Discover your dream Career
For Recruiters

What is sales & trading and what do salespeople & traders do?

  • Sales and trading is a very results-focused job where good or bad performance is immediately obvious.
  • To succeed, you’ll need energy, concentration, and coding and math skills.
  • Sales and trading jobs working with products like fixed income, equities or derivatives are very well paid, but job security is limited. A single bad year, and you could be replaced.
  • Entry to the best trading desks is super competitive; investment banks tend to hire a lot of juniors and promote the ones who perform best.
  • The best salespeople and traders go on to work for hedge funds or family offices. If you’re not in this top echelon, your next move can be less clear.

If you go into the sales & trading division of an investment bank, your main job will be “market making.” This is the term banks use for making markets – or, to put it more simply, enable clients to buy and sell securities. The sales and trading division is also often referred to as global markets. This is the part of an investment bank that connects buyers with sellers and that stands in the middle to take a piece of the action for itself.

Sign up to our student newsletter here 🎓

What will you buy and sell in a sales and trading job? The answer is more or less any kind of financial product. Some banks will even have physical commodities operations where actual metals, hydrocarbons and shipping services are traded as if they were stocks and bonds. But the three main categories of tradeable securities are equities (shares, which represent part ownership of companies), fixed income (any sort of tradeable debt, like bonds), and derivatives (securities where nobody literally owns anything but the two sides agree a contract to make payments to one another based on a predetermined formula).   

Sales and trading jobs are iconic: they’re where you’d used to see people shouting on trading floors during market meltdowns. A vice president at Deutsche Bank says that “when people think of investment banking, they tend to imagine the trading floor. Although sales, trading, and structuring is just one part of a bank’s work, it is where a lot of its commercial activities take place.” 

Before the financial crisis of 2008, banks traded a lot on their own accounts and tried to earn profits for themselves in the process. These days, they mostly only trade on behalf of their clients. Clients tend to be big investors – pension funds, specialized investment companies and organizations representing very wealthy individuals. The clients may want to invest cash in securities, raise cash by selling securities or alter the risk profile of their investment portfolio. In order to do this, they need to find someone to buy what they’re selling or to sell what they want to buy. Investors don’t usually have the scale or resources to have their own seat on the stock exchange. Nor do they want to take the time and trouble to search the world for the best deal, so they use middlemen. The salespeople and traders in banks are these middlemen.

What’s the difference between sales jobs, trading jobs, and sales trading jobs?

When you watch the prices scrolling across the bottom of the screen on CNBC or Bloomberg News or see them reported in the newspaper the next day, it’s not obvious how those prices are reached. Each one of them, however, is the result of a specific bargain agreed at a specific time and price between an investment bank and a client. The job of making that bargain happen has two parts to it. First, there’s the person who contacts the client, who tells them what deals are available and takes the order (the salesperson) and then there’s the person who goes out into the market and executes the transaction at the best price possible (the trader). 

Generally, sales jobs in investment banks are slightly more strategic than trading jobs. In sales, you have to understand the big picture and maintain relationships with your clients. The better you understand the big economic drivers and market trends, the more likely you are to be able to anticipate the investors’ needs and to give them useful advice. “You need to be a trained psychologist… everyone needs constant advice and affirmation as well as investment knowledge”, exaggerates Colin Hector, a former equities salesperson for UBS, Deutsche Bank, and Credit Suisse.  

Trading jobs are more focused and intense. To be a trader, you’ll need to understand the structure of supply and demand at any given moment in time; some of the best traders actively avoid information about longer timeframes as a distraction from what they can see happening on the screen in front of them.  

Some people fuse both roles and are sales traders. Sales traders work with clients who want to make a lot of transactions quickly. They are generally salespeople who deal with very active clients, often making dozens of phone calls a day while also keeping a similar number of chat windows open. Sales traders usually operate in liquid markets, meaning those where there is a high constant level of order flow. Examples of this kind of market might be in US Treasury bonds, blue-chip equities or options on the biggest stock market indices.

What’s the difference between trading equities, fixed income products, and derivatives?

The broad categories of equities, fixed income and derivatives cover a wide and ever-growing variety of financial markets, each with its own specialist jobs. Often, derivatives sales and trading will be divided up between the equities and fixed income divisions, with derivatives traders and salespeople working alongside colleagues who deal in the actual markets that the derivatives contracts are linked to (the “cash” markets).  

It’s easiest to illustrate with an example.  

Some investors might just want to buy and sell shares. Simple shares are known as cash equities. But sometimes, a hedge fund might want to buy a contract that gives them positive exposure if the whole stock market goes up, but which also pays a premium for insurance against the market falling. Because it has payouts linked to another event, this is an equity derivative – it’s an index option.  

