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The Two Words That Terrify Junior Employees

Curt notes sent by higher-ups wreck weekends and family time; ‘Until you’ve gotten that 10 p.m. ‘pls fix,’ you just don’t get it’

By LINDSAY ELLIS
Tue, Oct 11, 2022 8:46amGrey Clock 4 min

Picture this: It’s 9 p.m. and your workday is finally winding down. You, a professional in your 20s or 30s, haven’t heard from your manager in a few hours. Things are looking good as you start closing out dozens of tabs and spreadsheets, hoping to shut the laptop and take a few hours after dark for yourself. Suddenly, a ping.

A “pls fix” email.

“Until you’ve gotten that 10 p.m. ‘pls fix,’ you just don’t get it,” says Amelia Noël, a former consultant and investment banker turned career coach.

“Pls fix” is shorthand for a curt note from someone up the chain—and is a phrase that has become a phenomenon among corporate stiffs in certain high-pressure fields. The buzzword has spawned “pls fix” merchandise, and made it into the Urban Dictionary, which defines “pls fix” as a frequent email reply from a boss in consulting or finance that “more accurately translates: ‘fix this ASAP and don’t F$%^& up again.’”

The text might vary—“please action” or “make better”—and the notes tend to come with little instructions. (What the heck needs fixing?) But the message generally translates to: stop what you’re doing to send the 39th version of a PowerPoint slide to your boss.

“If you get that email, it’s expected to get turned over by the time your managing director gets back into the office the next morning,” says John Senkarik, a 39-year-old business analyst, who says he recently got a pls fix message while at a cabin with his family. As his children played nearby, Mr. Senkarik stepped outside to a back porch to work through the assignment, which took about two hours.

Few things panic young professionals like getting the notes. On Instagram and TikTok, they share snapshots and stories of receiving “pls fix” emails at all hours and on vacation, while at bars, at the gym, by pools, on trains, slopeside at ski resorts, or as they are boarding a flight. A podcast called “Pls Fix Thx!,” which started early in the pandemic, talks about “modern-day fads and trends that leave us feeling overwhelmed, drained and burned out.”

Sanchit Wadhawan, a 25-year-old consultant who lives in Atlanta, is one of the podcast’s hosts and knows the terrain well. One Friday evening, he was planning to watch Netflix with his parents at the end of a long week. He was about to close his computer when he saw an urgent instant message from his manager.

He received a draft PowerPoint with about 50 slides—a compilation of several files formatted in different styles. Mr. Wadhawan needed to make the font uniform and ensure the color was consistent throughout, and he needed to do it right away.

“You can’t put weird fonts in front of a client,” he says.

At the office, many workers are dialling back efforts and reporting lower levels of engagement. But consultants and bankers—who have tended to be corporate climbers terrified of the “out” part of “up or out”—are still leaning into the grind.

To be ready to respond to a “pls fix,” Ms. Noël, the former consultant and banker, would lug her laptop to brunch and bars. She took it on a Christmas carriage ride in Central Park with her family, and regularly charted her running routes to stay within a 15-minute radius of her laptop.

Those few seconds between double-clicking on the email attachment and understanding the scope of the assignment held a special dread. Was this a few quick wording changes to a slide deck? Did she need to rerun an entire data analysis? Was this going to blow up her night?

Close readers of The BOG—a satirical internal newsletter at Boston Consulting Group—will find Easter eggs in the copy referencing “pls fix.” In one, The BOG writers joked that high-level managing directors and partners speak certain languages conversationally including: Please fix, arreglalo porfa, and correggilo per favore. (The newsletter’s writers declined to comment.)

Susan Grimbilas, global head of human resources at BCG, says consulting has always required late-night work, but in-person feedback can be more meaningful. A “pls fix” email can feel transactional in a remote setting, especially without much instruction about why something needs to change, she added.

BCG teaches managing directors and partners about giving more effective feedback, she says. Still, if a presentation’s numbers don’t square, she adds, “I don’t care what time it is or where you are—you’re going to have to make sure your numbers make sense.”

Alex Raines, 29, who lives in Austin, knew about the “pls fix” culture when he started as a data-analytics consultant last year.

Before he began, he rewrote the lyrics to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem and posted it on LinkedIn, in a homage to his chosen field.

“His arms are heavy, knees weak, palms are sweaty / There’s coffee on his vest already, spilled his Yeti / He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to pls fix, but he keeps forgetting the right deck.”

