Author: Michael Amon
Translator: Edward Larkin, Thomas Ahrens
Please allow me to introduce myself
I park my newly acquired Ferrari Testarossa in one of the parking spots reserved for members of the board of directors. Well, speaking of the devil! The chief financial officer, my immediate supervisor, swooshes in at the same moment in a luxury sedan. Of course, he isn’t driving. He is being chauffeured, seated in the rear. I get out and act as if I don’t notice him. The chauffeur pulls up right behind my Ferrari and motions for me to move. I give him the finger – first assuring myself that the CFO has also seen my gesture – and leave the parking garage in an upbeat mood. I just love living clichés to the fullest, with grandezza.
I am not an impolite or vulgar person. Not at all irascible or hotheaded. But I get a great deal of pleasure out of defying the rules of a venerable banking institution, all the while knowing that they can’t do anything about it. They hate me. They despise me. They would terminate me immediately, without notice. But, unfortunately for them, I am one of those people who bring in the big bucks, the really big bucks, that pay not only for my Ferrari but also for the many other, less fabulous limousines available to the board of directors. So while they curse me in private, they let me park where I want. They ignore my extreme hand gestures and do not dare set foot in my department. We are wild guys through and through – we who work here. And I am the wildest. To be precise: the coolest. And I’m not the only one who says so. Everybody does.
My immediate boss has not been an active trader for some time; nowadays he only supervises the traders. But even he can’t tell if I am about to make a killing or take a bath on a contract. I always maintain the same calm demeanor when I’m looking at my computer screen, no matter how the supposed markets around the globe are behaving and no matter how volatile the graphs reflecting those events become. Even when the graph lines are horizontal, which only rarely occurs, no one is able to detect my boredom. A horizontal performance line (I’m talking about a line that looks like it’s been drawn with a ruler) offers very little opportunity for speculation – unless you can find some greedy bastard who is willing to make a deal that is just ridiculous – one that only the eggheads in our math department can understand. What they cook up is great. For the bank, that is, not for the client. They generate mathematical formulas to ensure that we always come out on top. It can get wacky when two banks are involved, but we avoid that. What do we have clients for! The more the markets heat up and the more eagerly people drool over profits, the more we can spread this mathematical manure among our profit-craving clients. And some days we are up to our eyeballs in drool, figuratively speaking. But that is not really my area.
I live on variances and timing. I keep an attentive eye on the screens, and as soon as Tokyo advances and Chicago retreats a little, I buy the shares in Chicago with the phone on my left and, even before I have the contract in hand, I sell it in Tokyo with the phone on my right. That’s all there is to it. Nothing more than that. But I do it a hundred times a day. Sometimes in seconds. Profits and losses. The trick is: you have to win more than you lose, at least once more. As long as I do that, I can drive the Ferrari, take the boss’s parking spot (which is tolerated even if amid expletives), and nonchalantly flip him the bird when he insists on parking in his reserved spot.
To be a trader, you really need to have excellent powers of concentration and a first-class memory. A one-day-memory. Contracts do not stay open overnight, at least not under normal circumstances. So you need to have all of the day’s open contracts in your head, and you are always afraid that you might forget one. That can cost the bank millions. Then the Ferrari is gone. And you can quickly become someone’s slave in an irrelevant trading department, pushing a couple of boring government bonds back and forth, and strictly avoiding the boss’s parking spot. Fortunately, my concentration is exceptional, and my memory is outstanding. I can hardly imagine having Alzheimer’s. I don’t even want to think about it. I love my invulnerability. In the trading room I am immortal. At least while I’m the better gambler.
No one in the trading room is as calm as I am. No one can tell when I am engaged in combat. That is my strength. That makes me invulnerable in the war of the marketplace, a marketplace that in truth doesn’t really exist, that in our business is only a fiction, nothing more. I really don’t care whether wheat is too expensive or too cheap. I am only interested in what I believe is happening: is the price rising or falling?
