The Buy Side Reviewed

I will let you in a little secret (though I think I admitted this in my review of Wolf of Wall Street already … I will read any book and see any movie that comes out regarding life on Wall Street. I can know ahead of time that it is going to be cartoonishly stupid, and they often are, and I will still read or see it. Some are quite serious in nature (see my lengthy list of reviews covering the financial crisis of 2008), and some are entertainment-driven (the Wolf of Wall Street is a case in point). Michael Lewis may be known to many of you for Moneyball and The Blind Side, but the book that made him famous, Liar’s Poker, literally began a genre of books describing the excesses of Wall Street behavior. I’m not sure that any book in the genre since Liar’s Poker have been quite as good, but many have tried with varying degrees of success. And I read all of them.

Part of me thinks I read all of this stuff because it just fascinates me what people think about the financial advisory profession. I am a corner office managing director guy at a huge Wall Street firm, but I eat dinner with my wife and kids almost every single night. I’ve seen plenty of folks misbehave, but not any more than at an action sports trade show or a real estate office holiday party. It is the BUSINESS of Wall Street I love – the business of advising on capital. In case you haven’t heard me say it before, I LOVE free market capitalism, and there is no free market capitalism without capital markets. Therefore, I love the business of capital markets. And in the United States of America, we call that business “Wall Street”, so there you go.

Anyway, now that my little secret fetish is out (regarding guilty pleasure movie watching and book reading), let me explain what I was expecting out of Turney Duff’s The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess, and let me tell you what I got instead. I was expecting another infantile tale of some piker who, imagine this, liked drugs and sex – a lot. I was expecting a book claiming that every single person in a 50-mile vicinity of the Hudson River lives the same way. And I was expecting a book where a failed piker would blame Wall Street’s business immorality for his lack of success in the business. What I got, on the other hand, was very, very different.

I am not sure I would call the book a mere story of a Wall Street burnout. First of all, the real-life narrative itself is quite rare. For a young man educated in Ohio, a state many Wall Street elites are unaware is a part of the union, to become a prominent buy side trader is rare enough. But for the path to that trading job to have been an admin assistant job on the retail side of the business is utterly unheard of. Mr. Duff describes his journey with skill and literary flair. By the time he ends up at Galleon Group, a massive hedge fund which has since blown up behind the insider trading convictions of its key personnel, I am already enjoying the book, and realizing it is not going to be at all what I expected.

Duff gives readers a far more sensible and credible explanation of what he did for a living than many attempts at describing the business do. Unlike the pathetic scene in Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo Dicaprio starts yelling to the FBI about “collateralized debt obligations” (before there was such a thing, and something he to this day would have absolutely no knowledge of or participation in whatsoever), Duff does not merely throw out finance-sounding vocabulary to tease the readers and get back to the stories of sex and drugs. Yes, there are a lot of stories about sex and drugs (more drugs than sex), but the book doesn’t insult its readers with disingenuous or vanilla descriptions of high finance. It is comprehensible but sharp, and that is a tough thing to do.

The book does go into exhaustive detail of the demons which brought down Mr. Duff’s career as a trader. In fairness to the author, though, it simply does not read as a glamorization of that lifestyle. Jordan Belfort agonized his readers with an almost frat-boy like description of his shenanigans in the Wolf of Wall Street book (which he pretty much had to do because there weren’t ten pages of actual business material). Duff isn’t bragging. He’s confessing. And if you aren’t rooting for him throughout the final chapters of the book to find recovery, to find sobriety, and to find God, then you just aren’t human.

The book really is an addiction tale more than a business thriller, but it is compelling, honest, and extremely inviting. I spent some time reading some interviews Duff gave after the book came out and he blew me away with his candor. There is no attempt to demonize all of Wall Street – quite the opposite. There is no juvenile story of how “Wall Street polluted me and made me do it”. He is a recovering addict who has been blessed with an extraordinary writing skill. I, for one, hope he’ll write again. This “genre” needs more writers like him. Michael Lewis worked in finance for about ten minutes and has spent twenty-five years getting rich from his moralizing, hypocritical tirades (though he is a remarkable writer, I confess). I do not know what the future holds for Turney Duff, but if he keeps his hands off a highball and on a keyboard, I am positive the best days of his life are still to come.

Because life on Main Street and Wall Street both testify to the powerful adage: Don’t quit before the miracle happens.