Book Ends: Wall Street’s No. 1 Public Enemy (Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, and Flash Boys by Michael Lewis)

On April 1st, 2014, trading on the New York Stock Exchange totally stopped for about 15 minutes while an epic debate on CNBC unfolded. Now, to be fair, trading slows for several reasons, including the Olympics and college basketball finals, but this may be the first time that an interview caught everyone’s attention so completely. The topic was high-frequency trading, also known as HFT, which doesn’t sound that interesting, but for what had happened the day before: Michael Lewis had published a book.

That doesn’t sound like such a momentous occasion, but Wall Street had heard rumours about it. They’d been braced for this book like soldiers braced against artillery fire. Interns were sent to the bookstore instead of the Starbucks to buy a copy. The contents were every bit as damaging as they’d feared.

Michael Lewis has a talent for finding a human story that’s wonderfully readable in complex and technical subjects. Sports fans may remember Moneyball and The Blind Side, the latter of which was turned into an Academy award-winning movie with Sandra Bullock (both of which are really good reads, even if you don’t like sports). But he got his start as a journalist writing about the largest frat culture in America, the financial world and Wall Street.

Liar’s Poker is his first book. It’s Michael Lewis’s account of how he found his way onto Salomon Brothers’ trading floor as a bond salesman and the infantile culture of Wall Street in the 80s. It even manages to make the technicalities of the savings and loan scandal interesting, by focusing on the human element. Reading this book, you get this picture that’s not at all flattering to Wall Street in the 80s, where traders are infantile at best and crooks at worst. They take advantage of unwitting bank managers and clients to make a buck, were unrelentingly cruel, crass, and immature, and do their best to become BSDs (big swinging dicks). Reading Lewis’s book is like watching a sausage being made: fascinating yet disgusting, intimate yet off-putting, and most of all, you wish you hadn’t seen it so you could still believe in the final product.

Or so you would think. In a forward to a later addition, Michael Lewis accounts his horror and astonishment at several students writing to him about their admiration for Wall Street and its crazy culture. They wanted to be part of it, the crassness, the arrogance, the immorality, that they’d somehow glamorized in their minds. Personally, I share that horror, but not the astonishment. After all, who doesn’t want incredible amounts of money and the impunity to say fuck all the time?

Lewis returns to the theme of unscrupulous traders on Wall Street in The Big Short, a chronicle of the 2008 financial crisis. It again takes something very complicated (why mortgage-backed securities caused financial institutions to sell loans to people who couldn’t afford them, and why very few people saw the crash coming) by following the human threads in this story. Again, Lewis does not show Wall Street in a complementary light, but his narrative is more about human foibles and triumphs than it is about simple good and evil. It’s a good read if you want to understand what happened in 2008, but don’t have the background or the patience to suffer through a lot of technical jargon.

His latest book, Flash Boys, that rocked Wall Street in April, does follow a more good-or-evil narrative. It’s not about a crisis, or crash, or anything that the general public would have noticed. Instead, the heroes of the book are Canadian traders who fight against villainous high-speed trading firm, who make their money practically risk-free by exploiting their knowledge of what large, institutional clients are buying. Now, of course that’s a bit of a simplification, but that’s the gist of it. Lewis makes it personal by essentially telling all Americans, or at least the ones that read his book, that the game is rigged: they, and the institutions who invest their savings and retirements for them, are being preyed on by these vultures.

Flash Boys is unlike The Big Short because it’s not about a crisis we the public recognize. But it is a message we take to heart: that we, ordinary citizens, are being robbed. This message is even more powerful because this is Michael Lewis writing about it. He can make it personal like nobody else can. The public will listen to him.

So Wall Street was braced, and it got hit by a monster PR blow. So, in order to salvage its reputation, a firm that specialized in high-frequency trading agreed to a debate with Lewis himself and the hero of the book, Brad Katsuyama, to try and refute some of Lewis’s claims. It did not go according to plan.