That determines whether I will buy or sell the contracts. In the end, I don’t have to eat the wheat. And I couldn’t anyway, given the amount that I speculate with. Neither the wheat nor the pork bellies. Even the currency that I push around the world is something that I don’t need. I don’t give a hoot about the value of the stuff that I trade. I am only interested in the difference between what the price is now and what it will be a second or a month from now. In a real market you have to understand true value. But for me it is only a question of guessing the difference between two prices at two different points in time. It is a guessing game, or at best a wager. What we are playing is “Old Maid;” it has nothing at all to do with a marketplace. We tell people about the “marketplace” just so that they will have something to believe in – because God is long gone. He is a fugitive on the road to nowhere, where He can tinker with a different, perhaps better universe, in the hope that He might get it right this time. Every day we create the market anew, as our God, just so that we can then point to something that is responsible for all the money that we lose for our investors. It is the market that punishes and rewards. The market, my ass! People believe this nonsense because we constantly pound it into them. But these markets don’t really exist. I am the market. I determine the price. I look for the price differential. A telephone on my left, a telephone on my right, and between them is my head, and that’s where the market is. That’s the simple truth. The market is in my head, going in one ear and coming out the other.
I don’t believe in anything anymore. And certainly not in markets! I might as well believe in this ephemeral God. For me it is enough to know that I won. I only need to keep my eyes on the screen, pick up the right telephone – I am repeating myself here – and get the better of whoever is on the other end of the line. I love the instability of the short-term graphs as compared to the smug calmness and serenity of the two-hundred-day moving average, which carries the performance of the share prices like a good bass player carries a walking blues tune, like Bill Wyman for the Stones. Just as Charlie Watts carries the Stones today. Maybe I’ll join the Stones when I have fifty winners and fifty-one losers, that is, if the Stones are still able to get on stage by themselves, or at least be rolled onto the stage in wheelchairs. And if the Stones are still alive at that point. And if they need a bass player for the moving average line. Keith Richards, with his piercing riffs, better represents instantaneous trading, the fluctuating ups and downs of nervous markets. Richards is second to none when he plays his riffs. I can only get that feeling when I’m out on the trading floor. He gets it on the guitar. Charlie Watts would be a good trader, but Bill Wyman would be better. In the old films of their concerts, Wyman is always seen playing off to the side, as if he’s not part of the group. That is exactly how I feel when I’m sitting in the trading room. I’m the Bill Wyman of traders. As if I didn’t belong with the rest of them.
Nothing bad can happen to me here. Whatever happens out there in these imaginary markets has no effect on me. I’m like a fish in a stream: I take whatever I can get. To be a trader is to keep your mouth wide open and swim into a school of fish. Perhaps I’m even the Mick Jagger of traders. Just one more time. That’s all I live for.
I am a man of wealth and taste
Truth be told, I’m well off, even rich. I would never tell anyone that, but I am. Getting richer by the day. Effortlessly. Unintentionally. But purposefully. Sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. It can certainly be debated whether I have good taste. That doesn’t bother me. The tie tack crowd on the top floor with their own dining room and their own chef think that my Ferrari is tasteless and nouveau riche; I think the same of their tie tacks. They think it’s disgusting that I’m moving ahead of them: on the freeway, with my salary, in life. I’m just faster. What’s zipping by, my friend, that is life. The guys upstairs taking the slow train will never get that. You can’t make money taking the slow train. True living only begins at 250 kilometers per hour. Anything slower than that is just standing still. They despise me, but they are happy to take the profits that I earn for them with our clients’ money. And before the clients get their money back, we all take a piece of it. In acting out their greed, the guys upstairs are almost as fast as we are. Almost. Although, I’m not greedy. I just take what I can get my hands on. And I certainly make a point to grab as much as I can. Taking, too, is a talent. Perhaps an even a greater talent than giving. In fact, it definitely is. Much greater.
