance as you keep your eyes glued to the screen with financial modelling and valuations most of the time.
  • Simultaneous large deals: Working on multiple merger & acquisition deals, debt and equity transactions sometimes is not good. Instead of getting more client exposure and real experience, junior levels at bulge brackets have to focus on standard, boring, broad sell-side M&A deals.
  • Cash compensation: Large portions of bulge bracket banks’ bonus will be deferred or paid in stocks instead of cash. The deferred period can be from 3-5 years in some bulge bracket banks.

Middle Market Investment Banks:

  • Exposure: direct exposure to clients is not always better if deals are small and simple. If the scale is too small, you will not gain much experience or technical skills. 
  • Brand name: brand name is lesser known. This makes it more challenging to exit finance and work in another industry.
  • Alumni network: network is actually just as important as when you first apply for a job. Middle Market Investment Banks, due to their small size and scale, cannot provide you with connections in multiple locations.
  • Compensation: compensation is complicated and unclear. For some, if you close many deals, your cash compensation can be higher than at large banks. Although it is 100% cash, most of the time, due to the smaller deal sizes, bonuses are significantly lower.
  • Highly variable work experience: highly variable is the word best for describing middle market investment banks’ work experience, cultures, working hours and salary. Some groups are fairly consistent, while others fluctuate a bit, and the experience is dependent on key individuals.
  • Exit opportunities: reputation and experience with big deals are the main criteria when it comes to exit opportunities. Without big names like bulge bracket banks, your chance of getting into the biggest private equity or hedge fund firms is limited.

Boutique Investment Banks:

  • Exposure: direct exposure to clients is not always better if deals are small and simple. If the scale is too small, you will not gain much experience or technical skills. 
  • Alumni network: is actually just as important as when you first apply for a job. Boutique investment banks, due to their small size and scale, cannot provide you with connections in multiple locations.
  • Compensation: is complicated and unclear. For some, if you close many deals, your cash compensation can be higher than at large banks. But most of the time, bonuses are significantly lower. 
  • Exit opportunities: Without big names like elite boutique investment banks, your chance of getting into Private Equity or Hedge Fund firms is minimal. The most viable options include corporate development, corporate finance, another bank, and maybe growth equity or venture capital, depending on your industry. 
  • Highly variable and unclear: is the word best for describing boutique investment banks’ culture, hours, experience, and salary. But a QUICK FACT: It’s HARDER to find information about boutiques than big banks. 
  • Job security: There is no 100% guarantee of job security. Bulge bracket banks, however, have greater ability and resources to move employees around thanks to their global scale and diversified divisions worldwide. In times of hardship or financial depression, boutiques usually have no choice but to downsize or even close their business.

You’ve just walked through basic information as well as pros and cons working in different types of investment banking. Whichever bank you work for, investment banking is a strong foothold compared with other financial careers out of the gate. Let’s nail the opportunities!

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