How to Make Big Money in the Finance Industry

Financial services have long been considered an industry where a professional can thrive and work up the corporate ladder to ever-increasing compensation structures. Career choices that offer experiences that are both personally and financially rewarding include:

Three areas within finance, however, offer the best opportunities to maximize sheer earning power and, thus, attract the most competition for jobs:

Read on to learn if you have what it takes to succeed in these ultra-lucrative areas of finance and learn how to make money in finance.

Key Takeaways

  • Jobs within the financial industry, such as accounting, consulting, and corporate finance are some of the highest-paying jobs.
  • In the financial services industry, there are some areas that pay significantly more than others, such as investment banking, private equity, and hedge funds.
  • Investment bankers provide services for mergers, acquisitions (M&A), and IPOs
  • Private equity firms are involved in private financing, which includes investing capital or buying firms.
  • Hedge funds invest the money of wealthy individuals using alternative strategies with the goal of beating the market.

Investment Banking

Earning Potential


Directors, principals, partners, and managing directors at the bulge-bracket investment banks can make over a million dollars—sometimes up to tens of millions of dollars—per year. At the director level and up, there is a responsibility to lead teams of analysts and associates in one of several departments, broken down by product offerings, such as equity and debt capital-raising and mergers and acquisitions (M&A), as well as sector coverage teams.

Why do senior investment bankers make so much money? In a word (actually three words): large deal size. Directors, principals, and partners lead teams that work with high-priced items and make big commissions since the bank's fees are usually calculated as a percentage of the transaction involved.

Bulge bracket banks, for instance, will turn down projects with small deal sizes; for example, an investment bank may not work with a company generating less than $250 million in revenue if it is already swamped with other bigger deals.

Investment banks are brokers. A real estate agent who sells a house for $500,000, and makes a 5% commission, makes $25,000 on that sale. Contrast that with an investment banking office selling a chemical manufacturing company for $1 billion with a 1% commission, which amounts to a nice $10 million fee.

Not bad for a team of a few individuals; say two analysts, two associates, a vice president, a director, and a managing director. If this team completes $1.8 billion worth of M&A transactions for the year, with bonuses allocated to the senior bankers, you can see how the compensation numbers add up. 

Job Duties

Analyst (pre-MBA), associate (post-MBA), and vice-president levels are the proving grounds, and the hours can sometimes exceed a hundred per week. Bankers at the analyst, associate, and vice-president levels focus on the following tasks:

  • Writing pitchbooks
  • Researching industry trends
  • Analyzing a company's operations, financials, and projections
  • Running models
  • Conducting due diligence or coordinating with diligence teams

Directors supervise these efforts and typically interface with the company's "C-level" executives when key milestones are reached. Partners and managing directors have a more entrepreneurial role, in that they must focus on client development, deal generation, and growing and staffing the office.

It can take 10 years to reach the director level (assuming two years as an analyst, two years to get an MBA, two years as an associate, and four years as a vice president); however, this timeline is dependent on several factors, including the firm involved, the individual's success at the job, and the firm's dictates. Some banks require an MBA, while others can promote exceptional bankers without an advanced degree.

Key Traits

Criteria for success include:

  • Technical skills
  • Ability to meet deadlines
  • Teamwork
  • Communication skills

Those who can't take the heat move on, and there is a filtering process prior to promotion to senior levels. Those who wish to exit the banking industry can make lateral moves to corporate finance (e.g., working at a Fortune 500 company, which means possibly making less money), private equity, and hedge funds.

Private Equity

Earning Potential

Principals and partners at private equity firms easily pass the $1 million-per-year compensation hurdle, with partners often making tens of millions of dollars per year. Managing partners at the largest private equity firms can bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, given that their firms manage companies with billions of dollars in value.

If their investment-banking counterparts handle high-priced items with high commissions, then private equity manages high-priced items with very high commissions. The vast majority go by the "two-and-twenty rule"; that is, charging an annual management fee of 2% of assets/capital managed and 20% of profits on the back end.

Take a private equity firm that has $1 billion under management; the management fee equates to $20 million per year to pay for staffing, operating expenses, transaction costs, etc. Then the firm sells a portfolio company for $200 million that it originally acquired for $100 million, for a profit of $100 million, and so takes another $20 million fee.

Given that a private equity firm of this size will have no more than one or two dozen employees, that is a good chunk of money to go around to just a few people. Senior private equity professionals will also have "skin in the game"; that is, they are often investors in their own funds.

Job Duties

Private equity is involved in the wealth-creation process. Whereas investment bankers collect the bulk of their fees when a transaction is completed, private equity must complete several phases over several years, including:

  • Going on roadshows for the purpose of raising pools of investment capital
  • Securing deal flow from investment banks, intermediaries, and transaction professionals
  • Buying/investing in attractive, sound companies
  • Supporting management's efforts to grow the company both organically and through acquisitions
  • Harvesting by selling the portfolio company for a profit (typically between four and seven years for most firms)

Analysts, associates, and vice presidents provide various support functions at each stage, while principals and partners ensure that each phase of the process is successful. The level of involvement for principals and partners varies at each firm, but they hire the best and brightest pre-MBA and post-MBA talent at the junior levels and delegate most of the tasks.

