The Situation of Financial Risk-Taking
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 8, 2008
In 1986, Salomon Brothers, an investment bank, was known as “the King of Wall Street.” The Salomon atmosphere has since been hilariously depicted in Michael Lewis‘s now-classic Liar’s Poker, in which he recounts his experiences at the firm. He opens the book with the following anecdote.
It was sometime early in 1986, the first year of the decline of my firm, Salomon Brothers. Our chairman, John Gutfreund, left his desk at the head of the trading floor and went for a walk. At any given moment on the trading floor billions of dollars were being risked by bond traders. Gutfreund took the pulse of the place by simply wandering around it and asking questions of the traders. An eerie sixth sense guided him to wherever a crisis was unfolding. Gutfreund seemed able to smell money being lost.
He was the last person a nerve-racked trader wanted to see. Gutfreund (pronounced Good friend) liked to sneak up from behind and surprise you. This was fun for him but not for you. . . . You felt a chill in your bones that I imagine belongs to the same class of intelligence as the nervous twitch of a small furry animal at the silent approach of a grizzly bear. An alarm shrieked in your head: Gutfreund! Gutfreund! Gutfreund!
Often as not, our chairman just hovered quietly for a bit, then left. You might never have seen him. The only trace I found of him on two of these occasions was a turd-like ash on the floor beside my chair, left, I suppose, as a calling card. Gutfreund’s cigar droppings were longer and better formed than those of the average Salomon boss. I always assumed that he smoked a more expensive blend than the rest, purchased with a few of the $40 million he had cleared on the sale of SalomonBrothers in 1981 (or a few of the $3. 1 million he paid himself in 1986,more than any other Wall Street CEO).
This day in 1986, however, Gutfreund did something strange. Instead of terrifying us all, he walked a straight line to the trading desk of John Meriwether, a member of the board of Salomon Inc. and also one of Salomon’s finest bond traders. He whispered a few words. The traders in the vicinity eavesdropped. What Gutfreund said has become a legend at Salomon Brothers and a visceral part of its corporate identity. He said: “One hand, one million dollars, no tears. “
One hand, one million dollars, no tears. Meriwether grabbed the meaning instantly. The King of Wall Street, as Business Week had dubbed Gutfreund, wanted to play a single hand of a game called Liar’s Poker for a million dollars. He played the game most afternoons with Meriwether and the six young bond arbitrage traders who worked for Meriwether and was usually skinned alive. Some traders said Gutfreund was heavily outmatched. Others who couldn’t imagine John Gutfreund as anything but omnipotent-and there were many said that losing suited his purpose, though exactly what that might be was a mystery.
The peculiar feature of Gutfreund’s challenge this time was the size of the stake. Normally his bets didn’t exceed a few hundred dollars. A million was unheard of. The final two words of his challenge, “no tears, ” meant that the loser was expected to suffer a great deal of pain but wasn’t entitled to whine, bitch, or moan about it. He’d just have to hunker down and keep his poverty to himself. But why? You might ask if you were anyone other than the King of Wall Street. Why do it in the first place? Why, in particular, challenge Meriwether instead of some lesser managing director? It seemed an act of sheer lunacy. Meriwether was the King of the Game, the Liar’s Poker champion of the Salomon Brothers trading floor.
On the other hand, one thing you learn on a trading floor is that winners like Gutfreund always have some reason for what they do; it might not be the best of reasons, but at least they have a concept in mind. I was not privy to Gutfreund’s innermost thoughts, but I do know that all the boys on the trading floor gambled and that he wanted badly to be one of the boys. What I think Gutfreund had in mind in this instance was a desire to show his courage, like the boy who leaps from the high dive. Who better than Meriwether for the purpose? Besides, Meriwether was probably the only trader with both the cash and the nerve to play.
The whole absurd situation needs putting into context. John Meriwether had, in the course of his career, made hundreds of millions of dollars for Salomon Brothers. He had an ability, rare among people and treasured by traders, to hide his state of mind. Most traders divulge whether they are making or losing money by the way they speak or move. They are either overly easy or overly tense. With Meriwether you could never, ever tell. He wore the same blank half-tense expression when he won as he did when he lost. He had, I think, a profound ability to control the two emotions that commonly destroy traders fear and greed and it made him as noble as a man who pursues his self-interest so fiercely can be. He was thought by many within Salomon to be the best bond trader on Wall Street. Around Salomon no tone but awe was used when he was discussed. People would say, “He’s the best businessman in the place,” or “the best risk taker I have ever seen,” or “a very dangerous Liar’s Poker player.”