You can check out the debate here, but I’ll spoil it for you: the guy representing the high-frequency trading firm shoots himself in the foot. It wasn’t because Lewis or Katsuyama were especially brilliant speakers, but because this guy was just such a bad debater. He made an ass of himself, and by extension his company (who fired him afterwards), by sounding like the child who stands over broken vase and stomps his foot to insist that it wasn’t his fault.

This wasn’t the only debate that Flash Boys ignited. The the FBI and New York Atty. Gen. Eric Schneiderman have both announced investigations into market manipulation, front-running, and insider trading shortly after the book was released. The SEC fined the New York Stock Exchange $4.5 million on charges relating to the book. We still don’t have the results of the FBI investigation or Mr. Schneiderman’s investigations: whether or not this makes a difference in the world of investing, however, is still to be seen.

Still, Wall Street should be wary of Mr. Lewis. His talent for characterization and storytelling has painted many financial institutions in unflattering colours. While his books are never a simple condemnation, nor character assassination, he’s managed to do what many people would’ve considered impossible: get the people of America to care about Wall Street before they’ve lost their money.

Written Gems: The Real Miracle

One day, in a place not too far from you, there will live two ordinary children. They do what children are supposed to do: play, learn, and grow up. Some day, those two children will lock gazes across the campus green, go on their first date, and slowly, hesistantly, all of a sudden, they will do something miraculous: they will fall in love.

But the real miracle here wasn’t that they fell in love. That was inevitable after thousands of hours of conversations, hundreds of laughs, and tears, and hugs, dozens of oportunities to grow together, and one last first kiss.

No.

The real miracle here is that he is there to see her across the campus green, even though they’ve told him that he doesn’t belong here because of the colour of his skin or the shape of his eyes or the lack of money in his bank account. Instead, he took out a loan and ignored all the whispers.

The real miracle here is that she’s across the campus green for him to see, even though they’ve told her that girls aren’t smart enough to learn anything besides what will make them good mothers, never mind what will make them good people. Instead, she pursued her passion, submitted that application, and said yes.

The real miracle here is that he got the courage to ask her out, even though they told him no girl wants to date a nice guy. Instead, he thinks nothing ventured, nothing gained, and about how pretty she is and how much he likes the book she’s holding.

The real miracle here is that she had the courage to say yes, even though they told her that no guy wants to date a smart girl. Instead, she thinks nothing ventured, nothing gained, and that he’s kind of cute and has good taste in books.

The real miracle here is that he showed up at all, even though they told him that he should be ashamed of not being buff and tall and Matthew McConnaughy. Instead, he wears a clean shirt and jeans that don’t smell, and leaves early so he isn’t late.

The real miracle here is that she showed up at all, even though they told her that she should be ashamed of not being busty and slender and Meghan Fox. Instead, she wears the dress she bought yesterday and a pair of funky earrings, and leaves early so she isn’t late.

The real miracle here is that he admitted a deep, abiding love for geekdom, even though they tell him that if there’s no violence or no blood, or any brainwork involved, it’s not a manly thing to do. Instead, he finds a world to escape to.

The real miracle here is that she agreed, even though they tell her that she can’t like things that are for boys. Instead, she finds the world to escape to.

The real miracle here is that he took her to a pizza joint, even though they tell him to take her somewhere to impress her, nevermind if he can afford to. Instead, he takes her to his favourite place in town with the best pepperoni, run by the friendliest people who treat them as a son.

The real miracle here is that she can insist on covering when he forgets his wallet, even though they tell her that she’s not supposed to have money, it’s not feminine, and any way, women belong at home and in the kitchen. Instead, she takes pride in her independence, and can spring for two slices of pizza.

The real miracle here is that he still has the courage to text her afterwards, even though they tell him that the size of his male instrument is proportional to the number of zeros on his bank account. Instead, he takes it as an opportunity to ask her out again.

The real miracle here is that she will respond instantly, even though they tell her that she should wait and not look so desparate. Instead, they have a conversation that lasts until the sun comes up – the first of many.

The real miracle here is that he will continue to be fascinated with her, even though they tell him that women are a game, and he’s already scored with this one. Instead, he discovers his inspiration that will last a lifetime.

