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Will the death of a young intern change Wall Street?
Bank of America grapples with the fallout from an untimely death
 
There are only so many all-nighters a body can take.
There are only so many all-nighters a body can take. Thinkstock

Bank of America said Friday it would take a closer look at its intern culture after a 21-year-old intern died recently in London.

London police found the body of Moritz Erhardt at his student housing in East London on August 15. He was nearing the end of an internship at Bank of America's Merrill Lynch investment banking unit, where interns reportedly pay their dues by working 15-hour-plus days as well as weekends. Following Erhardt's death, rumors quickly surfaced that he had pulled eight all-nighters in the previous two weeks — three of which were in the 72 hours before his death.

The official cause of Erhardt's death is still unknown, but the tragedy shed an unflattering light on the banking world's internship programs. U.K. Labour MP Andy Love said it's time for real cultural reform in the industry, and that it's up to banks to make changes. "Banks should come up with plans to tackle the overwhelmingly male culture within banking. Changes to this 'macho' culture, which includes working ridiculously long hours, need to be made," he said.

Bank of America had this to say:

Our immediate priority is to do everything we can to continue to support the Erhardt family, our interns and impacted employees at this extremely difficult time. We have also convened a formal senior working group to consider the facts as they become known, to review all aspects of this tragedy, to listen to employees at all levels and to help us learn from them.

But implementing rules to protect interns would be a big change for the banking world. The working hours described in reports are deeply entrenched in banking culture, going back decades. Here's what a former Merrill Lynch technology investment analyst told The Independent for a story titled "Slavery in the City."

"I regularly pulled two or more all-nighters a week," [the former intern] told The Independent. "I'd define that as going straight through to 5am, sometimes you'd get some sleep before people start coming in, but one MD in particular actually came into the office at 5am so you'd usually not get any sleep as he'd have new revisions for you by 6am. I worked there for almost a year but except for one international vacation I only got half a day off. I worked through all the weekends. [The Independent]

There's even a term for a shift that goes from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.: A "banker 9-to-5," said Kevin Roose in New York.

Banking interns, like their elders, are a competitive bunch, and pulling all-nighters is a way to set themselves apart from the pack. And unlike other competitive internships (like the White House program), banking interns are paid well. They get around $6,000 a month, not to mention a chance at landing a job after graduation that starts paying $80,000 annually. Other reported perks include personal town cars and expenses-paid trips to nightclubs.

Roose, who describes a common game in banking culture called "Misery Poker," where young bankers brag about their insane work loads, says the interns share responsibility for perpetuating that brutal culture:

Erhardt's death could — and should — spark changes in the work policies for young investment bankers. Perhaps a bank could mandate one day off a week or limit the hours worked in a certain period by bankers (as happens with pilots or doctors). But the real change will have to come from the young workers themselves. Only when winning Misery Poker is seen not as a point of pride but a cry for help will Wall Street become a safer place for the young and ambitious. [New York]

 
Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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