Filed under: Books & reviews, Commodities trading | Tags: books, cari lynn, commodities trading, financial crisis, food prices, frank norris, frederick kaufman, goldman sachs, greedy pigs, harpers magazine, I.O.U., john lanchester, leg the spread, review, the pit
During the train trip out here, I read three books about greedy people.
Leg The Spread: A Woman’s Adventures Inside the Trillion Dollar Boys’ Club of Commodities Trading. Cari Lynn, Broadway Books, 2004.
Leg The Spread was fascinating, but not all I’d hoped. Lynn was theoretically a clerk on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for two years, but seemed to have gotten the gig as a favor from a trader friend in order to do research for the book. At no point did Lynn seem to engage in any real trading activity. So the book wasn’t really a memoir, or maybe one that was concocted for the purpose of collecting other people’s stories. The stories are undeniably entertaining – largely about the insane things people do when they are at constant risk of losing it all or hitting the jackpot: throwing up and/or passing out on the trading floor, blowing 20 grand on a bed frame, wearing the same “lucky” tie for years on end, punching, shoving, spitting, all kinds of nasty dude stuff. Oh yeah, and the straight up sexual harrassment that occurs on the trading floor for the few women that can tough it out. But still, Lynn shies away from deeper critique of any kind and what is left is a rather random collection of others’ memories.
I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. John Lanchester, Simon & Schuster, 2010. This book was touted as a book on the financial crisis that was straightforward and funny, and while Lanchester is definitely clever, most of what he says made me too angry for any laugh out loud moments – even a chuckle seemed a little much. It’s a great big-picture, plain English explanation of everything that went down with the whole financial crisis, though, and because Lanchester is British, we get a broader perspective. Lanchester’s defining moment of scholarship is naming the fall of communism as the moment where the crisis began. As he describes it, the loss of any ideological foil for the capitalist countries meant that the capitalist countries were no longer subjected to critiques by the communist regimes, and no longer had to prove themselves able to take care of those on the bottom. As Lanchester puts it: “the jet engine [of capitalism] was unhooked from the ox cart [of social justice] and allowed to roar off at its own speed.”
The Pit. Frank Norris, 1903.
A few years ago I read Norris’ McTeague, a fantastic, dark novel about the San Francisco working class, which perhaps caused me to harbor higher hopes for The Pit than I should have. Rather romantic and predictable, the novel details the rise of a self made man who begins trading in wheat, gets good at it (spoiler alert, not that you wouldn’t see it coming anyway), corners the market and then loses it all. I probably would not have finished it were it not for my academic and historical interest in the topic, but it’s not all bad. Norris’ descriptions of the trading pits at the Board of Trade are quite similar to Cari Lynn’s 100 years later, and Norris does have a way of capturing the mood of a place and time. Unlike Lynn, Norris does not shy away from describing the consequences of futures trading on the people who eat the wheat, and those who grow it. This was back before the market was a god to be obeyed, before the economists had been elevated to high priest status. People actually questioned the ethics of such things.
Speaking of, I finally did find a copy of the long-sought after Harpers’ article (Fredrick Kaufman, July 2010: The Food Bubble: How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it). It’s a must read. Kaufman, who obviously knows his stuff, directly implicates Goldman Sachs (and other Wall Street firms, but Goldman leads the way) in the historic price run-ups in wheat and the resulting food price bubble in 2008. I’ve been reading about the wheat price bubble, and Kaufman’s explanation is the most cogent and detailed I’ve seen so far. And damning. Goldman developed the first commodities index fund, what could perhaps be described as a cousin of the derivatives that were the foundation of the mortgage crisis. Kaufman quotes several experts as saying that happened in 2008 (food price increases, starvation, food riots) will inevitably happen again. So the same firm that was behind all these people getting kicked out of their homes is also putting the price of food out of reach for many (in the US too, not just the global south). Why is manipulating prices of the things people need to survive (food, shelter) not criminal?
And, a postscript: a good portion of my train trip was spent in the lounge car adjacent to a young boy and his grandmother. The boy was pretty much a total brat, and spent much of the time yelling at his grandmother: “Give me all your money! All of it! I want candy! Give me the money! Give me all the money!” Funny, he didn’t look old enough to be a Goldman exec. And yes, she did eventually relent.