Zen and the art of fund management
Bankers are apparently turning to transcendental meditation to alleviate the otherwise intolerable stress of their work. Poor lambs. Michael Lewis, the famed chronicler of Wall Street excess, suggests some more, shall we say, appropriate ways for masters of the universe to unwind
Wednesday 18 June 2014
I'd like to start by making a confession: it's never been easy being me. Managing billions of dollars of other people's money and countless millions of my own has been highly stressful.
There was a time when I thought my anxiety, not to mention the investigations of my affairs by various US government authorities, might break me – and so, on the advice my attorneys, I took some time off. That period of my life, thankfully, is now over. But I discovered that I'm not the only extremely distinguished Wall Street trader whose life is more difficult than ordinary people understand. Looking over the stories that people have been emailing to one another over the past few months, I see the anxiety of financiers hitting new highs: old bankers have been killing themselves. Young bankers, burned out by their 90-hours-a-week jobs, have been quitting in droves to work for start-ups; hedge-fund managers are now telling the public that the stock market feels so dangerous that they are selling their holdings and going into cash. The most widely circulated horror story was about people giving up golf. Apparently, Wall Street guys have been fleeing their game because their anxiety has them feeling they need to text all the time and they can't free up their hands long enough to swing the club. It's like we've all become teenage girls.
So maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised that the story that got all of Wall Street's attention was about a hot new stress reduction strategy: transcendental meditation.
Several of my esteemed hedge-fund colleagues apparently actually do this. David Ford told Bloomberg Pursuits that his mantra helped him make a killing in the emerging markets crash – and he isn't alone.
"Ford is part of a growing number of Wall Street traders, including A-list hedge-fund managers Ray Dalio, Paul Tudor Jones and Michael Novogratz, who are fine-tuning their brains – and upping their games – with meditation," said the story, which went on to say that the TM classes at Goldman have a waiting list of hundreds.
Personally, I would find it stressful, if I worked at Goldman Sachs (which, thank God, I don't!) to be on a waiting list for anything. Why can't they just buy as many gurus as they need? But I digress. The point of this crazy meditation article was how much money a guy can make these days just from staying calm.
"Meditation used to have this reputation as a hippie thing for people who speak in a particularly soft tone of voice," a meditation expert explains, to correct the popular misperception. "Samurai practiced meditation to become more effective killers. It's value neutral."
I'm a big believer in value neutrality. I also get that the new way to get an edge in the markets is to trick your brain into no longer worrying about whether you have an edge – and just letting the intuition fly. The problem is that there's no way meditating can give you a competitive advantage if everyone in the financial markets is already meditating. How can there be any edge left in doing whatever hundreds of grunts inside Goldman Sachs are already lining up to do?
Any hedge-fund manager who wants to pursue the calming strategy obviously needs new, superior, stress-relieving techniques, unknown to the weaker individuals whose anxiety he seeks to exploit. Here are a few secret strategies, unknown to the larger investing public, used by only the most successful hedge-fund managers, myself included. To begin:
Find a fat kid and sit on him
Fat kids aren't as thick on the ground in Manhattan since the soda ban was proposed, so you might need to get driven to a Jersey suburb. Identify some serious waddler, follow him until he is on his own, then leap from your limo, toss him on the ground and sit on him.
"A lot of people think that sitting on fat kids is just a mean thing done only by high school bullies," says one hedge-fund trader – who, like many extremely successful hedge-fund managers, struggled with his appetites when he was himself a child. "That totally misses the point of sitting on a fat kid. The act itself – of hurling a little fat kid being to the ground and using him as a human stool – is terribly relaxing. And it's value neutral, especially after the kid stops screaming. Once you realise that you can literally sit on your own past, and subdue it, you cease to worry about whatever it is you have just done with other people's money." This strategy comes with the small risk that some police officer witnesses the scene and fails to understand your actions. Relax! For those who don't have the nerve to publicly sit on a fat kid for a few minutes, there are other state-of-the-art calming strategies. Such as...
Identify people who have no hope in life and use their distress to soothe your own
One serious hedge-fund guy who just shorted a huge number of French government bonds told me that, when the pressure of his trade gets too overwhelming, he just goes to his local hospital and checks himself into a cancer ward. Obviously, he doesn't have cancer; he just uses the people who do, to put his position into deep perspective. (And, of course, offers to donate the money for a new wing to the hospital, in exchange for the bed.) "I don't know why," he says, "but it just makes me feel at peace with myself, and all my trades, to be surrounded by people who are seriously worse off than I am. It makes me feel good about my situation, even when my investors just asked me to cut my management fee. There really is no problem so big that a trip to the hospital doesn't solve it."
But be warned: this strategy isn't for everyone. As one of my colleagues put it: "Eventually you just get used to the fact that pretty much everyone in the world has it worse than you do, and so the juice goes out of it. In the presence of other human beings, you just feel numb – because you have nothing in common with them. I tried hanging around with sick animals and even some fish, but they never worked as well."
A few extremely successful Wall Street guys even claim this particular calming strategy has led to negative psychological returns.
"Surrounded by people who don't know how long they have to live just emphasises how serious the pressures are on me," as one trader put it. "Because my problems are much more relentless. When you have terminal cancer, you probably aren't in these markets, and so you don't have to face the harsh reality that your net worth is on the line every day."
Which brings me to the third strategy:
Find someone who can help you to see the humour in your problems
I can already hear a lot of guys thinking, "But there is no humour in my problems." The answer is to cast your mind back in human history and ask: who in the past most resembles you, in the seriousness of their emotional and psychological trials? To ask the question is to answer it: monarchs. The rulers of nations also shared our biggest source of stress: that no one dared make light of them. They, like us, were surrounded by courtiers and toadies and liars; they, like us, faced both the love and the hostility of an entire society. But they found a way to cope with their stress: a lowly but witty person who could serve as their Fool. Every extremely successful financier, like every king, can benefit from employing a court jester.
This person's job is to find the humour in you and your problems. Of course, he will usually fail to do so, because there is nothing the slightest bit ridiculous about you or your problems. But his failure in itself you will find calming. And you can pay him next to nothing.
In the end, we who sit on top of the financial world all need to remember that anxiety is a relative thing. The best among us realise that it doesn't matter how much of it we feel, so long as everyone else in the financial markets feels more of it. And so if you don't have the stomach for these cutting-edge stress-relieving strategies, you can always just give up trying to reduce your own stress, and instead create more stress for other people. Stage a raid on some unsuspecting company, or just go on TV and say you're getting the hell out of the markets and putting everything into cash. It's a less original solution, but it totally works. µ
This article first appeared in Bloomberg View. Michael Lewis is the author of the bestselling book "Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt".
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