Shen Wei, one of the first 600 investment bankers authorised to sign off on initial public offerings on the mainland, said the licence that made him one of the "golden collared" had lost its magic.
The teacher's son studied 14 hours a day for a month in 2004 to qualify after the mainland's securities regulator mandated that two so-called baodai, or sponsor representatives, conduct due diligence and sign off on every IPO to curb fraud.
Demand for such bankers is now being eroded by a freeze on IPOs, a surge in people getting licensed and an easing of underwriting rules.
"The baodai are like frogs in a pot of hot water that's been on slow boil for nine years," said Shen, 41, who is executive director of Citigroup's joint venture in Shenzhen, overseeing a team of 20 bankers. "The days of excess pay are gone. Rationality has returned."
Nine years after winning the licence that proved to be a "crucial turning point" for Shen, the mainland's worst IPO market in seven years has hastened the end of fat payouts and fast-track careers for the country's more than 2,300 baodai.
Securities firms are cutting or ending allowances that were as much as three times salaries and firing licensed bankers who are not on deals, while the pool of qualified people expands.
Creation of the country's elite class of bankers - culled through a state-administered examination that in 2010 had a 1.05 per cent pass rate - preceded a five-year boom in IPOs, culminating in 2010 with mainland China overtaking the US and Hong Kong to become the world's largest market for first-time sales. That year, 344 companies raised an estimated 488 billion yuan (HK$604 billion) from mainland IPOs, a record.
The supply of new stocks led the Shanghai Composite Index to fall 14 per cent, beginning a slump that made mainland China the worst-performing major stock market in Asia over three years. In an attempt to curb the slide, the securities watchdog froze the IPO market in October.
By then, local firms competing for market share were engaged in a talent war for baodai. Foreign banks such as Goldman Sachs, which are allowed to underwrite sales only through joint ventures, focused more on Hong Kong deals.
"China's investment banking was once dominated by people with connections," said Shen, who in 2003 was considering quitting investment banking to boost his annual salary of 100,000 yuan.
"Back then, for someone from an ordinary background like me, the baodai exam was the only way to reverse my fortunes."
Licensed bankers are required by the China Securities Regulatory Commission to determine that financial data and other information in the offering documents are accurate, and ensure proper corporate governance at the companies for up to three years after the IPO.
At the height of the fundraising boom, baodai commanded a monthly allowance ranging from 20,000 yuan to 80,000 yuan on top of their salaries, said Ban Ni, a former banker who used to head Shanghai-based Donghai Securities' investment-banking operations between 2010 and 2011.
Ban, who refused to disclose her age, failed to clear the licensing exam while working at Donghai and quit the industry in 2011. She's now writing a book about her experiences at the investment bank while studying for a master's in business administration in Hong Kong.
The monthly allowance made up half the pay for some licensed bankers at China Investment Securities in Shenzhen, an executive from that firm said, asking not to be named because he's not authorised to disclose compensation information. While other bankers would get one-time bonuses linked to specific deals they worked on, the monthly payments insulated the baodai from such "feast or famine" conditions, Ban said.
The licensed bankers, initially limited to working on one equity offering at a time, also collected a so-called signature fee that ranged from 400,000 yuan to one million yuan for each IPO that they approved, Ban said.
That windfall accounted for as much as half of his annual income in some years, Shen said.
The outlook for baodai began to sour as more bankers, lured by the additional compensation, raced to be qualified. The ratio of people who cleared the exam - which tests bankers on finance and money supply to legal issues and accounting - improved to 14 per cent in 2011. The results for the latest exams, held in December, have not been published.
Their numbers may climb higher as the Securities Association of China begins to administer the qualifying exam twice a year.
The limit on the number of deals each baodai is allowed to work on at one time means that firms that employ more licensed bankers could win a bigger share of the market.