American excess: A Wall Street trader tells all
Fine wines, lobster lunches and million-dollar salaries – life as a Wall Street shark was thrilling at first. But amid the extravagance, Philipp Meyer
was sickened by a moral deficit at the heart of America’s financial system
Monday 27 April 2009
I’d been working for the bank for about five weeks when I woke up on the balcony of a ski resort in the Swiss Alps. It was midnight and I was drunk. One of my fellow management trainees was urinating onto the skylight of the lobby below us; another was hurling wine glasses into the courtyard.
Behind us, someone had stolen the hotel’s shoe-polishing machine and carried it into the room; there were a line of drunken bankers waiting to use it. Half of them were dripping wet, having gone swimming in all their clothes and been too drunk to remember to take them off. It took several more weeks of this before the bank considered us properly trained.
I didn’t fit the typical profile of a trader. I was an English major working on a novel at night. Most everyone else was a maths or economics major, most everyone else had relatives or family in banking. I’d spent a year walking around studying flashcards with maths problems, multiplying random licence-plate numbers in my head, just to prepare for the interviews. I memorised The Wall Street Journal every morning. I didn’t care what I had to do. At Cornell University it was well known that after five years on Wall Street, you could expect to be making half a million a year in salary and bonus; after 10 years you could expect a million or more. I had 60 grand of university debt and my parents had no retirement. I needed that money.
UBS apparently thought pretty highly of me, because despite my lack of a financial background, they put me onto the derivatives trading desk. This was a coveted spot - the derivatives traders were viewed as the elite - the baddest of the bad-asses. Derivatives are financial contracts, the value of which is based on (derives from) something else, say the price of a stock or the price of a bushel of wheat. They were originally created to provide stability and allocate capital to industry, farmers, and the like, and, for a long time, derivatives allowed businesses to eliminate certain financial risks, say in currency, which provided stability to the business, its management, and its workers. If you were a factory worker back in the day, you benefited from your employer’s use of derivatives to smooth out their cash flows during the year, hedge against the risk of selling goods abroad. For about a hundred years, derivatives were a sort of lubricant in the world financial machine.
By the time I arrived on Wall Street in 1999, the link between derivatives and the real world had broken down. Instead of being used to reduce risk, 95 per cent of their use was speculation - a polite term for gambling. And leveraging - which means taking a large amount of risk for a small amount of money. So while derivatives, and the financial industry more broadly, had started out serving industry, by the late 1990s the situation had reversed. The Market had become a near-religious force in our culture; industry, society, and politicians all bowed down to it.
It was pretty clear what The Market didn’t like. It didn’t like being closely watched. It didn’t like rules that governed its behaviour. It didn’t like goods produced in First-World countries or workers who made high wages, with the notable exception of financial sector employees. This last point bothered me especially.
I’d grown up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, a place hard hit by the offshoring of numerous heavy industries - steel, textile, shipbuilding. My parents weren’t mill workers - they were recovering hippies - but we were always struggling for money and so my brother and I lived a sort of split existence. Inside the house, I read constantly and my brother listened to classical music. Outside the house, like all the other kids in the neighbourhood, we got into fights and caused trouble. At 16 I dropped out of school and spent five years working as a bicycle mechanic and volunteering in a Trauma Centre before ultimately deciding to go to university. I earned high marks at various local colleges and eventually, after three tries at applying to the Ivy League, I got into Cornell.
My first job out of Cornell was on the trading floor at UBS. So when news would hit the wire about an American company closing a domestic factory, I felt a good deal of conflict as I watched the company’s stock price go up as a result. Those sorts of factory closings had ruined my neighbourhood, my city, and many of the people I’d grown up with. I was not alone in this feeling, but there were not many of us, either. One of my British friends from the training programme, who later became a currency trader, once told me: “I mean Christ, mate, every time they close a factory in Wales the goddamn market goes up. The whole system’s a little fucked, don’t you think?” And of course it was. The question was how to deal with it.
The easiest thing was buy into the system, convince ourselves that there was no other way to live. A few semesters worth of economics classes certainly helped; the in-house economics classes taught by the bank helped even more. The financial markets operate on the principle that, at our core, we’re all basically shit: selfish, self-interested creatures. There’s a whole branch of economics devoted to proving that if you help someone, say, run in front of a speeding train to push another person out of the way, you are actually acting out of self-interest, not altruism; that what most of us would consider humankind’s cardinal virtues - love, honor, compassion - do not actually exist.
The idea that we’re nothing more than selfish animals is an attractive philosophy to a person pulling down a few million dollars a year. It is a philosophy that negates guilt. The guilty feeling a normal person gets while visiting a Third World country is the same feeling a senior investment banker gets when they see a working class neighborhood in Birmingham or Philadelphia. When your paycheck could cover the salaries of a few hundred nurses or teachers, you need some explanation for why that’s okay. The only one that really works is that life is a pure meritocracy. That whether rich or poor, we’re all getting what we deserve.