Most of the initial filtering of prospective investment opportunities can be held at the junior levels (associates and vice presidents are given a set of investment criteria by which to judge prospective deals), while senior folks step in typically on a weekly basis at the investment review meeting to assess what the junior folks have yielded.

A job in investment banking is typically a stepping stone to working in private equity.

Principals and partners will head up negotiations between the firm and the seller. Once the company is bought, principals and partners can sit on the board of directors and meet with management during quarterly reviews (more frequently, if there are problems).

Finally, principals and partners plan and coordinate with the investment committee on divestiture and harvest decisions, and strategize on getting maximum returns for their investors. If the private equity firm is unsuccessful at a particular stage, you will generally see principals and partners get more involved to shore up efforts in that phase.

For instance, if deal flow is lacking, the senior folks will go on a road tour and visit investment banks. At fund-raising roadshows, senior private equity professionals will interface with institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals on a personal level, and also lead the presentations.

At the deal-flow sourcing stage, principals, and partners will step in and develop rapport with intermediaries; especially if it's a new contact and a budding relationship. If a portfolio company is underperforming, you will find principals and partners more frequently on-site at the company to meet with management. 

Hedge Funds

Earning Potential

Like their private-equity counterparts, hedge funds manage pools of capital with the intention of securing favorable returns for their investor clients. Typically, this money is raised from institutional and high-net-worth investors.

Hedge fund managers can make tens of millions of dollars because of a similar compensation structure to private equity; hedge funds charge both an annual management fee (typically 2% of assets managed) and a performance fee (typically 20% of gross returns).

Job Duties

Hedge funds tend to have leaner teams than private equity (assuming the same amount of capital managed), and they can have more leeway in choosing how to deploy and invest their clients' capital. Parameters can be set on the front end on the types of strategies these hedge fund managers can pursue.

Unlike private equity, which buys and sells companies typically within an investment horizon of between four and seven years, hedge funds can buy and sell financial securities with a much shorter time horizon, even selling securities in the public markets within days or hours of purchase.

Bridgewater Associates is the largest hedge fund manager in the world with approximately $223 billion in assets under management (AUM).

Because of this condensed investment horizon, hedge fund managers are much more involved on a daily basis with their investments (as opposed to private equity principals and partners), closely following market and industry trends and geopolitical and economic developments around the world. 

Being heavily compensated on performance fees, hedge funds can invest in (or trade) all kinds of financial instruments, including stocks, bonds, currencies, futures, and options.

What Pays More, Tech or Finance?

Both the tech sector and the financial sector tend to pay the same starting salaries, with tech slightly edging out finance in some roles, mainly at the entry-level. In more senior roles, such as a managing director, finance pays more than tech, particularly in profit-making jobs, such as trading and investment banking. Tech does not pay the same in these senior roles.

What Jobs in Finance Work the Longest Hours?

In general, investment bankers in finance work the longest hours out of any other finance job. Investment banking job duties are not tied to the financial markets so work can continue even when the markets close. The jobs also require a significant amount of evaluation, financial modeling, and pitching; all of which take a lot of time. Investment bankers usually work weekends and can work up to 100 hours per week when business is high.

Does Investment Banking Pay More Than Private Equity?

Investment banking does not pay more than private equity in regards to starting roles. Private equity roles are typically for individuals who already have work experience, so the jobs are not necessarily entry-level. Many investment bankers graduate to working in private equity, therefore, private equity salaries tend to be higher.

The Bottom Line

Getting into a private equity firm or a hedge fund is brutally competitive. It is virtually impossible to get into these organizations coming straight from an undergraduate degree

Elite standardized test scores help, along with academic pedigree and leadership activities. A quantitative academic discipline (such as finance, engineering, mathematics, etc.) will be looked upon favorably. Quality of professional experience is looked upon thoroughly,

Many investment bankers contemplating their exit opportunities will often transition to private equity and hedge funds for the next leg of their careers. Those looking to get into private equity and the hedge fund business should work a few short years (between two and four) at a bulge-bracket investment bank or at an elite consulting firm (e.g., McKinsey, BCG, or Bain).

Both buy-side and sell-side work will be viewed favorably by private equity. For hedge funds, buy-side work at either an investment bank or private equity firm will be viewed favorably for junior-level positions.

Article Sources
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  1. Wall Street Prep. "Investment Banking Managing Director Salary."

  2. Banking Prep. "Private Equity Salary and Bonuses."

  3. Whale Wisdom. "Bridgewater Associates, LP."

  4. Wall Street Oasis. "Compensation Growth in Finance vs. Technology."

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