The willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grown-ups remains a mystery to me to this day. I was twenty-four years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. Wall Street’s essential function was to allocate capital: to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue. I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I’d stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985, and stumbled out, richer, in 1988, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as totally preposterous – which is one reason the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later would come a Great Reckoning, when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds, if not thousands, of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money or persuading other people to make those bets, would be expelled from finance.
When I sat down to write my account of the experience – Liar’s Poker, it was called – it was in the spirit of a young man who thought he was getting out while the getting was good. I was merely scribbling down a message and stuffing it into a bottle for those who passed through these parts in the far distant future. Unless some insider got all of this down on paper, I figured, no future human would believe that it had happened.
Up to that point, just about everything written about Wall Street had been about the stock market. The stock market had been, from the very beginning, where most of Wall Street
lived. My book was mainly about the bond market, because Wall Street was now making even bigger money packaging and selling and shuffling around America’s growing debts. This, too, I assumed was unsustainable. I thought that I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America, when a great nation lost its financial mind. I expected readers of the future would be appalled that, back in 1986, the CEO of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million as he ran the business into the ground. I expected them to gape in wonder at the story of Howie Rubin, the Salomon mortgage bond trader, who had moved to Merrill Lynch and promptly lost $250 million. I expected them to be shocked that, once upon a time on Wall Street, the CEOs had only the vaguest idea of the complicated risks their bond traders were running.
And that’s pretty much how I imagined it; what I never imagined is that the future reader might look back on any of this, or on my own peculiar experience, and say, “How quaint.” How innocent. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last for two full decades longer, or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary economic life would swell to a difference in kind. That a single bond trader might be paid $47 million a year and feel cheated. That the mortgage bond market invented on the Salomon Brothers trading floor, which seemed like such a good idea at the time, would lead to the most purely financial economic disaster in history.