The real miracle here is that she has the courage to tell him about her older sister, who couldn’t stop listening to what they said, even though they said it was her own fault, that she took her own life. Instead, she finally finds peace for a little while.

The real miracle here is that he reaches across to take her hand, even though they tell him that he is not supposed to feel, that his heart is stone. Instead, it aches for the girl who lost her hero.

The real miracle here is that he and she agreed with them, that he identified as a male and she identified a female. Instead, they could’ve been telling she and she, or he and he that they were monsters, aberrations that didn’t deserve what little happiness there was in the world.

The real miracle here is not that he and she fall in love, the real miracle here is that he and she still have the capacity to fall in love, despite everything they say.

Diary of Me: New Toys

I recently bought a piece of dictation software when it was on sale. Mind you, it was a really good deal, but it’s never a good idea to buy things just because they’re on sale. Actually, I’ve been considering buying this software, or rather dreaming of it because of its price tag, for a very long time, because it’s the only good dictation software on the market that will work with a laptop mic.

Now, you may ask why I’m buying dictation software to begin with. I don’t work in an industry that requires dictation software. I don’t need to train on this for any professional reason. It sure as hell doesn’t make me any more productive. I think I’ve just spent 10 minutes dictating these past five lines, which would take me maybe two minutes to type. Honestly, if I have to say “correct that” or “delete that” one more time, I might just pull my hair (which would really be a tragedy, because I finally grew it out again).

So why am I sitting here struggling, with my face pressed up against my laptop, trying to get as close to the mic as possible without licking the screen? Why am I demonstrating how many different ways I can say licking for the benefit of my next-door neighbours? Why am I dragging out each word from this little green flame inch by painful inch?

(And trust me, this is painful. Every bit of punctuation is a battle, every word gained is a victory, and every phrase I don’t need to correct is a miracle.)

Originally, I wanted to buy it because I am a notorious multitasker. It always frustrated me that my hands had to be occupied when I wanted to write, and I couldn’t do anything else. Yes, I know, multitasking is shown to be counterproductive, and to be honest, it’s going to take me a long time before I can do anything else but dictate when I’m writing. This is a steep learning curve.

Instead, dictation software has two key benefits: first of all, I’m learning to be more deliberate when I speak, and second of all, I can hear the unnatural constructs that are so comfortable to type. Now, anyone who spoken to me knows that I am a very nervous speaker, and I tend to repeat myself a lot because I lose my train of thought. I can’t afford to do that when I’m using dictation software, because it is painful to correct. Also, requiring me to compose each sentence as I’m going and think about each sentence, is making me focus and concentrate on my writing as I never have before, which I think is a good thing because I tend to be fairly distracted when I do anything in life.

Yet, as deliberate as this form of composition is, it feels a lot more natural to read and reread than a lot of my previous work. It’s harder to put down convoluted phrases and words when you can already hear how stupid they sound. Maybe this experiment will help me find every writer’s unicorn: my unique writer’s voice (or maybe I’ll win the lottery. A girl can dream).

All in all, I think this piece of software will be a keeper, and even if it’s not, I will have learned something very important. I’ll be writing some blog posts and some other things with my dictation software for the next little while, so if there’s a weird phrase or word or turn of phrase in there while I surmount this learning curve, my apologies. I’m sure I’ll accidentally publish something hilarious and embarrassing (not that it’s been the first time I’ve done that deliberately on this blog ), so stay tuned.

I just hope I get a mic soon, before I actually lick my screen or pull my hair out.

Foxy Insights: On New Years Resolutions

I decided to stay in for New Years Eve, this year, and do some good, long thinking. While I love a good party as much as the next person, I’m tired and alone in a new city, and you know what? No excuses – I just don’t feel like it. So here I am. I just finished unpacking my life out of my suitcase and into a closet (or at least it feels like one – lucky I’m not claustrophobic!). It’s starting to look more like me, down to the balls of yarn on my floor. I’ll have a nice long roam tomorrow and celebrate the new year with a morass of people I don’t know (because I prefer hung over strangers to drunk ones), but tonight is for thinking.

