Why Former Wall Street Wizard David Woo Now Warns Others Against Working There

A former Bank of America researcher, David Woo now dedicates his time to teaching economics and politics to more broader audiences, and says that’s the future, in an interview with Bloomberg Línea

Former head of global rates, foreign exchange and emerging markets fixed income research at Bank of America
September 06, 2022 | 05:05 PM
Reading time: 7 min.

Bloomberg Línea — Imagine working for 20 years in traditional banks in the financial capitals of the world, making six-figure salaries and winning awards for research, and then waking up one day to realize that your Wall Street dream job doesn’t make sense anymore. This is what happened to David Woo, a former head of global rates, foreign exchange and emerging markets fixed income research at Bank of America.

Woo became almost a celebrity among his peers after predicting Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, and, back in 2013, that Bitcoin would become a viable alternative to traditional transfer providers.

After 10 years living in New York, and another 10 or so working for Citigroup and Barclays in London, he decided to give up the traditional path to start a new business as a blogger, YouTuber and consultant for macroeconomics and financial markets, and now as the founder and CEO of David Woo Unbound, a global forum devoted to the promotion of fact-based debates about markets, politics, and economics.

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Woo granted an interview to Bloomberg Línea from Israel, in an oasis in the foothills of Jerusalem, surrounded by vineyards and a forest reservation visible in the reflection in his computer screen, and from where he shared his thoughts on this era of polarization and racism, and on the future of Wall Street careers.

“I found a little oasis from which to launch my new career,” he said.

Born in the US and raised in Taiwan, Woo was sent back to his birth country aged 15 to study at a boarding school in New England, where he got his first experience of being, as he calls it, “a product of globalization”.

“I barely spoke a word of English. I always said that if I could survive a boarding school where I was the only Asian kid, you know what? I could survive basically anything,” Woo said.

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A declared enemy of so-called victimhood, Woo says that his Chinese background - his parents left Shanghai during the Communist Revolution - didn’t help much in 1980′s America.

But with the rise of China in the coming years, he would soon become one of the few who could understand that country as much as he could the US, Europe and Israel, the country to which he has spent the last 30 years commuting to join his Israeli wife.

Now on his own schedule and studying to understand the laws of algorithms that decide whether his videos will perform well or not, Woo believes that the golden days of Wall Street might as well be left in the past - not only for him, but for everybody.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Bloomberg Línea: How did you end up in Israel? You’re still in the market, but doing something very different from what you used to do.

David Woo: I’ve been in the market for a long time, and I was doing very well. Sometimes you need the grace to leave when you’re doing well, but what really got me thinking about leaving Wall Street was because of what’s happening all around the world. Over the last three to four years, everything became extremely political. Political to a point that started to threaten not only the stability of people and the societies we live in, but mainly that, if you don’t agree with a certain political narrative, you’re increasingly at risk of being canceled and marginalized.

Are you saying the change we saw in how Wall Street speaks, with more caution, is not honest, but rather a fear of ‘cancel culture’?

I’m saying that talk is cheap. Investors say something that is not true, they disappear for three months and then come back talking about a new story. I try to walk the walk, I’m known for being honest. I make macro-predictions, however I manage three share portfolios, which I rebalance every week. I think you should think long-term, but you should trade short-term. Because you know what? Eventually, we’re all dead. Every Sunday, I release a video in which I discuss how I am going to be positioned next week. I give people exactly how I’m going to rebalance. And then you can follow the updates daily and see my returns. I’m not even showing how I am positioned in the market, I’m showing based on my portfolio. I’m not doing this for the money, I want to do this because I want to be right and I want to tell you what I think.

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Are you satisfied by the reception you’re getting?

It’s only been a year, and I’ve had long-Covid for the past six months. I think things are starting to happen now. I’m focusing on three areas: YouTube, which I’ve been trying to grow for less than 10 months now. The second is my blog. I’m selling subscriptions for $100 a year. I’ve got billionaires and students as subscribers. And the third is institutions, to which I’m providing consulting to help afford everything else.

What is the secret no one tells about Wall Street?

You have to be lucky to be in the right place at the right time. In my career, the secret was always being international. I understood Asia, I understood America, I lived in Europe for 10 years, my second home was Israel for 30 years. That global mindset gave me all the opportunities. People always say Wall Street is racist, whatever. I never, for the last 10 years, felt once that being Asian worked to my disadvantage. Maybe Bank of America should take the credit for that, but there’s no doubt that in America, and in Wall Street, people understood. At the end of the day, it’s who you are that matters, and not where you come from. Wall Street is all about making money. If you’re good and you’re more right than others, that’s what really matters. That’s what America is all about.

Do you think the 15-year-old David Woo, recently arrived from Taiwan, felt the same way?

It was a different kind of challenge because I arrived in America around 1983. In 1983, the US was very racist. I went to boarding school with only white people, from the wealthiest families. The fact that I was Asian did not help me at all. I always said that if I could survive a boarding school where I was the only Asian kid, you know what? I could survive basically anything.

I’m not going to cry about being a victim of racism because I don’t believe in victimhood. I’ve came this far, so it wasn’t an impediment for me, but for sure it didn’t help. In Wall Street’s research positions there’s not many Asians, let alone in top global positions. From that point of view, what really helped was the rise of China. In the last 20 years, China has become a very important story for Wall Street, so anybody who understood that, whether you were Chinese or not, had an advantage. And there were not many people who understood China, America and Europe as I do. So at the end of the day, it is about what you know.

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What about more recently though? The vision many Americans have of China after the trade war and Covid has changed from, say, five years ago.

I think today the world has changed to the extent that it is much more difficult if you are Asian trying to make it in the US. China has basically become an enemy. Americans are more distrustful, especially toward Chinese people. I grew up in Taiwan, but it doesn’t really matter. If you have a Chinese last name, people are wondering if you’re here to steal our technology. It’s ironic to the extent that globalization has taken a backseat - as a result, things are going to become more regional, more country-specific in the future.

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What does that mean to careers like yours?

People should focus on developing their career in their own country, with people they’re familiar with, rather than going somewhere else. I know it sounds kind of ridiculous, maybe people are going to say I’m overreacting to the situation, but I just think the hurdle in getting higher. Before Brexit, when all the Europeans were going to Britain, London was a great place if you were from anywhere else, it was a great place for someone with an international mindset. London is not what it used to be. If you’re Brazilian, are you really going to go to Frankfurt? To Paris? You’re not German in order to work in a bank in Germany, with the whole German oriented mindset for markets.

So you’d advise people to look for their local Wall Street, or City of London?

There’s so many people working out there that your paycheck will be considerably lower than a few years ago [if you go to Wall Street]. From that point of view, the golden days of Wall Street careers are over in a very big way. There’s going to be an acceleration in the next years in which more and more people are going to be replaced by robots. You have robot trades, robot sales. If you want to build up a career in Wall Street, the most important ingredient is that you have to be unique. Unique in a sense that you bring a unique perspective, you have to be a powerful communicator, so that when you speak, people listen. You need to think out of the box. You’ll need courage and real knowledge to face that.

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