Happiness Ltd.

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Dink: The Art of Falling Upward

Number three in a series: For about 25 years, I have worked on Wall Street, first as a reporter and then for several of its firms. “The Street” is a social ecosystem that is unique in its outsized effect on the rest of the world. Like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings and sets in motion a hurricane, the Street’ s everyday business can foster widespread prosperity or misery, often in unpredictable ways. In this series of blog posts, I hope to shed some light on a place that is opaque to outsiders. The names have been changed for my protection.

Dink has mastered the art of falling upward on Wall Street. Despite a career of failures, today he runs a $2.8 billion hedge fund company.  He’s an influential fundraiser for Republican politicians, and an increasingly popular guest on financial news programs.

The one thing Dink does well is make people like him.  He’s short and stocky with a huge grin and a wisecracking sense of humor. He is a great listener and can make you think you’re the most interesting person in the room.

I met Dink about halfway through his upward fall.  The trajectory started when he failed the New York City bar exam, but landed in a training class for Goldman Sachs analysts, at a time when the firm was expanding rapidly. After washing out at Goldman in a couple of years, two law school buddies found a place for him in their little hedge fund, whose only client was a Silicon Valley billionaire. After the billionaire cut them loose, Dink and his buddies turned up at the firm where I worked, a mid-sized investment company with a stodgy but good reputation.

Our CEO and his lieutenant, old Wall Street hands, decided these young men were the breath of fresh air our old firm needed. Hedge funds were hot, the managers talked a good game, and the billionaire’s name was an impressive calling card, even if he had dumped them. Dink and his friends were all named managing directors.

Dink immediately became the talk of the firm.  Before his arrival, he hired a team of Chinese feng shui experts to design his office. They brought in special furniture with rounded corners, a circular black lacquered table, and an elaborate fountain with bamboo plants.

He hired a personal assistant, a tall blonde woman with an Ivy League degree. In a firm of mostly male middle-aged financial analysts, she walked the halls like a gazelle among oxen.

In his first year at the firm, Dink seemed to be always dashing off somewhere.  He didn’t carry a briefcase, or even a laptop, unlike money managers who are forever searching through reams of data for the overlooked number or hidden sign that will give them an edge.

Then one day, about sixteen months after he had joined our firm, word spread that Dink was out.  Fired. The alleged reason why spread even faster: He had been caught in flagrante with the personal assistant, atop the black lacquered table – in the middle of the day.

Now, a top performer – someone who brought in millions for the firm – might have been reprimanded and given another chance. But Dink had been a disappointment.

And so he had failed again, but he fell upward. In less than a year we heard about his new venture: Selling hedge funds to small mom-and-pop investors, who, by pooling their money, could become eligible to invest alongside Silicon Valley billionaires.

It was a clever idea, and he wasn’t the first person to have it, but finally, Dink was in the right place at the right time. Money began to flow in, and Dink is still riding the wave for all it’s worth.

And he’s learned not to put all his eggs in one basket. Banking on his popularity as a commentator on financial news, he’s going to produce his own show, starring himself as host.

Nothing is going to keep the Dink down.

 

 

 

Goodreads Giveaway for Happiness Ltd.! Through January 4

Enter the Goodreads Giveaway contest to win a free copy of Happiness Ltd.! All you have to do is enter your name and contact information here. On January 4, Goodreads will choose five winners, and each one will receive a paperback copy of the novel. 

By the way, Goodreads is very good about not using your personal information for other purposes. You won't end up on a spam list or worse. The giveaway contest is simply a good publicity avenue for authors and a popular draw for Goodreads.

Vince, the Rogue Trader

For about 25 years, I have worked on Wall Street, first as a reporter and then for several of its firms. “The Street” is a social ecosystem that is unique in its outsized effect on the rest of the world. Like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings and sets in motion a hurricane, the Street’ s everyday business can foster widespread prosperity or misery, often in unpredictable ways. This is the second in a series that I hope will shed some light on a place that remains opaque to outsiders. The names have been changed for my protection.

It was the hey-day of Wall Street’s trading floors – before the regulators cracked down, and before computer programs replaced sweating, cursing humans.

In Manhattan, the Irish and Jewish firms still ruled. They competed to build the biggest floors: brightly lit row upon row of long desks manned by hyper-adrenalized traders shouting at each other over banks of flashing data terminals and ringing phones,  flickering tickers and screens overhead, a sea of frenzied activity in the pursuit of money.

Cutson was a Jewish firm, but the head of its OTC stock trading desk was a lanky Italian from the Bronx who looked Irish, with a drinker’s nose, a big mop of thatch-colored hair, and pitted skin from a tough adolescence. He wore tailored pin-striped suits but tricked them out with bright suspenders and flashy cufflinks.

Vince wasn’t the smartest guy on Wall Street, but he was gregarious and had a gamblers’ sense of when to lay back and when to put all his chips on the table. He had a loud, commanding voice, and when he bellowed across the floor, all his traders heard him, and everyone followed his orders. His trading desk made big money for the firm.

