By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 27, 2009
RIO DE JANEIRO -- When Deutsche Bank determined that strategist Rod Manalo was, in the merciless language of hard times, "redundant," it was an abrupt and humbling end to a seven-year career in finance.
But Manalo, 30, has not been trudging the gray streets of London where he was based looking for work. This week, he was in the sun-drenched Brazilian resort city of Florianopolis, taking surfing lessons and dancing in throbbing nightclubs amid Carnival revelers. That was after he had snowboarded in the Alps, golfed in Florida and prepared for a year-long world journey that he expects will take him to the Amazon, Antarctica, Australia and beyond.
"Decent finance jobs are nonexistent. Few hedge funds and no investment banks are hiring. If I were to find a job, I'd just fear losing it again, would continue to watch markets drop and would expect little or no bonus," said Manalo, who was fired in December from his position as a vice president in risk arbitrage.
Apart from occasionally watching his investments, he said, "I am fully focused on traveling."
One byproduct of the economic blood bath of the past several months has been a bumper crop of relatively young and wealthy but out-of-work financiers. Unemployment in the financial sector in the United States doubled from 285,000 in January 2008 to 571,000 last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are "pink-slip parties" in New York for the newly untethered to mingle and match. Business school applications have soared for those seeking academic shelter.
But some financial refugees have fanned out around the globe in pursuit of leisure, achievement or to explore something, anything, outside a cubicle's confines. And if a dozen or so lost souls of finance are any indication, many are finding at least a temporary refuge roaming the globe.
The Brazilian bacchanalian festival of Carnival is just the kind of place to find them. On Sunday, amid thousands of cheering fans, exotic floats and barely clad samba dancers, one investor at a London hedge fund paraded by in a costume somewhere between Roman gladiator and giant chicken.
Although he still has a job, he is not confident it will last long. And besides, he said, in the office he has almost nothing to do.
"My industry has basically shut down," said the investor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid violating company rules. "What is the opportunity cost of traveling? It's basically zero."
After eight years in finance, Jessica Alberti, 32, said she abandoned her work on emerging markets at a major New York hedge fund in October when people were losing so much money that she now has trouble finding sufficient pejoratives to describe it.
"It was so negative, it was horrible. It was tense, extremely negative. Miserable," she said. "It was so bleak."
So after getting her bonus, factoring in the weather and world currencies, and deciding that Europe was too expensive and that she'd already seen Asia, she headed for South America. She planned to be gone until early January, but that quickly changed.
"Three days in, I got an e-mail from the guy I was dating, saying, 'I met someone.' . . . An e-mail. Nice," she said.
Since then, it has been a tourism whirlwind, Alberti said, listing her adventures: a Spanish course in Quito, Ecuador, swimming off the Galapagos Islands, hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru, riding a helicopter into the Colombian jungle, touring the salt flats of Bolivia and drinking Argentine wine in Buenos Aires.
"You were starting to get the idea you weren't going to be paid out the way you used to be," she said. "I felt good about the investments I'd made personally with my money, and I didn't do traveling after college, I went straight to work. And it was something I'd always wanted to do."
She plans to return briefly to New York to deal with her taxes and refinance her apartment, but then she wants to return to Argentina and start a new life abroad.
"Right now I don't want to be in New York pedaling my feet. I'd rather look for interesting investments down here," she said.
Among such Type A tourists, there is often more going on than daiquiri-sipping or hammock-swinging. Take Alex Iscoe, a 28-year-old Toronto native who resigned from Goldman Sachs last May as the financial storm clouds were gathering. Recently, he was in London, hooked up to a machine that simulates the depleted oxygen conditions of high-altitude peaks, part of his training regimen to climb the highest mountain on each of the world's seven continents, something only about 230 people have done.
"Since I was a teenager, I've always wanted to attempt Mount Everest, and I've never really had a combination of time, money and desire at the same time that would make that a possibility," Iscoe said by phone from Buenos Aires. "The writing was very much on the wall with what was about to happen through the entire industry. . . . It struck me as a very good opportunity to take some time off and accomplish personal goals."
Iscoe started his training by climbing to the 14,400-foot summit of Mount Rainier in Washington state in July. He followed that with Mount Elbrus in Russia, Mount Aconcagua in Argentina and Mount Vinson Massif in Antarctica, where it reached about 40 degrees below zero without wind chill. "The coldest I have ever been in my entire life," he said.
He is now plotting to climb Mount McKinley in Alaska, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and, of course, Everest. He hopes he can raise money for charity with his feat, and when it is all over in a few months, he will consider what to do for a living.
"As silly as this may sound, focusing on getting a job, even though it's relatively soon from now -- three or four months -- it's not at all on my mind," Iscoe said. "I have a 29,000-foot mountain to climb."
Some former financiers have found that a new country can offer the chance to be an entrepreneur rather than a cog in the vast machine. Raphael Rottgen, 36, left his London hedge fund in early 2007 because he was more interested in emerging markets than his investments in Europe. He started by touring the big ones -- China, India and Russia -- but also traveled to Brazil and Argentina. He eventually set up shop in Sao Paulo -- in a country he believes has vast potential.
"If you think about the things the world needs in the next 100 years, this country has everything -- oil, raw materials, agricultural land," he said of Brazil. "And the country I was living in, Great Britain, has absolutely nothing."
He eventually started Sagace, which he said is Brazil's first nationwide mortgage broker, now with offices in eight states.
"Now when I speak to people, most people say to me, 'Oh, my God, you left at the right time,' " he said. "But I wasn't a genius. I had no idea that it would get this bad."
A more recent refugee from a London hedge fund, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, resigned last month and fled to Buenos Aires. He plans to be in New York by September to set up his own asset management company, he said, but for the time being, there is no longing for the time-sucking financial grind. He wants to take up polo, study Spanish and enjoy the thriving Buenos Aires night life.
"You've made a bit of money, but there's also a significant dark side to that business line. When you are voluntarily or involuntarily forced to distance yourself from it, the not-so-pleasant aspects of that business become a bit more obvious," he said. "People talk about soul-destroying jobs, and there's definitely a lot to that, and when they're taken out of that, they do blossom to some sort."
Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.