Products like that would usually be the responsibility of a specific equity derivatives desk with its own salespeople and traders (and sales traders). But in most banks, the derivatives desk is physically located next to the cash equities sales and traders because although it’s a separate market, it’s not a completely separate market – there’s value in making it easy for people from the two trading desks to talk to each other and people sometimes switch jobs from one to the other. 

On the fixed income side, the variety of products is much greater, but the same principles apply. Government bond trading is all about anticipating movements in interest rates, so government bond traders tend to work together with economists and with people who trade interest rate derivatives (swaps). The interest rate derivatives salespeople and traders will often be expected to cover more than one currency, so they will be located near to the foreign exchange sales and traders. Commodities and commodity derivatives are more of their own little world, so they are often managed separately.  

Sales and trading of debt issued by companies (corporate bonds) is a very different business to debt issued by governments. Unlike equities and government bonds, corporate bonds are more likely to be “illiquid”. This means they don’t trade very often – a big pension fund or insurance company will buy the bonds when they are issued, and then hold on to them for years at a time, only selling when they need to raise cash or if the issuing company gets into financial trouble. Corporate bond salespeople and traders need to be able to go out and look for buyers and sellers in order to make transactions happen, rather than just looking at a screen where thousands of orders are placed every minute.  

There’s a similar distinction in the world of derivatives trading – between flow products where things are pretty standardized and orders can generally be matched quickly and structured products where the bank designs a contract specifically for one client’s needs. As the VP at Deutsche Bank says, “Structuring teams provide products that are tailored to clients’ specialized needs. They might help an institutional investor achieve a required risk profile, or a corporate looking to acquire new equipment through financing.” 

What’s electronic trading? And how is it changing sales and trading jobs?

In a lot of financial products – particularly cash equities, short-dated government bonds and flow derivatives of all kinds – trading is carried out electronically. This means that rather than having a human being looking at a screen and matching orders, the investors are able to send a message from their computer system directly to the bank, which then uses its own system to query the stock exchange or other investors and buys or sells the product automatically within a few milliseconds. These electronic trading platforms are expensive to build but cheap to run and banks are doing their best to encourage clients to use them. Deutsche Bank’s ‘Autobahn’ electronic trading platform can, for example, be accessed via an iPad app. 

Electronic trading systems work on algorithms. The algorithms built into electronic trading systems are usually meant to break up a large order into a lot of smaller ones, and to then use advanced statistical analyses to determine the best way to place those orders in order to complete the overall transaction at the best possible price. 

This doesn’t mean that there is no role for human beings in trading; even in very high-volume flow products, clients often want to speak to someone who can give them market color and advice on how to manage their orders to get the best price. However, the rise of electronic trading platforms does mean there are fewer opportunities for humans than there used to be (famously, Goldman Sachs’ cash equities trading desk used to employ around 600 people in New York in 2000 but was down to less than five by 2017 after electronic systems took over). It also accounts for the fact that many traders these days have taken on sales responsibilities. 

The biggest banks are pouring money into electronic trading platforms that let clients get direct access to their systems – and this may end up diminishing the role of specialist flow traders even further. However, it’s interesting to note that when markets get really volatile, as they did in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, clients still seem to want to get on the phone and talk to a human being. During that period of market volatility, human traders seemed to do much better than automated systems in dealing with market conditions that had never been experienced before. 

The rise of electronic trading platforms driven by algorithms has affected the kinds of jobs that are on offer in sales and trading. Traders in particular are now being encouraged by banks like JPMorgan to learn how to code in languages like Python in order to be able to specify the details of complicated derivatives products and the steps needed in order to trade them. Algorithmic traders are technology specialists and quantitative finance professionals with trading knowledge who write algorithms that can get orders executed at the best prices, and who develop better statistical models to choose the most efficient way to place orders.

Which skills will you need for a career in sales and trading?

It’s no good going into sales and trading if you’re not a morning person. Markets open early every day, and you need to be in the office even earlier. Rain or shine, summer or winter, the market is no respecter of hangovers and duvet days; at any given minute something could suddenly turn into a crisis. Sales and trading jobs don’t tend to require the punishingly long hours that are associated with investment banking, but the hours can still be very intense. “It’s the kind of job that many people imagine they’d enjoy, but the reality might not suit everyone”, cautions the Deutsche Bank VP. 

Sales in particular is a noisy, people-focused job which is more suitable for extroverts than introverts. Even when markets are dominated by computers, the people making the decisions are human beings and successful salespeople need to be able to form relationships with them on a human level. That doesn’t necessarily just mean dinner and drinks and meeting the clients’ families – some investors are strictly business. But it does mean that you need to be able to talk to people and listen to them to understand what they want. As Hector puts it, “you need to have something to say, every single hour of the day… If there’s nothing happening, you have to be able to use your imagination”. 