I’m perfectly healthy. Fit as a fiddle, as they say here. You can’t be any healthier than I am. My heartbeat remains calm and steady as the share prices flicker across my computer screen. As the graph lines jump fitfully about, they create sharp peaks formed by the nervously fluctuating price variations and by the rapid alternation of highs and lows. I hold the phone calmly, and I place my orders dispassionately. No one can see whether I’m agitated or relaxed. There is nothing to be seen. I am unemotional, just a cool dude. The coolest dude in the trading room. In my mind’s eye I imagine the floor of the stock exchange in earlier times. The chaotic shouts, the traders’ spastic movements, and the feverish atmosphere. A seething mass of activity. But here and now everything is calm, in the room of the cool dudes. Grab what you can, and let the devil take the hindmost. Fortunately, I’m always first. The best. Perfectly healthy. And get even healthier the worse the trades unfold. Don’t even know what cholesterol is, spread it on my sandwich. A liver? I don’t have one. My brain functions precisely and is unaffected by external circumstances. Like a well-oiled machine. One cog turns another, no bucks or jams. No doctor could make a living off of me. People like me will be the downfall of medicine, the death of the pharmaceutical corporations (whose stock shares bore me to death). Can someone like me even die? How might that happen? Given my overall health? Cool dudes live forever. Forever and a day. Death is not worth the money that the insurance companies pay out. But I’m not so stupid as to bet on my death, though I bet on everything else, all the time. But betting on my death? No way! I’m not an idiot. As healthy as I am. I avoid bad deals. And that would be one. Count me out. I’ve got better things to do, namely, make money. You have to be out front. The truth is everywhere and nowhere, because it has no price. So it can’t be traded; it has no value to someone like me. I avoid getting too close to a so-called truth. Who likes staring into the abyss! An abyss is not tradable. Every once in a while, if we get too wild or carry on for too long, we fall into an abyss. But we pull ourselves out of trouble by skillful trades; I’m very good at that sort of thing. I have ice water in my veins. Nothing can unsettle me. I’m the master of the universe. It is my universe. God is sitting in a universe near ours, botching up the one beyond that. But I’m no God; people just think I am. I won’t fall into that trap. When the gods make love, they create devils. All of us here, the traders, we are gods. Immortal. Eternally healthy. There is no afterlife. No trade remains open. That is what I call eternity. After us – closed markets.
I’ve been around for a long, long year
My year has forty months, or fifty, or one. Whatever is needed. Everything is one big gently flowing stream. My brain flattens out the spikes on the computer screen; they become signals to buy or to sell, or to do nothing. The charts – that’s what we call the graphs – are our bible. We see things in them that no one else sees, that no one else can see. Our whole life is one long, long year. It moves along. Always forward, never backward. I tell you: life truly begins at 250 kilometers per hour, as does true peace. I don’t need a rear view mirror, or even a headlight. What’s ahead of me is of no more interest than what’s behind me. Truth is only what is found on the right and left. Einstein knows that. Does he know that? Does his brain know that? What we call his brain today are those 240 ashlar-shaped blocks, each one only a cubic centimeter in size, world travelers smelling of formalin, kept in countless laboratories all around the world. Is it possible that 240 individual parts know more than a whole brain? Are they interconnected, like those quanta that Einstein’s brain even today does not believe in? That is, his brain no longer can believe in them because it is only senseless tissue now. No more thoughts circulate there. Neither interconnected, nor disparate. Forget Einstein! Energy equals mass times velocity squared. Time is an illusion. We have all the time in the world. I have all the time in the world. But traders don’t. An individual transaction. There’s only a few seconds for it, if that. The trader’s world is a world of seconds. Just short seconds, independent of one another. The smallest unit of the endless year. Assimilating all the isolated seconds, the brain constructs the film we call life, which flows so easily by us. All the years look the same. One year is just like another. The graphs point up and then come crashing down again.
I leave my apartment and drive to the office. There are still a few places to park. None of the bosses is in sight. They’re still asleep, or already at work. It doesn’t matter to me. Today I’ll take the spot that belongs to the board member who oversees retail banking. A particularly unlikable and arrogant guy in a department that only incurs losses. One floor below us. We earn the big bucks, one floor above them. Among the piles of big bucks, mine is the biggest. Retail banking? I never even think about it. It’s like being buried alive. You are not alive, ever. Dead. Dead. Dead. Oh, Death, here is your sting! Dickering about overdraft conditions. Begging for credit. Painstakingly adding up the points on a loan application and then turning it down. Retail banking. It’s peanuts, if that. It isn’t true that a penny saved is a penny earned, that even small cattle make manure. They create shit. And I have to clean it up with my profits, which I piss down to the floor below us, so that the shit there doesn’t stink to high heaven. So that the stench doesn’t drift up to me.
I’ve got good reason to park my Ferrari here today. The spot is not mine, but I’m entitled to it. I cheerfully raise my middle finger, but no one sees it. You can’t have fun anymore. They don’t want you to. As if I could live from their bonuses. Money isn’t everything. It’s more than everything. Too much money and a little fun, that’s the ticket, throughout the whole eternally long year, this interminable year, for as long as we are alive. A lifetime is a sentence. A couple of pleasures, and a car in the parking spot, which is not mine. Computer screens and graphs. And so it goes.