Meriwether cast a spell over the young traders who worked for him. His boys ranged in age from twenty-five to thirty-two (he was about forty). Most of them had Ph.D.’s in math, economics, and/or physics. Once they got onto Meriwether’s trading desk, however, they forgot they were supposed to be detached intellectuals. They became disciples. They became obsessed by the game of Liar’s Poker. They regarded it as their game. And they took it to a new level of seriousness.
John Gutfreund was always the outsider in their game. That Business Week put his picture on the cover and called him the King of Wall Street held little significance for them. I mean, that was, in a way, the whole point. Gutfreund was the King of Wall Street, but Meriwether was King of the Game. When Gutfreund had been crowned by the gentlemen of the press, you could almost hear traders thinking: Foolish names and foolish faces often appear in public places. . . .
At times Gutfreund himself seemed to agree. He loved to trade. Compared with managing, trading was admirably direct. You made your bets and either you won or you lost. When you won, people will the way up to the top of the firm admired you, envied you, and feared you, and with reason: You controlled the loot. When you managed a firm, well, sure you received your quota of envy, fear, and admiration. But for all the wrong reasons, you did not make the money for Salomon. You did not take risk. You were hostage to your producers. They took risk. They proved their superiority every day by handling risk better than the rest of the risk-taking world. The money came from risk takers such as Meriwether, and whether it came or not was really beyond Gutfreund’s control. That’s why many people thought that the single rash act of challenging the arbitrage boss to one hand for a million dollars was Gutfreund’s way of showing he was a player, too. And if you wanted to show off, Liar’s Poker was the only way to go. The game had a powerful meaning for traders. People like John Meriwether believed that Liar’s Poker had a lot in common with bond trading. It tested a trader’s character. It honed a trader’s instincts. A good player made a good trader, and vice versa. We all understood it.
* * *
The game has some of the feel of trading, just as jousting has some of the feel of war. The questions a Liar’s Poker player asks himself are, up to a point, the same questions a bond trader asks himself. Is this a smart risk? Do I feel lucky? How cunning is my opponent? Does he have any idea what he’s doing, and if not, how do I exploit his ignorance? . . . .
The code of the Liar’s Poker player was something like the code of the gunslinger. It required a trader to accept all challenges.
* * *
You can can read the end of the anecdote here. Our point is to illustrate just how significant the craving for financial risk-taking often is, particularly among those who spend a great deal of time taking such risks. Fascinating recent research by neuroeconomists is teaching us more about the nature and extent of that urge. In yesterday’s New York Times, JennyAnderson has an article, titled “Craving the High That Risky Trading Can Bring,” summarizing some of those findings. To provide a sense of her article, which is worth the read, we’ve included a few tidbits below.
* * *
A small group of scientists, including some psychologists, say they are starting to discover what many Wall Street professionals have long suspected — that people are hard-wired for money. The human brain, these researchers say, responds to high-stakes trading just as it does to the lure of sex. And the riskier the trades get, the more the brain craves them.
. . . . That is no surprise to Brian Knutson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University and a pioneer in neurofinance, an emerging field that combines psychology, neuroscience and economics, to examine how the brain makes decisions.
Mr. Knutson has sent volunteers through high-power imaging machines to map their brains as they trade. He concludes that sometimes, people get high on making money.
“The more you think you can gain from the risk, the more you take the risk and the more activation in the circuitry,” Mr. Knutson said.
* * *Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, showed that individuals do not always act rationally when faced with uncertainty in decision making. When faced with losses, individuals may seek to take more risk rather than less, contrary to what traditional economic thought might suggest.
“When you are threatened with extinction, you act like nothing matters,” said Andrew Lo, a professor at M.I.T. who has studied the role of emotions in trading. . . .
Mr. Lo and Dmitry V. Repin of Boston University have studied traders to determine how stress and emotions affect investment returns. They monitored traders’ vital signs like heart rate, body temperature and respiration as their subjects darted in and out of trades.
The findings, while preliminary, suggest — perhaps unsurprisingly — that traders who let their emotions get the best of them tend to fare poorly in the markets. But traders who rely on logic alone don’t do that well either. The most successful ones use their emotions to their advantage without letting the feelings overwhelm them.
“The best traders are the ones who have controlled emotional responses,” Mr. Lo said. “Professional athletes have the same reaction — they use emotion to psych them up, but they don’t let those emotions take them over.”