As the biggest earthquake ever recorded in Japan rocked the Roppongi Hills skyscraper in central Tokyo, Makoto Yamada put on his helmet, dropped to his knees, and traded.
“We had an option to leave, but we couldn’t leave the position at the time,” the 39-year-old former Goldman Sachs Group quant said, recalling the March 2011 quake and hours of aftershocks that he and some trader colleagues braved from the bank’s offices on the 48th floor. My “life is important, but protecting the P&L is more important.”
It was that kind of dedication that propelled Yamada from a childhood in regional Japan to a prestigious place studying computer science at the University of California at Berkeley right at the height of the dot-com boom. He went on to join Goldman Sachs as a programmer before switching to the trading floor, using his math skills to value esoteric derivatives.
Until then, Yamada’s career followed a standard trajectory for the financial industry’s elite. That all changed in 2015, when he made two surprising moves. First, he decided to leave Goldman, less than three years after making managing director at the Wall Street firm, one rank below partner. Second, ignoring the overtures of global hedge funds, he joined a Japanese brokerage.
Yamada, who traded index-linked derivatives including volatility at Goldman, joined SMBC Nikko Securities in July 2015 and became head of the equity division last March, with about 50 people working under him. He points to a shift in Japan’s brokerage industry after the financial crisis, as foreign firms reduced staff while some local players expanded.
“The Lehman shock was a big turning point,” said Takayuki Fukumoto, a specialist in financial industry job placement at Recruit Career in Tokyo, referring to Lehman Brothers Holdings’ bankruptcy in September 2008. Overseas banks have cut Japan staff by about 20 percent since then, he estimates.
Even before 2008, global banks were redirecting people from Japan’s mature economy to places like Hong Kong or Singapore, where they could be closer to the region’s main growth story: China. Layoffs continued at some firms since 2013, even as trading volumes doubled in a revival of Japan’s stock market under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Barclays, for example, closed its cash equities business in Tokyo in January 2016, while Credit Suisse Group has been eliminating equities jobs in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
“I’ve hired dozens of people from foreign firms in the three years I’ve been here,” said Yamada’s boss Trevor Hill, who joined SMBC Nikko from UBS Group. That “contrasts with the 12 years that I was a hiring manager at a previous firm — a western firm — where I lost less than a handful of people to domestics.”
Yamada, who didn’t move from Goldman because of a layoff, says another thing that attracted him to SMBC Nikko was the challenge of building an equity trading business almost from scratch. While the brokerage traces its roots back about a century, its strength was traditionally in retail operations.
The push to expand into other areas came after Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, the parent of Japan’s second-largest lender by market value, bought the brokerage from Citigroup after the financial crisis. Japan’s three mega-banks have been seeking sources of income beyond lending in the low interest-rate environment.
SMBC Nikko went from a ¥500 million ($4.5 million) equity trading loss in the 12 months ended March 2011 to a ¥17 billion gain last fiscal year. (Mizuho Securities, another mega-bank-affiliated brokerage that has been expanding, posted a ¥34.3 billion gain last year, while Nomura Holdings, the largest securities firm, doesn’t disclose the data.)
“We made pretty good progress in the past couple of years,” Yamada said. “We were nowhere two or three years ago.”
Yamada, who hails from Ube on the western tip of Japan’s main island, initially did an internship at a software company but didn’t enjoy the lonely life of a programmer. He says he enjoys the relationship-building that’s part of having a successful trading career, even using his six gym visits a week to interact with junior colleagues.
“He’s an extremely talented trader,” said Naohide Une, Yamada’s former boss at Goldman, who now works for Japan Post Bank. “Even if there’s a crisis, he continues to make the right decisions,” he said. “No matter how tough things are, he’s always positive.”
SMBC Nikko is unique among large domestic brokerages in that it focuses almost exclusively on Japanese equities, rather than trying to cover other markets. Yamada says that’s a strength. That has been true under Abenomics, when the stock market and daily trading volumes doubled, the yen plunged and the country put together a long run of economic growth.
But it’s also SMBC Nikko’s biggest risk: that Japan becomes irrelevant. Yamada recalls the quiet of 2012, before Abe came to power. He was trading Tokyo market volatility at Goldman, and describes those times as challenging.
Still, after trailing most other major developed markets for much of the year, the Nikkei 225 Stock Average has surged since mid-April to flirt with 20,000, a level not seen since December 2015. And Yamada, a self-professed positive thinker, says he’s confident he made the right career move.
“We’re going to make something good even better, doing it first in Japan,” he says. “There’s no reason for us to lose to foreign firms.”