He pulled down several million a year – somewhere south of eight figures, but enough to put his family in a co-op apartment in one of the better buildings on Park Avenue, and enough to fund polo lessons, which he played in the Hamptons with other with other rising stars.

He surprised me the first time I met him. I was new to the Street, and I assumed he would consider a journalist to be the enemy. My newspaper’s mission was to break news, and the best kind of news, of course, was bad news – news that Cutson would not want to be made public.

But Vince took me into his office, glass-walled so he never took his eyes off his traders, and handed me a confidential report about the profitability of trading desks around the Street. Of course it made his desk look good – but in years to come he would always give me the report as soon as it was released, even when his desk had suffered a bad quarter.  

I would call him several times a week for many years to trade gossip, and he was my source for many headline stories.

Vince had a rogue’s smile and attitude, but I always assumed he was honest. Until the day one of his traders called me and said Vince had been escorted off the floor by armed guards. The firm wasn’t saying why, but the trader told me it was for mismarking trades, to make higher profits at the expense of clients. Vince had been escorted from the building and advised to lawyer up – because the firm would not be defending him.

It was a great story for our magazine, and I had an exclusive.

I reached Vince at his Park Avenue co-op, on a personal line he had given to me years earlier. “Mike!” he said, sounding as top-of-the-world as ever. “Hey, this thing sucks, doesn’t it? My lawyer says I can’t comment on the record, so just say I couldn’t be reached, okay?”

I told him what the trader had told me, and said that I had to ask him, “Did you know this was going on?”

“Of course not!” Vince was quiet for a moment. Then he said in a more subdued, sober tone. “Mike, you’ve been a friend for a long time and I wish I could tell you the whole fucking thing, but I got lawyers saying I can’t even talk to my wife about it, you get what I mean? It’s that confidential.  All I can tell you is that your source doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But when this whole sorry mess is over, we’ll have a drink and I’ll give you everything. You’ll laugh your ass off.”

I wrote my news story straight, saying only that Vince had been escorted off the floor but the firm wasn’t saying why. I didn’t mention the mismarked trades, because I only had one source. And I wrote that Vince couldn’t be reached.

Did I do the right thing? Did I go to easy on him? I couldn’t use what the trader told me unless I had a second source, and I couldn’t find one by deadline. Maybe I could have searched harder.  But it’s hard to label someone a villain when they’ve been good to you.

In The Millions!

Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning, puts Happiness Ltd. in good company in this essay for The Millions about near-future novels.

Excerpt: "For many years, the near future has beckoned writers as different as Margaret AtwoodAnthony BurgessGeorge OrwellJ.G. BallardAldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. They’ve recently been joined by a growing legion of literary novelists that includes Kazuo IshiguroColson WhiteheadMichael CunninghamDavid Mitchell, and many others." 

Read on: 

Daniel, the Quant

For about 25 years, I have worked on Wall Street, first as a reporter and then for several of its firms. “The Street” is a social ecosystem that is unique in its outsized effect on the rest of the world. Like the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings and sets in motion a hurricane, the Street’ s everyday business can foster widespread prosperity or misery, often in unpredictable ways. In a series of blog posts, I hope to shed some light on a place that remains opaque to outsiders. The names have been changed for my protection.

I met Daniel in a yoga class near Wall Street. He was as young or younger than the lithe women in their revealing outfits, but he stood out as male, pale and pudgy. He wore oversized gym shorts and faded t-shirts, and heavy black glasses that remained on his face even when he attempted a headstand. His yoga technique was beginner-level, but he threw himself into every pose, no matter how difficult. When he removed his glasses to wipe sweat from his face, he looked like a mole blinking in sunlight.

He was French, but spoke fluent English with a breezy, affable manner that I found endearing.  He was employed by Goldman Sachs on its quantitative trading desk, where he designed derivatives based on mortgage-backed securities portfolios. The year was 2006: Daniel was the equivalent of a man stoking the furnace of the Titanic as it bore down on the iceberg.

I was impressed when I learned what he did for a living: To be a quant at Goldman Sachs, Daniel had to have a brilliant mind for mathematics. He looked away and shrugged: “It’s just a job,” he said. Then his exuberance returned. “But it’s fun. Life is good.”

I didn’t ask him how much money he made, but in the etiquette of the Street, I said, “bonuses should be good this year,” to which he shrugged again. I expect his income was at least a million dollars that year. He was perhaps 24 years old.

We talked sometimes about the market, and I told him I believed it was overheated, quite possibly headed for disaster. But he always flipped his hand and pursed his lips, as if I had suggested it might rain tomorrow.

When the crash came, Daniel became one of thousands of quants laid off by Goldman Sachs. He disappeared from the yoga studio.

One day in late 2009 Daniel reappeared. His skin color was healthier; he had lost weight. He had mastered the headstand. With no reason to go downtown each day, he told me, he had been attending a class closer to his apartment. He had taken parachuting lessons. He laughed when I said I had been concerned about him—because of the crash. “Things happen,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked him. Again he gave me the Gallic shrug. “I may go back to school. I may go back to France. I don’t know.” He paused. “But life is good.”