Sales and trading jobs need concentration and attention to detail. Some structured products and algorithmic roles also need advanced quantitative skills. In all products and markets, it’s vital to get things right. There’s not much room for “big picture” types in sales and trading; everything is either a profit or a loss, worked out to the last fraction of a cent.

What qualifications do you need for a career in sales & trading?

Although you can hypothetically get in with any degree, it’s likely best to flex some analytic aptitude to recruiters with a finance or STEM subject. Recent sales and trading junior recruits at JPMorgan, for example, graduated in economics and sciences, particularly mathematics. At Bank of America they graduated in similar roles, with STEM subjects slightly more prevalent, we found. 

If you’re looking for something else to fluff up your CV, the Bloomberg Market Concepts (BMC) course could help. This is a self-paced e-learning course that lasts around 8 hours and teaches the very basics of high finance, and how to use the Bloomberg Terminal; finance and economics students will likely be quite bored in the process, however, with the concepts already staples of their courses. 

Increasingly, it helps if traders have some understanding of coding. There are number of options available, mostly to learn online: coding is one of the few places where self-taught people are held in as high regard (if not higher, among the known) than academically qualified people. The most popular way to self-teach (which offers you a certificate at the end of it all) is Codeacademy, which offers courses on Python, Java, and C++, among others. 

There's also the ICMA Fixed Income Certificate, issued in the UK, which is very very expensive and lasts four weeks' worth of webinars. You can also pay more and have classroom teaching (for one week) in Amsterdam. It's not mandatory anywhere, but it's well-known enough to potentially make a difference to your internship application.

Masters in finance qualifications are also relevant to sales and trading. If you want to work in quantitative and electronic trading, however, you could also consider a masters in financial engineering, which focuses on not just financial topics, but also how statistics and adjacent topics, such as machine engineering, integrate.

In the US it’s mandatory for salespeople and traders to study for the Series 7 exam, as mandated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). The exam makes sure that salespeople understand what they’re selling. You’ll need to be sponsored by an approved firm to do the exams, so don’t overthink this one – the bank you work for will guide you through the process when it comes up.

Salaries and bonuses in sales and trading jobs

Sales and trading jobs are some of the best paid in banking. If you’re good and you generate a good level of profits (known as pnl) for the bank, you’ll get paid a lot of money within a comparatively short period of time. Compensation almost doubles, from $171k (£134k) a year to $321k (£251k), from analyst to VP levels – a five-year jump in one’s career.

The chart below shows figures from the eFinancialCareers salary and bonus survey for people working in sales and trading jobs. Promotions in sales and trading can happen more quickly than in other areas, but it’s usually safe to assume that it takes around eight or so years to reach director level.

With additional material from Zeno Toulon.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: +44 7537 182250 (SMS, Whatsapp or voicemail). Telegram: @SarahButcher. Click here to fill in our anonymous form, or email Signal also available.

Bear with us if you leave a comment at the bottom of this article: all our comments are moderated by human beings. Sometimes these humans might be asleep, or away from their desks, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. Eventually it will – unless it’s offensive or libelous (in which case it won’t.)

AUTHORDaniel Davies Insider Comment
  • GS
    GS Global Market
    7 August 2023

    Well it isn’t always the case even for ED roles (non-trading) at Global Markets in banks like Goldman Sachs and front office teams in London. The threshold is subjective to name it at least. Different for analysts, different for VPs and Eds.

    I can call myself very lucky as HR on-board me although:

    - I was disciplinary terminated by BofA in 15' focusing on the last employer instead, recommendation. Lucky this hasn't impacted my screening, most banks perform much detailed checks further in history!

    - I'm 100% non-TARGET (Uni, MBAs, background etc)I have low (3.6/5.0)M.Sc. Marketing/Accounting of Eastern Europe non target even there, 2nd degree- but never finished back at home, started ACCA which failed after 1st exam, same goes to FCA etc. An obvious trick was do buy instead MBA(nb fails those!) the cheapest London's MBA(100% pass rates+ CMI incl. for free) nb cares, West London at the end my programme which I had to extended, luckly merged with City Uni - what confused HR as it is still same low quality with other slightly better label).

    - CMI is the only paper, I have not even being examinable as it was part of my generic MBA bought package and apparently I claim this as the only person at London office

    Most banks won't even care about those, somehow GS/Morgan HR's need tick this off for any promotion, won't even consider it as any value as you can easily cheat and outsource most assignments to copywriters like most ppl did.

