Happiness Ltd.

The official website of Happiness Ltd., a novel by Michael McGhee

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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.