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Priya Misra on Fast Track at Bank of America

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Priya Misra is hardly fazed by an industry dominated by men, and so far that has served her well on Wall Street.

As head of Bank of America Merrill Lynch's (BAC) U.S. rates research, Misra, at 33 years old, is one of 10 senior women in macro research at the bank. Misra was ranked in the top three of government debt analysts in Institutional Investor's All-America Fixed Income Research team surveys from 2003 to 2008.

Priya Misra, rates strategist at Bank of America.

After graduating with a master's degree in finance from the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore in 2001, she started work as an interest rate strategist at Lehman Brothers and eventually rose to director at Barclays Capital before she left. After a brief stint at Nomura Securities, Misra joined Bank of America in January 2010.

When asked about whether she had any women role models early on in her career, Misra pauses and says actually she didn't actively seek out any women to look up to.

"This industry is very meritocratic. It about doing hard work," she said in an interview. "Women don't cut any corners and you shouldn't expect them to."

Senior female executives are rare on Wall Street. Only 8% of most senior bankers are women, according to Financial News, which surveyed 20 investment banks. That's only an average of less than one woman at the executive committee level at each bank.

The departure of a top-ranking woman from her perch often renews the media discussion on the thin ranks of women in finance as well as how the ones that do survive either learn to balance work and family life.

The chances of women filling executive posts seem slim given that there are few women in the rungs below. The overwhelming ratio of men in the finance doesn't escape Candace Browning, head of research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, who hired and now overseas Misra and her team.

If more than 50% of college graduates are women, then there should be more women in the field, says Browning. In hiring for Bank of America, she says, "I approach it as a bottom up proposition."

Browning said that Priya Misra caught her attention because she was analytical but also had the right personality for a client-facing role. "Priya is intellectually very strong and is attentive to what clients want," says Browning. "She's constantly on the road visiting clients all over the world."

From India to Wall Street

Misra was lucky to land at Lehman Brothers. Back in the early 2000s, there was barely a fixed income market in her home country, India. Even the stock market in India hadn't taken off until the late 1990s. The U.S. however, was going through a recession, so demand for government bonds was strong, and the fixed income market was expanding quickly.

The competitive process that resulted in a ticket abroad essentially opened the door for Misra. Ravi Mattu, who spearheaded Lehman's first foray into recruiting graduates from India and is now global head of analytics at Pimco, said that at the time, there were few opportunities for graduates from India to work for Western banks.

The only banks recruiting in India at the time were Lehman, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank and everyone in my class applied to them, recalls Misra.

"I returned to my dorm after the first round interview because I figure there was a low chance. Someone had to wake me up [it was an overnight Web video process because of the time difference] and say, 'Wear your jacket and come back.' " That year, Lehman hired just two people, including Misra, from Bangalore.

Once on Wall Street, Misra didn't waste time coming up to speed in her new social environment. "A lot of people get shy and it takes them a while to adjust coming from India," says Mattu, who graduated the Indian Institute of Management himself before attending business school in the U.S. and working for Lehman. Part of the challenge is that you "may know the language but not the nuances."

"Most guys from India come in with a Ph.D. Priya came in with a master's. But, she's smart and driven," says Mattu. "Priya immersed herself ... when you're not worried about making mistakes, you adjust faster."

"I came here with high heels because I'm short," says Misra who explained that she wanted to fit in with her taller American peers. "I was pleasantly surprised. It's didn't take a lot of effort to get accepted."

Simply put, it's a culture that rewards effort and excellence, she adds. "I never even had to work on changing my Indian accent."

As her career progressed, Misra parents tried to rein in her ambitions. Her father, who worked in the railway force of the Indian government, and her mother, a school teacher, had both emphasized education when Misra was growing up but said, "If you carry on this path, we won't be able to find a boy for you."

My parents were convinced I wouldn't marry until a much older age, she says. "I said, that's fine." For the record, Misra married her husband when she was 28, still young by New York standards, and now has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter.

These days Misra's work has evolved into a more macro role of looking at how Federal Reserve policy affects the markets. One of her calls last year was that rates have more room to decline. It was out of consensus at first, she says. "We were hiding under the desk ... but then the market came around to it."

Misra's team forecast that the second round of quantitative easing would essentially move the market's perception of when the Federal Reserve would next raise rates out by six months from a 12-month forecast after the first round of quantitative easing to an 18-month forecast. Misra and her colleagues concluded that yields on five-year Treasuries would rally.

"There was a hidden message within the Fed's policy easing measure," says Misra. On top of easing, the Fed was also giving an implicit commitment until June 2013 to refrain from hiking, she says. Misra says the same methodology can be used for "Operation Twist," which would take out as much duration out as the last round of quantitative easing to have a similar effect on interest rates.

The goal is to produce solid research, but also the kind of analysis that leads to a trade idea for clients, says Misra.

"While Priya is in research, she understands how to build lasting relationships with clients," says Mattu. The balance between having the analytical skills, being tenacious and being good with clients one of her biggest strengths, says Mattu. In this way, "she's very commercial."

"It's all about the fundamentals -- being very passionate about what you do," according to Misra, who brushes off her minority background as well as the fact that she didn't have many female role models. She's optimistic that more women are coming into the field anyway.

"I was at a client meeting in Hong Kong about a month ago. All of the attendees were women except for a work colleague with me who was male," says Misra. "I didn't think twice about it until he remarked, 'wow, that was awkward!' It was funny to hear him say that. But, the world is changing and it's great."

-- Written by Chao Deng in New York.

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