The Trading Game: A Confession by Gary Stevenson - review by Simon Nixon

Simon Nixon

Hard Times on the Trading Floor

The Trading Game: A Confession

By

Allen Lane 432pp £25
 

The problem facing anyone trying to write an insider account of life in the City is that much of what goes on inside giant investment banks is really quite boring. The challenge of making it interesting becomes even harder when the life being described is that of a trader: every day is spent glued to your desk, staring at flashing numbers on your nine screens, with only your immediate colleagues and the disembodied voices of brokers at the end of an open phone line for company. All you are doing is trying to make a profit by betting on minute moves in markets. There are no clients, no high-octane deals, no encounters with the Big Swinging Dicks that made Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis’s account of Wall Street in the 1980s, so memorable. The outside world barely intrudes. 

This could be said for The Trading Game too. It chronicles Gary Stevenson’s short career as a foreign currency swaps trader at Citibank, which happened to coincide with the greatest financial crisis in seventy-five years, during which it seemed as if the global economy might collapse, along with much of the banking system. Yet these seismic events barely feature in Stevenson’s book, other than in an acknowledgement that they helped create extraordinarily benign trading conditions for swaps traders, enabling him briefly to become the most profitable trader in the bank. Instead, the drama is driven by Stevenson’s quest to secure the $1.26-million bonus to which he felt entitled and then hang on to it when he decided to quit. 

Stevenson is a good enough storyteller that he can make the most of his thin material. He recounts at great length the various strategies that enabled him first to win a card-based trading game to secure an internship at Citibank while still a student at the London School of Economics, then to parlay that into a graduate trainee job, find the right mentors and trade his way to becoming a millionaire while still in his mid-twenties. He is at his most entertaining when describing the cast of eccentrics and misfits with whom he worked. They have nicknames such as ‘the Slug’ and ‘the Frog’, and are mostly presented as hopeless drunks. 

Yet for all the hints of debauchery and excess, it seems pretty tame, certainly by the standards of City behaviour in the 1980s and early 1990s. There are the inevitable boozy lunches and dinners with brokers. One colleague made his taxi stop on the way home after a night out so that he could urinate on the Bank of England. Drug-taking is said to be rampant in the City, but Stevenson says he didn’t join in. Most nights he went home early, which is hardly surprising given that he was in the office every day at 6am. He once came home to find his flatmate and various brokers taking cocaine in his kitchen and kicked them out. The Wolf of Wall Street it is not. 

Subtitled ‘A Confession’, Stevenson doesn’t in fact confess to anything much other than his own brilliance as a trader. This he attributes to his superior insight into the global economy, derived from his working-class upbringing in Essex. While rivals were betting on ultra-low interest rates driving a recovery in 2011, he bet the other way, having become convinced that soaring inequality was holding back growth because most people didn’t have enough money to spend. That bet proved right, though almost certainly for the wrong reasons. What really stopped the economy growing in 2011 was the eurozone debt crisis.

Yet Stevenson’s success only fuelled his contempt for everyone else. Despite his grammar school education and degree from an elite university, he considers himself an outsider in the City and cannot avoid drawing attention to the giant chip on his shoulder. His fellow students at the LSE are dismissed as the sons and daughters of foreign plutocrats, the Citibank trading floor is a sea of ‘pink shirts’, central bankers are a ‘bunch of posh mummy’s boys who never left university’. To underline his geezer status, the entire book is written in a kind of cockney patois: ‘All I know is if a trade’s gonna fuck me then I’m gonna fuck the trade back and I’ll keep fucking it until I win.’ And so on for more than four hundred pages.

All this might be excusable if Stevenson had any insights to offer. When he describes being posted to Tokyo while clearly suffering from a mental crisis, one wonders why he didn’t take the advice of his girlfriend, a teacher, and walk away, realising there is more to life than money. Might his professed interest in inequality lead him to muse on the role of finance in fuelling it? Alas, the last hundred pages are taken up with his fight to ensure that Citigroup paid out his deferred bonuses after he left. The idea that most might consider it outrageous for a bank that had to be bailed out with billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to be paying out such vast sums never seems to cross his mind. As a result, the reader, like the taxpayer, is left feeling short-changed.

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