35 Under 35: Michelle Meyer, Senior U.S. Economist, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

MichelleMeyer1By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Michelle Meyer, Senior U.S. Economist at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research, urged women to be more open to risks. “I’ve had the best career advancement from taking opportunities that are out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Meyer, who was voted one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30 in Finance” and also appears as an expert commentator on CNBC and Bloomberg, said putting herself in the spotlight was initially terrifying. “When I first started doing media, I was petrified,” she said. “It scared me immensely, not only representing myself, but also the firm. But I pushed myself and it has been one of the best things for my career.”

“When an opportunity presents itself that is challenging, uncomfortable, intimidating, or it makes you want to hide under the table, that’s just the opportunity you should take,” she added with a laugh.

Career in Economics

Meyer studied economics at Boston University, completing a bachelor’s and master’s joint degree in four years. “I was debating whether or not to continue on to complete my Ph.D. or to work for a bit and then return to school,” she said. “So I spoke to a close professor of mine, who advised me to take some time and figure out what I liked about economics.”

A year later, she landed a job as a second-year economist at Lehman Brothers in New York as a research assistant to Ethan Harris, who was Managing Director and the Chief US Economist for the firm. “Since I didn’t go in with an analyst class, my first two years were on-the-job training – what you learn in school is so much more theoretical,” she said. “As a business economist, you have to understand the data flow; how market participants will react to trends and how that gyrates through the economy.”

She continued, “It was a steep learning curve, and it was very exciting as well. If you work hard, you can learn a lot.”

In 2005, she transitioned to a more senior role focusing on the U.S. housing market, where she developed housing forecasts and explored trends. When Lehman went under in 2008, she was offered a role at Barclays Capital, where she stayed for about a year before moving to Bank of America to join Harris, her first boss at Lehman Brothers. “Sitting on the trading floor has brought me much closer to the market action,” she commented.

When Meyer was named on of Forbes’ “30 Under 30 in Finance” list in 2011, she was shocked, she recalled. “It seemed unbelievable to me – it was a huge boost to my confidence. It was eye-opening to me as well that what I do had been recognized and realized by others outside my small world.”

Today she is continuing her coverage of the housing market. “It has, for the past few years, been a key part of the economic outlook and a driver of the market. We are now seeing signs of life – it’s become more uplifting to discuss the housing market,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve been working with a colleague on building a home price model for a year and a half, and we’re continuing to update and tweak the model. We’re gaining recognition for it.”

Meyer is looking for trends in the microeconomic space as well. “Looking at the macro economy – which everyone on Wall Street is doing, is essential – but I also like to look at the micro issues. The demographic changes in the labor market, for example, tell an interesting story. When you look at the big picture in aggregate numbers, you sometimes miss an important story that’s in the details.”

Women in Finance

Looking back on the start of her career, Meyer said, “One thing that would have been useful to understand is how fluid the industry is. Neither of my parents work in finance – my dad is a professor and my mom has held a steady role in IT. I went in with the assumption that you join a firm and make it your home, with a clear path. But it’s anything but on Wall Street. There are bumps and turns.”

She continued, “Being at Lehman during the crisis made that particularly challenging. I learned that you have to quickly adapt to your environment and be forward-looking.”

Meyer cited the lack of women at the top of the industry as a challenge for women in finance. “I would say that one challenge is that there aren’t many women role models in the industry. At Bank of America, I’m fortunate. The head of research, Candace Browning, is a woman and there are several senior women on the trading floor. But that’s not the norm in the industry, and it’s not the norm in terms of our clients. That tends to be a bit of a challenge as it can be intimidating.”

The other issue is cultural. “Wall Street can be very intense. It’s a fast paced job and requires a pretty thick skin. The other challenge, and it’s something that’s getting a lot of attention right now, is that you really do have to push yourself and promote yourself, which is less natural for women.”

Advice for Young Women

Meyer advised women just starting out to keep their eyes and ears open all the time. “Be eager to meet as many people as you can regardless of how they relate to your specific role. Networking is very important, particularly if you are in an analyst class trying to figure out the best fit.”

She continued, “And don’t assume there one set path – there are a lot of potential directions one can take in this industry.”

She encouraged women to bet on themselves more often as they move up the ladder. “Know your value and don’t be intimidated to make it clear that you know what you’re worth to the company. It’s important to self-promote as eloquently as possible. I think men have an easier time doing that.”

Taking part in networking activities can also be helpful, she continued. Meyer recently attended the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Deauville, France as part of a select group of Rising Talents. “It was inspiring to meet women from across the world who achieved incredible success in different industries and public service.” She also participated in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s program with Columbia’s Women’s Leadership Council, spending three days attending meetings and watching panel discussions. “I got to interact with women from across the bank, many of whom I otherwise would not have been exposed to.”

One of the topics she found very important was the discussion of sponsorship. “I had heard the term but wasn’t very familiar with it. After the session, I reached out to the people who I believed to be my sponsors. It was hugely beneficial to sit down and talk about my career advancement with them.”

In Her Personal Time

Outside work, Meyer spends a lot of time with her family. “My family is number one on my list. At this stage, both my husband and I are prioritizing our careers and we understand each other. When children come it will be a different balance.”

“I’m very close to my extended family as well. If I ever feel like I’m not giving my family the time they deserve, I try to change that immediately,” she continued. “In this job, there is endless work that can be done. If you want to work 24/7, you can. But it’s not a healthy or sustainable path. It’s important to have a good balance.”

She also enjoys traveling with her husband and doing yoga. “It’s a great release mentally and a great form of exercise,” she said.