    Professional qualification in other hand requires sacrifice doing everything all exams by yourself, what was/is challenge for expats not fluent in English. Have you wondered why some EDs having very weak education like me, barely know how to draft an emails and overall suck in communication (now you have an answer) not to mention being threaten by more skilled co-workers?

    - I don't have Russel Group (UK)/Ivy business diploma – nothing further from this in fact, as I have graduated mediocre accounting major in one of Easter European uni, not even the most competitive major to start with, this doesn't make sense hearing about top schools requirements at all.

    - My background by no means wasn't Front Office,as I came from generic op. Firmops,CA experience, never been involved in actually sells pitching, direct clients interaction, not like most transfers to FO coming neither Risk or Research, Finance nor Markets exp

    - I'm not qualified – neither FCA, FRM, ACCA etc, in fact Analyst, Assoc. I supervise are 2x more technical superb than me, as far my +15 YOE middle/ back office operational support goes.

    I have started ACCA but failed at 1 exam, started FCA but failed, so MBA with impossible to fail(100% successful rate) at West London was my way around, especially as they merged it with City Uni at final study what confused HR even more and giving other label for quality same school instead.

    - CHEAT TRICK there are MBAs and "MBAs"- I have completed the cheapest (budget limitation and language barrier) non-target (some called it Micky Mouse MBA) London's MBA as typical those throw in meaningless CMI paper incl in price, both nb really cares but HR needs to tick this off – costed +£16k, which was later luckily merged with City Uni.The main requirement was pass basic IELTS test(some might laugh)not like in professional MBA programmes (GMAT) not to mentioning LSE and rest Russel's Group requirements!

    Most of my colleagues @GS have graduated LSE etc (for £110k-140£k eMBA) however due to language, communication I was also forced to use extensive help copywriters (fiverr, gumtee lots of them to choose from) to pass final result. One of advantages MBA over restrict self-study qualification as many people and alumni was doing the same, due to work commitments or just pure laziness etc. MBAs are more restrictive due to their costs not level, as you won't be banking expert after 1(18mths generic program), of course there are exemptions, not mine.

    My communication skills although average at the best, I have never studied English language as my 1st foreign language, nor eastern accent luckily hasn't impacted my chances. I know it is huge obstacle in other FS sectors at senior level.

    Finally if I were representing a different sex, probably not meeting diversity targets (GS it is no surprise aims to influx % women giving us a bit blind eye, I wouldn't stand a chance among male colleagues, with CFAs, LSEs etc)

    Overall I'm so grateful and happy that I can lead own team and set own targets as well recruit people suitable for business and my management own personal goals.

    Policy vs reality and discrimination (own interest above company's)

    "The firm is committed to providing equal employment opportunity (EEO) to all qualified persons …including race, nationality, sex, gender, religion and age."

    Well dead policy, the reality is other way round. So much depends on people. I'm keep telling friends that in this business critical thinking is disadvantageous, there is no space for too old, too experienced candidates as they tend to create leaderships challenges and raising uncomfortable questions about sense and ways of doing things. Craftsmanship speed, accuracy are the most important in this role alongside soft skills managed ( at the end not the most knowledgeable or skilled got promoted!).I personally tend to recruit only young candidates, who are willing to make effort, work long hours and do not challenge supervisors causing unnecessary fractions. Why I would recruit sb you can possess a threat to my role in first place!

    Ethics& Integrity vs reality:

    Neither GS nor my previous bank wouldn't probably mind if I will admit that I've spent few years clamming council social housing benefits as well, living with my further family in their council flat and still work as Director (savings '000 in the process, just using loopholes).I simply used an opportunity as I was learnt doing at work and play the game.

    To summarize I'm not exactly a raw model for junior colleagues (sometimes) better qualified and technically skilled on the job than me, neither in terms of technicality nor especially ethics at all, but as they came to me and once you are in, who cares!

    #GoldmanSachs #salesandtrading #globalmarkets #IBD #JPMorgan #Citi @MorganStanley @GoldmanSachs

    Goldman Sachs

Sign up to Morning Coffee!

Coffee mug

The essential daily roundup of news and analysis read by everyone from senior bankers and traders to new recruits.

Boost your career

Find thousands of job opportunities by signing up to eFinancialCareers today.
Recommended Articles
Recommended Jobs
Deutsche Bank
Trader - Vice President
Deutsche Bank
New York, United States
Carisbrook Partners
G10 STIR FX Trader
Carisbrook Partners
London, United Kingdom
Elevate Partners
Investment Associate - Climate Fund
Elevate Partners
London, United Kingdom
Mason Blake
Global Equities Investment Specialist
Mason Blake
London, United Kingdom

Sign up to Morning Coffee!

Coffee mug

The essential daily roundup of news and analysis read by everyone from senior bankers and traders to new recruits.