In a short-lived attempt at a career in a more lucrative field, I saw the first wave of Asia financial crisis cut-backs at an investment bank in Hong Kong. While staffers traded rumours on when and how their doom would come, one managing director was out preaching to clients that the crisis was healthy in the long run, as nimbler enterprises would spring up to fill the shoes of the region's bloated and debt-ridden conglomerates. 'This fire will burn away the dead wood and let the young green shoots get the sunlight,' he said. Yet it did not work that way at this particular bank. When the cuts came in December 1997, only one managing director got the boot, and this was from a job two managing directors were more or less sharing. Most of the cut-backs hit middle and junior employees. Among the heads local managers held up to the European parent as proof of their cost-cutting exercise - a library assistant on about HK$6,000 a month. Four years after the financial crisis, higher-ups are taking the brunt of the cost-cutting actions by the big investment banks. Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse First Boston were the most recent houses to see an exodus of managing directors in investment banking, hit by a withering deal flow. Goldman has just two investment bankers left in Singapore while CSFB recently said goodbye to eight of its 12 investment bankers in the region, excluding Japan, sources said. Leaders on the research side have also found themselves on the wrong side of the door. Among the houses which have seen regional strategists removed or replaced in the past six months are Deutsche Bank, Goldman, JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch and SG Securities. In some cases the former leaders are replaced by junior staff. Take the example at SG Securities, which several months ago dropped Manu Bhaskaran, who for years was at the top of the research-strategy food chain in the region. At the time of his departure, the French investment bank announced it was ditching macroeconomics to carve a niche as a 'bottom-up' research house. Now that the group is again cranking out regional economic notes, it is apparent that Mr Bhaskaran's team was simply replaced by cheaper and greener strategists. Sometimes the cost-saving strategy is worth questioning. One Japanese house last year sacked its pricey and senior research personnel; several weeks later one of the replacements was interviewed by a South China Morning Post reporter, but his accent was so strong that barely two in four words could be identified. Yet more prevalent than the cheaper-replacement strategy is opportunistic upgrading in the present buyer's market. That shows the 'stars' can still operate in the spotlight, but everyone else is living under the shadow of the half-raised axe. Here is how a managing director at a United States investment bank describes his attitude to performance these days: 'Everyone has to prove his worth in a critical way.' He believes there were too many promotions in the roaring times; when a monkey could have sold a stock, analysts dashed out random 'valuations' for Internet stocks and every banking deal had as many spectators as deal-makers. Now when this banker interviews a candidate, he is pretty sceptical at the deal lists on the resumes. He wants to know: Did you get the deal or were you just along for the ride? And if you got so many deals - how come you are out looking for a job? 'For a while people just felt this is a low-risk, high-return business. It's not. It should always be a high-risk, high-return business,' he said.