Michael Lewis: Rules to Keep Your Skin in Wall Street Massacre

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With the outlook for the economy and financial markets rather gloomy, it is good sometimes to reflect on matters from a different perspective. In the article below Michael Lewis shares with us, in a humorous manner, his ideas on how we can survive the current mess. Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker, The New New Thing, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.


The first thing you need to know about recessions is that they don’t signal the end of anything on Wall Street.

They’re more like a red flag during a Formula One race: The cars coast gently around the track until the wreckage is cleared whereupon they all roar off as if the accident never happened. The difference is that, on Wall Street, it’s possible to make the disaster work for you.

You can inch your car quietly forward so, when the race recommences, you’re its surprise leader.

To win any recession, however, you need to understand its rules. The good news is that there are only three really important ones. The bad news is that it’s not enough to commit them to memory. You must take them to heart, and allow them to guide your every step.

Rule No. 1: Betray your employer before your employer betrays you.

Chances are, if you work on Wall Street, you work for some giant corporation. Citigroup Inc., say, or Merrill Lynch & Co. The sheer size of these firms may convince you that they are, essentially, secure, that there is no better place to ride out a storm than among the tens of thousands of fellow employees.

This is a mistake.

No Safety in Numbers
There’s seldom any safety in numbers, and the more parlous the situation, the more dangerous it is to be in it with a lot of other people. London during an outbreak of the bubonic plague, the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, the New Jersey suburbs. People are always clustering together precisely where and when they should not.

In World War I, hordes of men charged directly into machine-gun fire, no doubt reassured that they weren’t alone.

No, if you want to win the recession, you need to find a hole and crawl inside it, until the shooting stops. This hole is called a HEDGE FUND.

Look around. Note how many of the really shrewd people have recently decided to abandon the big firms for which they have happily worked for many years, and sneak off to some small corner of the financial universe.

Last week, the two guys who ran the distressed-debt desk at Citigroup just disappeared inside their own firm. The team doing the same thing at Bear Stearns Cos. vanished inside Tudor Investment Corp. Even the guy who kept Goldman Sachs Group Inc. out of the subprime mess fled, and raised money for his own fund.

I know what you’re thinking: What if no hedge fund wants me? What if I set up my own hedge fund and investors won’t give me their money? Which brings me to …

Rule No. 2: Remember what you are selling.

No matter what you’ve told yourself in good times, to justify the huge paychecks you have received, you aren’t selling actual money-making expertise. For decades, brokers and money managers as a group have underperformed the market. Yet ordinary investors continue to solicit their advice and pay them for their services. Why?

Greed, contrary to popular belief, isn’t what keeps this strange wheel spinning. Greed eventually gropes its way to self-interest. In good times, the dominant psychological impulse can be mistaken for greed but what’s really going on is that a lot of people are worried everyone else is getting rich and they aren’t.

At the bottom of the Wall Street money machine isn’t greed but anxiety.

Pure Gold
In bad times, this deep truth reveals itself more clearly, for the anxiety now gets expressed as fear. But there is as much money to be made from it as ever. The TV news projecting oil at $200 a barrel, the stock market collapsing, banks repossessing millions of houses, hedge-fund managers stealing their customers’ money and pretending to jump off bridges: This stuff is pure gold, if you know how to work the mine.

Sadly, most Wall Street people don’t. They instinctively avoid controversy. They dislike contemplating the events that inspire terror in potential investors. They think their job is to calm investors. To pretend everything is fine, even if it’s not.

This is the instinct you must fight: A calm investor is one who might think twice before investing in your hedge fund.

You need to learn to talk to investors in new ways. To frighten them so terribly that they feel compelled to pay someone to hold their sweaty hands. If you aren’t too obvious about your motives, that someone could very likely be you. Which brings us to …

Rule No. 3: Hide your motives. Or, specifically, minimize the appearance of financial interest.

Don’t tell anyone how well you’re doing for yourself, for example, not even women you have just met. Recessions blow in with them a general backlash against worldly pleasures and material obsessions.

You must reckon with this shift in public values, for it will occur even on Wall Street, and threaten to expose your ambition as freakish. A lot of people you thought you knew are about to rediscover what’s important in life: wife, kids, the love of one’s fellow man. But you are not.

Don’t worry: it’s temporary. This is still America.

But people are going to be watching you closely for any sign that you fail to grasp the relative unimportance of money. Mollify them. Acquire some painless habits, for instance, to suggest that you, too, have found meaning in something other than your success.

Sell the Maybach and buy a Prius. Have the gardener plant tomatoes in your yard – but make sure he knows to put them in the front yard, where they can be seen.

The goal isn’t to get people to like you. That would be too much to ask. The position to which you aspire, recession champion, is inherently unsympathetic. You are the man on the lifeboat with his own private stash of food and water. The goal is merely to get people to tolerate you, and dissuade them from organizing themselves against you.

Do this well enough and by the time they realize what you’ve done the next boom will have begun, and they’ll treat you as their hero.

Source: Michael Lewis, Bloomberg, July 2, 2008.


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