How backroom analysts turned into glamorous stars in the City

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The Independent Online

There was a time when the job of analyst was the City's equivalent of the bridesmaid. The glamour was found on the trading floor, watching currency bets yield multimillion-pound profits, or in the secretive corporate finance departments where the world's biggest companies were either merged or split asunder. Trawling through the accounts of a company listed on the stock market - to decide whether its shares were heading up or down - was considered a humble occupation indeed.

There was a time when the job of analyst was the City's equivalent of the bridesmaid. The glamour was found on the trading floor, watching currency bets yield multimillion-pound profits, or in the secretive corporate finance departments where the world's biggest companies were either merged or split asunder. Trawling through the accounts of a company listed on the stock market - to decide whether its shares were heading up or down - was considered a humble occupation indeed.

But as the bull market roared in the 1990s, the art of analysis enjoyed a reappraisal. All of a sudden, the ability to find the gems hidden deep in the share listings of the Financial Times was acclaimed. Private investors and pension funds alike learnt to recognise the names of analysts who knew a "buy" from a "sell" - and those who did not.

As their reputations blossomed, the best City analysts saw their salaries and bonuses soar. Having scraped by on six figures or - perish the thought - less, the best exponents of the trade could now command nearer to £1m.

Legendary reputations were soon built. Neil Blackley of Merrill Lynch was exalted in London as the man who knew what was going where among media companies. NatWest's Fergus MacLeod was the seer of the oil sector. In America, while the dot.com bubble lasted, Mary Meeker of Morgan Stanley knew the new economy like no other. Claire Kent fits into this category of superstar.

But those were the boom times and since 2000, and falling stock markets, life has been tough. Those who have stuck by their conviction that their favourite shares will continue to appreciate have been proved comprehensively - and, for their clients, expensively - wrong. There are particular perils for analysts who have come to be bigger than their sector. Ms Kent is not the first to find that lavishing praise on one company can cause resentment at its biggest rival - although there aren't too many others who have found themselves on the receiving end of a nine-figure lawsuit.

The very integrity of some analysts has been impugned. Some have been accused of favouring companies not because they deserved it, but because a recommendation brought in other business. Henry Blodget and Jack Grubman, two of Wall Street's finest, came unstuck this way. But like hundreds of their peers, they earned more than enough money while the sun shone to cope with the rainy days.

LEGENDS AND SEERS

Fergus MacLeod: A multiple award-winning analyst who specialised in the oil sector. Stepped down when most would have said he was still at the top of his game, but has since been tempted back to work in investor relations at BP.

Neil Blackley: He made his name with Goldman Sachs before consolidating his reputation - and his earnings - at Merrill Lynch in the ultra-competitive media sector. Earlier this year, he retired to spend more time with his family.

Mary Meeker: She was the darling of the dot.com boom but Wall Street fell out of love with her when the stocks she recommended began to tumble. Unlike some of her peers, her reputation has remained intact through the bear market.

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