Thursday, 27 March 2014

“Young Money” by Kevin Roose (Grand Central)

RooseK-YoungMoneyInside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits

Becoming a young Wall Street banker is like pledging the world’s most lucrative and soul-crushing fraternity. Every year, thousands of eager college graduates are hired by the world’s financial giants, where they are taught the secrets of making obscene amounts of money – as well as how to dress, talk, date, drink, and schmooze like real financiers.

This is more than an exposé of excess; it is the story of how the financial crisis changed a generation-and remade Wall Street from the bottom up.

Young Money is one of the best narrative non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. It is also one of the best on Wall Street culture that I’ve read. This is largely because it is more focused on the characters involved, rather than the minutiae of trading and banking operations. While those things are, of course, widely misunderstood outside of banking circles, by focusing on the younger generation, Roose has drawn a fascinating insider account of this oh-so-well-guarded world.

To gather the information needed for this book, Roose, New York magazine business writer and author of the critically acclaimed The Unlikely Disciple (a book that I have since bought), spent more than three years shadowing eight entry-level workers at Goldman Sachs, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, and other leading investment firms. During these three years, he was awarded an unprecedented (not to mention unauthorized – see below) glimpse of the financial world’s initiation processes, and the lives of the well-compensated yet exploited first, second and third year analysts. True, his eight subjects are all from a particular, narrow selection of the young employees working on Wall Street – they were, after all, putting their jobs in jeopardy by talking with him. Because they were not 100% True Believers in the Wall Street Way, and because they grappled with the moral and ethical aspects (or lack thereof) of their chosen and hard-fought-for professions, Roose accepts that his portrait is somewhat limited.

Through these eight subjects’ lives, we learn of the exhausting and punishing workloads that can nearly bury them, the scramble and potential for huge bonuses, and also the fair amount of recreational drugs that have always characterized Wall Street life. Roose sneaks into the annual dinner of one of the most elite societies in global finance (if not the most elite), and sees the so-called ‘masters of the universe’ mock Main Street, the people whose lives were ruined by the collapse that feckless and reckless financial corporations caused, and also their blasé opinion of government bailouts. As Roose points out, in any normal year, this would be completely tone deaf, but in the wake of the crisis that they caused and escaped unscathed, it is all the less forgivable and more repugnant.

This is not a modern-day Wolf of Wall Street or Bonfire of the Vanities, however. Roose also details something new: the changes to an industry, likely permanent, that have been wrought in the wake of the massive financial collapse of 2008. These changes are not just effecting the industry’s working practices, but also their recruiting practices, which Roose investigates throughout his investigation. The author details the changing attitudes of both recruiters and students – their changing expectations, the lowering of Wall Street’s prestige, and the rise of the tech sector as a source of incredible wealth.

While Young Money lacks the acerbic, biting criticism and deep analysis of, for example, Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia, Roose offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a handful of young Wall Street employees. We see how the Street’s culture infuses their decisions; how it attracts and repels them in equal measures; how it even effects their mental and physical health. It’s also true that it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for the subjects, given their high-dollar salaries, bonuses, and perks, but Roose has nevertheless managed to make them interesting and sometimes sympathetic characters. Towards the end, I felt quite invested in their lives and eventual success.

Young Money is an excellent, engaging and fascinating look at the lives of young Wall Street analysts. If you have any interest in Wall Street and its denizens (corrupt or otherwise), then this is very highly recommended. If you like excellently-written narrative non-fiction and/or long-form journalism, then this is likewise a must-read.

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