New Years resolutions are a tricky business. I don’t think it makes any sense to store up resolutions just to save for this day, because if it’s something that needs fixing, then fix it right away. I think we should always be watchful and employ careful introspection. That being said, sometimes markers in the sands of time are a good thing, so we don’t get swept away by the flow of time.

So, at this giant marker in time, December 31st, 2014, I’ll make my first resolution. I will spend more time being consciously mindful of what I do. I will set resolutions at the beginning, and I will retrospect at the end.

So, since it’s the end of the year, I should retrospect, at least a little. 2014 was not my most successful year, if you want to measure my years against one another. As silly and arbitrary as the scale seems, the statement rings true to me. Yes, it was very fulfilling on a relationship level, but it wasn’t that fulfilling on a professional, personal, or interpersonal level. Considering the disaster that was 2013, however, I will take it – not falling totally flat on my face is an improvement.

But I can do better than recover in 2015. So, 2014, you were my baby step, my stumbling block, my getting back on the horse after breaking every single bone in three places. 2015, leggo.

So, one resolution down, and all the other ones to think about.

It’s really not easy to come up with resolutions, but I think there’s one thing I can definitely can say. I don’t want to be a whole new person in 2015. I’ve put 20-odd years of work into the person I have been, and I rather like her, weaknesses and flaws, strengths and talents alike. So, let’s chuck out the whole nonsense about being a whole new person in 2015 – I don’t want to start 2015 as a fraud.

I try to practice the fix it when it’s broken philosophy, so I already have some resolutions that I made in 2014 and now I’m doing my best to stick to. I’m trying to lose weight, by watching more carefully what I eat, controlling my portions, and going to the gym more regularly. I’m trying to be more financially savvy, by considering what purchases I really need, delaying purchases by at least a week to avoid impulse buys, and by actually looking at my credit card bill every month. I gave blood, I’m getting more organized (in fits and starts) and I’ve made a conscious decision to take care of my appearance and take pride in looking good, not out of insecurity but out of growing up.

That tends to cover a lot of the standard New Years Resolutions that silly web articles push in your face. Two of some of the more popular ones have been Elite Daily’s resolutions for 20 somethings (I think the article and the website are both full of condescending pap) and Buzzfeed’s real list of resolutions for 20 year olds, which is a little more sensible but also fairly standard. So they’re no help – I’ve already got those bases covered.

Instead, I think I’m going to turn to my list of things I want to be, and draw strength and ideas for that. It was inspired by a  quotation (probably by the zen quotation goblins who lurk in the bowels of the internet and slap random people’s names on it)

When I was 5 years old, my mom always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down “happy.” They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.

This is my list:

  1. Happy and Content
  2. Leader, CEO, Role Model
  3. Competant, Knowledgeable, Aware
  4. Charitable, Kind, Understanding, but not Naive
  5. A Mother that my kids will fight over who will have me for Christmas
  6. Constant Friend, Valuable Associate, and Good Networker
  7. Personable, Socialable, and Articulate
  8. Artist, Author, Creator and Designer
  9. Never complacent, never done learning

Meditating on that, I think I have a few more solid ideas of more resolutions for the new year. So, in no particular order:

  • I will continue making more specific resolutions at the beginning of the month, week, and day, and I will reflect at the end of each of them.
  • I want to stop feeling guilty about taking time to embroider, to write, to crochet or knit, or to just game, but I want to put a better fence around those activities, so they don’t take time that I should be focusing on my studies.
  • I already said I wanted to be more organized, so to elaborate on that, I’ll resolve to have the foresight to plan and block off my time more effectively and the willpower to stick to that plan.
  • I will make five more professional contacts, and I will renew five professional contacts that I have already made
  • I will donate time to a soup kitchen, and I will donate blood
  • I will finish at least one actuarial exam this year, and be studying for a second by the end of the year
  • I will take three courses, through school or Coursera, that are purely for my academic interest.
  • I will hang out with someone who is not my significant other at least once a week
  • I will write for ten minutes a day, every day.

That feels like a lot. Maybe it’s too much, but I won’t know until I try. I will do it, though. 2015, I am ready for you now.

Happy New Years all!