Litquidity, known for finance-related memes, sells a “pls fix, thx” mug for $15 and a ball cap for $35. Crazy Mgmt Consultants, a meme account on Instagram, sells a “pls fix”-themed ugly Christmas sweater for $45 and baby onesies for $25 reading: “Daddy and Mommy, Pls fix my milk ASAP, thx. Sent from my iPad.”

Some managers send “pls fix” emails, but urge recipients not to pull an all-nighter, as Mohak Mehta, a New York-based consultant, says he does for his direct reports. Sometimes he says he tells them to “time box” an assignment. (That’s consultant-speak for seeing how much can be done in 10 minutes, or an hour, and then leaving it until the next day.)

Still, Mr. Mehta says many young professionals in finance and consulting are high achievers, and ignore his instructions and work late anyway in pursuit of a perfect final product.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “that’s what clients are trying to pay you for.”

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Equities are often seen as expensive after promising start to 2023

By CAITLIN MCCABE
Mon, Jan 30, 2023 7 min

A new trading year kicked off just weeks ago. Already it bears little resemblance to the carnage of 2022.

After languishing throughout last year, growth stocks have zoomed higher. Tesla Inc. and Nvidia Corp., for example, have jumped more than 30%. The outlook for bonds is brightening after a historic rout. Even bitcoin has rallied, despite ongoing effects from the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.

The rebound has been driven by renewed optimism about the global economic outlook. Investors have embraced signs that inflation has peaked in the U.S. and abroad. Many are hoping that next week the Federal Reserve will slow its pace of interest-rate increases yet again. China’s lifting of Covid-19 restrictions pleasantly surprised many traders who have welcomed the move as a sign that more growth is ahead.

Still, risks loom large. Many investors aren’t convinced that the rebound is sustainable. Some are worried about stretched stock valuations, or whether corporate earnings will face more pain down the road. Others are fretting that markets aren’t fully pricing in the possibility of a recession, or what might happen if the Fed continues to fight inflation longer than currently anticipated.

We asked five investors to share how they are positioning for that uncertainty and where they think markets could be headed next. Here is what they said:

‘Animal spirits’ could return

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, acknowledges that he wasn’t expecting the run in speculative stocks and digital currencies that has swept markets to kick off 2023.

Bitcoin prices have jumped around 40%. Some of the stocks that are the most heavily bet against on Wall Street are sitting on double-digit gains. Carvana Co. has soared nearly 64%, while MicroStrategy Inc. has surged more than 80%. Cathie Wood‘s ARK Innovation ETF has gained about 29%.

If the past few years have taught Mr. Asness anything, it is to be prepared for such run-ups to last much longer than expected. His lesson from the euphoria regarding risky trades in 2020 and 2021? Don’t count out the chance that the frenzy will return again, he said.

“It could be that there are still these crazy animal spirits out there,” Mr. Asness said.

Still, he said that hasn’t changed his conviction that cheaper stocks in the market, known as value stocks, are bound to keep soaring past their peers. There might be short spurts of outperformance for more-expensive slices of the market, as seen in January. But over the long term, he is sticking to his bet that value stocks will beat growth stocks. He is expecting a volatile, but profitable, stretch for the trade.

“I love the value trade,” Mr. Asness said. “We sing about it to our clients.”

—Gunjan Banerji

Keeping dollar’s moves in focus

For Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer of Millennium Global Investments Ltd., no single trade was more important last year than the blistering rise of the U.S. dollar.

Once a relatively placid area of markets following the 2008 financial crisis, currencies have found renewed focus from Wall Street and Main Street. Last year the dollar’s unrelenting rise dented multinational companies’ profits, exacerbated inflation for countries that import American goods and repeatedly surprised some traders who believed the greenback couldn’t keep rallying so fast.

The factors that spurred the dollar’s rise are now contributing to its fall. Ebbing inflation and expectations of slower interest-rate increases from the Fed have sent the dollar down 1.7% this year, as measured by the WSJ Dollar Index.

Mr. Benson is betting more pain for the dollar is ahead and sees the greenback weakening between 3% and 5% over the next three to six months.

“When the biggest central bank in the world is on the move, look at everything through their lens and don’t get distracted,” said Mr. Benson of the London-based currency fund manager, regarding the Fed.

This year Mr. Benson expects the dollar’s fall to ripple similarly far and wide across global economies and markets.

“I don’t see many people complaining about a weaker dollar” over the next few months, he said. “If the dollar is falling, that economic setup should also mean that tech stocks should do quite well.”