The fact is, I became pretty good at making this argument myself. Until a roommate of mine, a guy named Mark Brewin, asked me: “So is that really what you want to be? A selfish animal?” “It’s not like we have a choice,” I said. “No,” he said. “You always have a choice. It’s just easier to pretend that you don’t.” Ouch. The strangest thing was, this thing I’d wanted for so long, this chance to become wealthy, was causing me more internal conflict than anything I’d ever done. I began writing a second novel, about a kid from the provinces who comes to Wall Street and is both drawn in and horrified by the culture of excess.
I understood it well. I put on 45 pounds in my first year at the bank, and, as you might guess, it was not from eating McDonalds. Occasionally I ate stuff like sushi, but mostly it was steak. We went to the good places like Sparks, Peter Luger’s, and the Strip House. We tended to look down on chains like Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris-they were for car dealers or stock brokers, not traders. Regardless of where we ate, we ate in quantity. My standard strategy was to order half a dozen appetisers, plus a steak and lobster, plus a few desserts and much wine as I could drink, as long it was under a few hundred dollars a bottle. Followed by a digestif, typically a 30-year-old port. There’s not any way to justify this except to say I was trying to catch up to my colleagues. We would treat those restaurants like Roman vomitoriums. And it wasn’t the food so much as the wine. Being a junior employee, I couldn’t really order bottles that cost more than a few hundred dollars, but the senior guys could get nicer stuff - Opus One, Chateau Latour. As long as we were out with a client, the bank paid. I remember being stunned the first time I saw a dinner bill for ten grand. But that was just the beginning.
What it boiled down to was austerity for everyone else and rampant consumption for ourselves. I never saw anyone literally set fire to money, but I did drink most of a bottle of 1983 Margaux ($2,000).
The mornings after, with our thousand-dollar hangovers, my colleagues in corporate finance would set up deals and make a few hundred factory workers redundant. I helped build derivatives that funnelled income to offshore holding companies so rich people and big corporations didn’t have to pay taxes. We had lawyers on retainer in the Cayman Islands and Jersey – a quick phone call and it was all set, no more taxes. My guilt from doing this became so intense that on a whim I once went to a protest against the World Bank. I got sprayed with a little pepper gas and it felt good.
My conflicted feelings manifested themselves in a variety of other ways, most of which involved avoiding work - this seemed to make me less culpable. In addition to my trading duties, I’d got myself installed as head of recruiting for UBS at Cornell, a job my bosses were grateful to me for taking, because the last thing they wanted to do was worry about talking to kids at university. I loved it; it allowed me to return to the Cornell campus, the last place I’d really been happy with my life. I walked around Ithaca, worked on my novel in the library, interviewed undergraduates for jobs. Occasionally I’d spot one like me, liberal-arts with a type-A personality, the sort I knew would make it in banking. I’d give them interviews in which I tried to talk them into doing something else. But of course all they could see was the money, same as me.
Gradually, I was descending into the strange social isolation of my colleagues. I spent less and less time with normal people and more time with people from the bank. I could feel myself slowly detaching from reality as lived by the average citizen. Four nights a week I stayed home and wrote my novel but the other nights I went out with a vengance.
One evening, a close friend from the bank, an art history major from Princeton, took a bunch of recruits out with me. I did my normal trick of ordering nearly everything on the menu. There were piles of raw fish, shrimp, paté, sauces that had taken hours to prepare. It was far more food than anyone could eat and I could see some of the recruits were a little stunned at the quantities of uneaten shrimp and oysters being shovelled into the bin. I ate a big steak, put down a few bottles of red wine at $400-a-bottle and we hopped into a minibus we’d chartered for the night (gauche, but we couldn’t find a large enough limo). We stopped somewhere and bought a mixed case of Veuve Clicquot and Moet. Try the difference between these two, I demanded, but by then the recruits were all so drunk they barely touched it. I could tell they were getting a little scared. This stuff is bottom of the line, I told them. You ought to try the vintages. I downed at least two of the bottles in rapid succession. Some of the recruits would not look at me. They did not want to be there anymore. We stopped at a bar. I realised I was going to be sick, made sure my colleague had things under control, caught a cab, and promptly began vomiting out the window. Because of the quantity of wine and red meat I’d consumed, it looked like I was spitting up blood. The cab driver pulled over, certain I was about to die in his backseat. A finely dressed couple opened the door and I clambered out and vomited on their shoes. I don’t remember how I got home. The next morning I discovered a dozen cigars stuffed in my pockets, probably from the restaurant. I told my colleagues what had happened, looking for some moral bearing, secretly hoping to be chastised, but they all thought I was a hero. The vomiting on strangers was their favourite part. My boss, for fun, would sometimes throw cocktail olives, sushi, things of that nature, across the room in restaurants, always at people we didn’t know.
In addition to the physical effects - my ballooning waistline and cholesterol levels - I had become an extremely angry person. On the trading floor the best way to win an argument was with overpowering aggression. Right or wrong, you protected your PnL [profit and loss account] with the fury of the righteous. But of course this approach to problem-solving leaks into other parts of your life. I became a raving idiot when I got behind the wheel of the car, screaming at other drivers for the slightest infractions.
