Michael Lewis said that he wrote Liar’s Poker so that fewer idealistic college kids would dream of working on Wall Street. That is not to be believed. He makes Wall Street seem far too glamourous.
He could have filled the book with the miseries of working at your desk for 16 hours a week. Instead he made it about working in London, about making fun of trainees in hilarious ways, and about making piles and piles of cash. You get amazing stories here. Who can forget the amazing put-down: “Equities in Dallas!”
There are so many vivid characters. You feel that they’re clever, and mean, but not necessarily evil. Most of them seem superbly intelligent.
Lewis is a dazzling writer. Here are my favorite lines.
To succeed on the Salomon Brothers trading floor a person had to wake up each morning “ready to bite the ass off a bear.”
Salomon Brothers never made job offers. It was too smart to give people the chance to turn it down. Salomon Brothers only gave hints.
The first thing you learn on the trading floor is that when large numbers of people are after the same commodity, be it a stock, a bond, or a job, the commodity quickly becomes overvalued.
Art history was the opposite of economics; no one wanted it on his resume. Art history, as an economics major once told me, “is for preppy girls from Connecticut.” The chief purpose of art history was clandestinely to lift the grade-point averages of the economics students.
The idea that art history might be self-improving or that self-improvement, as distinct from career building, was a legitimate goal of education was widely regarded as naive and reckless. And as we approached the end of our four years in college, this is how it seemed. Some of my classmates were visibly sympathetic toward me, as if I were a cripple or had unwittingly taken a vow of poverty.
A successful undergraduate investment banking interview sounded like a monastic chant. An unsuccessful interview sounded like a bad accident.
Lehman Brothers eventually went belly-up. A battle between the traders and the corporate financiers caused the firm to collapse in early 1984. The traders won, but what was left of the august house of Lehman wasn’t worth living in.
The thought that he might land somewhere awful in the matrix – or nowhere at all – drove the trainee to despair. He lost all perspective on the relative merits of the jobs. He did not count himself lucky just to be at Salomon Brothers; anyone who thought that way would never have got in in the first place. The Salomon trainee saw only the extremes of failure and success. Selling municipal bonds in Atlanta was unthinkably wretched. Trading mortgages in New York was mouthwateringly good.
Those who treasured their pride – or perhaps thought it best to remain aloof – feigned cool indifference by sitting in the back row and hurling paper wads at managing directors.
The Japanese undermined any analysis of our classroom culture. All six of them sat in the front row and slept. Their heads rocked back and forth and on occasion fell over to one side, so that their cheeks ran parallel to the floor. The most charitable explanation for their apathy was that they could not understand English. They kept to themselves, however, and you could never be sure of either their language skills or their motives. Their leader was a man named Yoshi. Each morning and afternoon the back-row boys made bets on how many minutes it would take Yoshi to fall asleep. They liked to think that Yoshi was a calculating troublemaker. Yoshi was their hero.
The rare Japanese whom Salomon had been able to snatch away were worth many times their weight in gold and treated like the family china.
The back row rewarded the speakers of whom the approved by standing and doing the Wave across the back of the class.
Once he started wandering aimlessly, a trainee risked disturbing the gods at play.
Wappow! Max Johnson, former U.S. Navy fighter pilot, nailed Leonard Bublick, four-eyed M.B.A. from the University of Indiana, on the side of the head with a paper wad.
It didn’t require a triple jump of the imagination to picture Massey decapitating insolent trainees with a razor-edged bowler hat. He had what some people might consider an image problem. He never smiled.
While most of America imagined that Wall Street meant the stock market, our bond market was setting the tone and the pace on Wall Street in the 1980’s. Inside Salomon Brothers the men from equities were second-class citizens. Equities, comparatively speaking, made no money.
When they came through the training program, far from presenting their posteriors for our immediate attention, as did many of the bond men, the equity department speakers delivered one long uninterrupted sales pitch.
An M.B.A. from Chicago named Franky Simon moved in for the kill. “When you trade equity options,” asked my friend Franky, “do you hedge your gamma and theta or just your delta?” The equity options specialist nodded for about ten seconds. I’m not sure he even understood the words. “That,” said Franky, “is why you are in equities.”