Mr. Benson said he expects the dollar’s fall to brighten the outlook for some emerging- market assets, and he is betting on China’s offshore yuan as the country’s economy reopens. He sees the euro strengthening versus the dollar if the eurozone’s economy continues to fare better than expected.

—Caitlin McCabe

Stocks still appear overvalued

Even after the S&P 500 fell 15% from its record high reached in January 2022, U.S. stocks still look expensive, said Rupal Bhansali, chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, who oversees $6.7 billion in assets.

Of course, the market doesn’t appear as frothy as it did for much of 2020 and 2021, but she said she expects a steeper correction in prices ahead.

The broad stock-market gauge recently traded at 17.9 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months, according to FactSet. That is below the high of around 24 hit in late 2020, but above the historical average over the past 20 years of 15.7, FactSet data show.

“The old habit was buy the dip,” Ms. Bhansali said. “The new habit should be sell the rip.”

One reason Ms. Bhansali said the selloff might not be over yet? The market is still underestimating the Fed.

Investors repeatedly mispriced how fast the Fed would move in 2022, wrongly expecting the central bank to ease up on its rate increases. They were caught off guard by Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s aggressive messages on interest rates. It stoked steep selloffs in the stock market, leading to the most turbulent year since the 2008 financial crisis. Now investors are making the same mistake again, Ms. Bhansali said.

Current stock valuations don’t reflect the big shift coming in central-bank policy, which she thinks will have to be more aggressive than many expect. Though broader measures of inflation have been falling, some slices, such as services inflation, have proved stickier. Ms. Bhansali is positioning for such areas as healthcare, which she thinks would be more insulated from a recession than the rest of the market, to outperform.

“The Fed is determined to win the war since they lost the battle,” Ms. Bhansali said.

—Gunjan Banerji

A better year for bonds seen

Gone are the days when tumbling bond yields left investors with few alternatives to stocks. Finally, bonds are back, according to Niall O’Sullivan of Neuberger Berman, an investment manager overseeing about $427 billion in client assets at the end of 2022.

After a turbulent year for the fixed-income market in 2022, bonds have kicked off the new year on a more promising note. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index—composed largely of U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities—climbed 3% so far this year on a total return basis through Thursday’s close. That is the index’s best start to a year since it began in 1989, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Mr. O’Sullivan, the chief investment officer of multi asset strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Neuberger Berman, said the single biggest conversation he is currently having with clients is how to increase fixed-income exposure.

“Strategically, the facts have changed. When you look at fixed income as an asset class…they’re now all providing yield, and possibly even more importantly, actual cash coupons of a meaningful size,” he said. “That is a very different world to the one we’ve been in for quite a long time.”

Mr. O’Sullivan said it is important to reconsider how much of an advantage stocks now hold over bonds, given what he believes are looming risks for the stock market. He predicts that inflation will be harder to wrangle than investors currently anticipate and that the Fed will hold its peak interest rate steady for longer than is currently expected. Even more worrying, he said, it will be harder for companies to continue passing on price increases to consumers, which means earnings could see bigger hits in the future.

“That is why we are wary on the equity side,” he said.

Among the products that Mr. O’Sullivan said he favours in the fixed-income space are higher-quality and shorter-term bonds. Still, he added, it is important for investors to find portfolio diversity outside bonds this year. For that, he said he views commodities as attractive, specifically metals such as copper, which could continue to benefit from China’s reopening.

—Caitlin McCabe

 

Find the fear, and find the value

Ramona Persaud, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, said she can still identify bargains in a pricey market by looking in less-sanguine places. Find the fear, and find the value, she said.

“When fear really rises, you can buy some very well-run businesses,” she said.

Take Taiwan’s semiconductor companies. Concern over global trade and tensions with China have weighed on the shares of chip makers based on the island. But those fears have led many investors to overlook the competitive advantages those companies hold over rivals, she said.

“That is a good setup,” said Ms. Persaud, who considers herself a conservative value investor and manages more than $20 billion across several U.S. and Canadian funds.

The S&P 500 is trading above fair value, she said, which means “there just isn’t widespread opportunity,” and investors might be underestimating some of the risks that lie in waiting.

“That tells me the market is optimistic,” said Ms. Persaud. “That would be OK if the risks were not exogenous.”

Those challenges, whether rising interest rates and Fed policy or Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over energy-security concerns in Europe, are complicated, and in many cases, interrelated.

It isn’t all bad news, she said. China ended its zero-Covid restrictions. A milder winter in Europe has blunted the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy prices and helped the continent sidestep recession, and inflation is slowing.

“These are reasons the market is so happy,” she said.

—Justin Baer

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