Meanwhile, I kept plugging away at the writing. Once every few months, when I really felt like treating myself, I’d take a sick day and stay home and write. Those were my best days. I was making good progress on the novel about the young trader with the lost soul. The bank had me on a management track, which meant I was being rotated in different areas, learning different skills. After a year of derivative structuring I was sent to the NASDAQ trading desk. I quickly discovered that NASDAQ traders worked much shorter days, 8 hours as opposed to 12, and I suddenly had an enormous amount of time to write. It was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me, because writing was one of the few things that kept my life in perspective.
Near the end of my second year at the bank, I decided to take a week of vacation and rebuild the engine in my Volkswagen. Naturally, I didn’t tell my colleagues what I was doing because they would have thought I was insane. I drove down to Baltimore to a friend’s repair shop and spent the week working in a spare bay. It was satisfying to use my hands again, to be around people who didn’t talk about the stock market and I began to feel very acutely exactly how much I hated my job. Everyone hates their job, I reminded myself. You’re getting paid a lot of money to complain. Looking around at my friends in the shop, it occurred to me that by the time I became a senior trader, I’d be making more money every year than they would make in their entire careers. And for what? Basically, for helping to break apart the lives of the sort of people I’d grown up with.
Which brings me to my earlier point. One of the reasons we allowed the financial industry so much control over our lives, starting in the 1990s and continuing until the meltdown of 2008, is the propaganda smokescreen of The Market. This idea of the God-like Market - all-seeing, all-knowing, and beyond question - is what allows CEOs to put a few thousand people out of work while giving themselves a $40m paycheck. It’s what allows certain hedge fund managers to take home half a billion (yes - billion) in a good year, while schools and bridges fall apart.
In reality, The Market is nothing more than the people who comprise it. Access to trading markets is very tightly controlled - it is not like a shopping mall. And it is certainly not magic. It’s just people. A very small number of people, in fact.
To give some perspective, even as a junior trader I might get an order to put on a two million share position - that’s shares, not dollars - and I’d do it several times a day. Advertisements for online trading companies try to imply that the market is made up of people like your Cousin Vinny, who buys a hundred shares here and there, but the truth is that Cousin Vinny is irrelevant.
Markets are driven by a very small number of very large investors - traders at banks, hedge funds, and mutual funds - who drive nice cars and drink expensive wine. We need them - the financial markets, that is. They are a necessary part of modern civilisation. What is unnecessary, and extremely unusual, is that the people who run them are paid so disproportionately to the rest of us.
It is crucial to realise that what motivates those people - collecting their million or hundred million dollar bonuses - has nothing to do with the job they actually perform. People used to do it for a lot less and it’s not like there’s a shortage of candidates - I turned away 10 good recruits at Cornell for every one we hired.
The reason we’ve ended up in the spot we’re in today is not so much our failure to understand economics as our failure to understand human nature.
Give a small number of people the power to enrich themselves beyond everyone’s wildest dreams, a philosophical rationale to explain all the damage they’re causing, and they will not stop until they’ve run the world economy off a cliff.
It’s not that people in the City or on Wall Street are necessarily bad people, it’s just that they, like almost anyone, will do anything to keep their million or ten million dollar paycheck. They’ll creatively interpret data, they’ll understate risks, they’ll put the best spin on things. Some will lie, cheat, and steal. But most of them, like most of us, will simply resist looking at the world from any perspective other than their own. And if we are intelligent, we will keep a careful watch on them - both now and into the distant future.
Like any big decision, my choice to leave the bank felt pretty easy once I’d made it. My girlfriend at the time was considering going to law school at Harvard; I asked my boss and some other senior people to ask around for hedge fund jobs in Boston. But the moment I began to consider leaving UBS, it was like a dam breaking. I did not want another job in finance. I did not care about money. I cared about people, I cared about their stories. I cared about what makes us who we are.
I left the bank in late 2001, with my second novel partially written. By 2004, things were not exactly going to plan. I was broke and the second novel had been rejected by every literary agent in America. The book I’d spent three years toiling over turned out to be an apprentice-level work. It was a hard blow but I kept writing. I moved back to the old neighbourhood in Baltimore and took jobs that allowed me to reconnect with the people I’d grown up with - working in construction and driving an ambulance.
In 2005 I began a third novel, American Rust, about the way that our circumstances, whether poor or wealthy, can so completely shape our morality and our way of looking at things. I was fascinated by the lost generation in America - the people whose towns and hopes have been wiped out by outsourcing - people for whom the American Dream has ceased to be relevant. As Steinbeck did in The Grapes of Wrath, I wanted to show the inner lives, for better and worse, of the new lost generation. I wanted readers to think about exactly what it means to be human. What is at the core of us? Where do our morals come from? What differentiates us from the other animals on earth? What measures do we use to define our friends and family and how far are we willing to go to protect them?
Of course these are questions for broader society, not just literature. Maybe it’s only in crises like this that we get shaken up enough to ask ourselves those larger questions - who are we, what is important to us, how should we define our humanity. The answers we choose will determine the sort of world we live in for the coming decades.
‘American Rust’ by Philipp Meyer (£12.99) is published by Simon & Schuster. To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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