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
You can feel sorry for them. Or, you could feel sorry for them. But you don’t. I don’t. None of us does. Our customers, our clients. Passing through the expansive atrium, I take the glass elevator up to our floor. Everything is transparent with us: the elevator, the atrium, the conference rooms. But not the trades, or the algorithms of our math rats, or the virtually unreadable small print of the contracts. Don’t speak evil of rats. Intelligent animals. Can you understand a rat? See! Neither can I. But I have absolute faith in them. They develop their models in such a way that from the very beginning everyone knows who will win and who will lose, except the losers. These are clever rats, with far-reaching tails. Stepping out of the elevator, which runs silently through the ridiculously tall atrium, I look down at all the hopeful customers, a restlessly seething mass; some of them (one can call them people, but we refer to them as our customer base) approach the information desks, while others, the well-heeled clients, hurry off to the elevators; still others look nervously about, craving guidance – clueless and hesitant, they steel themselves against the bustling throng, standing in place, in apparent shock. They call that banking. Enticing new customers. Attention: “Platform Euro-Bank, the train to one-hundred-per-cent profit is pulling in.” Great slogan. My girlfriend created it. Her desk is five floors above me in the marketing department. Minimalist design. Three marble slabs, two for the side tables and the third serves as a workspace. Too cold for work.
The ridiculously high atrium. One can debate the use of the word “ridiculously.” Let’s just call it a cathedral of money. What is the purpose of the cupola at St. Peter’s? The glorification of God and the display of His earthly splendor, a symbol of the power of those who are the administrators of God’s legacy on earth. Nowadays baroque splendor has given way to the more austere simplicity of expensive marble walls, smooth and unadorned, yet still intimidating. Capitalism is not baroque; it is goal-oriented. Ornamentation is foreign to it. Its only curves are those of the performance of the share prices on the 200-day moving average. It knows only the coolness of the cubically remodeled room, its cold columns dominant like the increasing assets of the wealthy. It avoids the illusion of transcendence and knows only that everyone can become rich – the glorification of money and the display of pecuniary splendor, a symbol of the arrogance of power. It has no legacy to manage here on earth other than our money, which it dearly embraces in order to create its own. The battle for an investor’s capital is the modern equivalent of the collection basket, which unburdens the believers of their charitable donations, so that they might enter heaven more easily. The discreet consultations in rooms with soundproofed floors are the present-day equivalent of the sale of indulgences. Every payment puts capital in a favorable mood and brings it closer to its own downfall. A god still reigns in these cathedrals of madness, a madness that craves rational explanations; a god who has forgotten about Abraham, who has not founded a religion that emerged from the desert, but rather one that leads into the desert. Nowadays you are not only allowed to make an image of your god, it is absolutely required. But it has to be depicted small on numbered bills: five, ten, a hundred, a thousand, whatever. Bank statements, too, represent God’s presence and accurately demonstrate His greatness: a hundred thousand, millions, billions. Stock options are our purgatory. While the soul may continue to suffer in the eternal hell of losses, it can still feel anxiety in the mere seven heavens of profit. For nothing is certain, nothing persists, everything is in motion. Like the elevators here. They are always in motion. They stop only briefly to spit out people going up and coming down, or to suck in new riders. Everything is transparent here. Except for the balance sheets. And the algorithms. And everything that is behind the atrium, the ridiculously high atrium, which is eight or ten stories tall. I’m not sure.
The atrium reaches ever higher. That’s not the case with the Vatican. You can’t take an elevator to the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral. Its cupola is just a cupola, nothing more. By contrast, the interior of our cupola is ringed with offices for our rats and traders, those on the way up and those on the way down, the board members, and all the others who move through the building and thus represent its pulse. The constant, ceaseless pulsing of the flow of people and money. And I am in the middle of it all. As the elevator races upward, my thoughts seem to come to a halt: the cupola of St. Peter’s Cathedral unwittingly gives birth to the Reformation. But what is to be born in our cupola? Capitalism knows nothing of reformation. It does fine without one. But perhaps capitalism is in fact on its last legs. Or it is moving toward its demise. Maybe the Reformation is hiding from it, standing outside on the street looking up in wonder at the façade of the towers of money, where the masters of that money reside. The masters of the universe. The Reformation turns around, disappears into the tumult, and breaks down because it does not know where to nail its smart theses. No posting. Donations welcome. Make an image of your god.
Excerpted from Michael Amon, Panikroman. Klever Verlag, Vienna, 2014.