Bond trading had captured the imaginations of more than half the men in the class. Instead of saying “buy” and “sell” like normal human beings, they said “bid” and “offer.”
The Piranha was troubled by the Giscard, so dubbed because it was the brainchild of the government of Valery Giscard D’Estaing. The stupidity of the frogs disgusted the Piranha. He associated it with their habit of quitting work at 5:00 P.M.
As he spoke, the people in the front row grew nervous, and the people in the back row began to giggle, and the people in the front row grew more nervous still, fearing that the people in the back row would cause the Piranha to feed on us all.
Lewie would say he thought that the market was going up, and buy a hundred million dollar’s worth of bonds. The market would start to go down. So Lewie would buy two billion more bonds, and of course, the market would then go up. After he had driven the market up, Lewie would turn and say:: “See, I told you it was going to go up.”
“I thought you spoke French,” he said. “No, that was just on my resume,” I said.
When Gutfreund visited the Tokyo office, the Japanese employees bowed their heads at their desks and worked the phones furiously, as if playing charades and assigned to communicate “Men at Work.”
There was at Salomon an oft-repeated story about an American managing director in Japan who tossed his sushi on top of a small bonfire he ignited at the table.
Plenty of people at Salomon Brothers made a hobby of brutally frank character analysis.
It was widely believed that a small, bald man in a grubby room in Moscow started all rumors to wreak havoc on our Western market-based economy.
Like a crap-shooter who has a pretty lady to blow on his dice, the speculators had an amazing array of irrational systems to help them win money. The systems usually involved staring for hours at charts showing the history of bond prices. As in Rorschach ink blots, an unlikely formation, such as a human head and shoulders, made itself privately known to the viewer.
Many of our French and English speculators honestly believed the charts contained the secrets of the market. They are the aboriginal chartists. They would have used the charts even if no one else did.
“I was looking at the ten-day moving average last night, and it is a perfect reverse duck tail and pheasant. Let’s bet the ranch.” At this juncture my role was only to shout encouragement: Yeah! Do it!
It was assumed that I might well put a customer or two out of business. That was part of being a geek. The best thing I could do was pretend to others at Salomon that I had meant to screw the customer. People respected that.
“Meum dictum pactum” was another Latin phrase I used to hear, but that was just a joke. It means, “My word is my bond.”
The trainee had to impress a trader and failed. The trader had said, “You are proof that some people are born to be customers.”
Thinking and sounding like Alexander were the next best thing to being genuinely talented.
Sitting on a trading floor all day makes you that much more sensitive to people’s little bluffs. They were almost always transparent. And once you caught them, you owned them, like a fish well hooked.
One student wanted to know if it was a fact that people at Salomon Brothers didn’t stab you in the back but came at you head-on with a hatchet.
Many of our bond traders thought of our corporate financiers as administrative assistants; their pet name for the corporate finance department was Team Xerox.
My gut feeling was that Salomon Brothers knew nothing about junk bonds and that, as a result, any junk we underwrote deserved its name.
Most of the municipal bond staff was later gobbled up up by Dean Witter, which then fired its own people.
A London Managing director botched a presentation in our defense to a business review committee in New York. Instead of justifying our levels of staffing or mapping a plan, he had spent his time explaining why our failure wasn’t his fault.
Management took the path of least resistance and fired the most recent additions to the office, until the day came to resemble the massacre of the innocents.
During the last couple of months of each year most London salesmen and traders visited New York to be seen and to argue, very subtly, that they deserved a great sum of money at the end of the year. The argument took the form of wishing bosses a happy holiday season in a loud voice and looking poor when they asked how you were doing.
For whatever reason, women coming out of the training program were usually assigned to loss leaders.
Time and time again someone stood up and shouted, for no particular reason, “Jeeeee-Sas Christ!” Meanwhile, the bond market was shooting through the roof, and more than a few bond traders failed to conceal their glee.
A few Americans were jumping all over the Brit for the behavior of his countrymen. One said, sneeringly, “You guys did just this sort of thing after the war too, you know.”
I am now the highest-paid member of my training class. But that means less than it did. More than half my class had either quit or been fired.