Sunday, July 17, 2016

Polk, For the Love of Money

If you are eagerly expecting to read yet another Wall Street tell-all book, you’ll be sorely disappointed in Sam Polk’s For the Love of Money (Scribner, 2016). It is the memoir of a self-sabotaging young man who has a destructive relationship with his father. At the age of eight he is thrilled to get a dog and ends up killing the poor thing by leaving him in the family’s stiflingly hot car. He fights with bullies. By the time he is in college, at Columbia, he is drinking too much, doing too many drugs, and (early on) suffering from bulimia. He gets suspended for a semester for breaking into his drug dealer classmate’s dorm room. Women come and go, as do jobs, usually dramatically. We’re almost halfway into the book and Wall Street is nowhere.

Visiting the family of one of his girlfriends, our anti-hero is impressed with her father’s power job and money and is inspired to start building toward a life like his. He applies for summer internships in the trading department of every investment bank, but with a sub-3.0 GPA and a resume “littered with half-truths and obfuscations” he is an unlikely candidate. Nonetheless, in 2002 (and page 101 of 232), he gets an internship at CSFB. He breaks up with his girlfriend, stops drinking and taking drugs, and doesn’t get offered a permanent job. Finally, he is accepted into the Bank of America analyst class of 2003, finds a father figure at the bank, transitions to the trading floor, and eventually moves from Charlotte to New York.

A tiny section of the book is devoted to the tensions of bond trading (the rocky Verizon bond issuance is particularly interesting), but Polk doesn’t linger over anything that gets in the way of recounting his own personal transition from fear and rage to charity and “redemption.” When he leaves Bank of America, voluntarily, after a devastating trade (he “had overlooked an important variable when [he’d] constructed [his] portfolio—the difference between how bonds and derivatives perform in a funding crisis”) to accept a million dollar job at Pateras Capital, it is the beginning of the end of Polk’s trading career. He loses faith in the system even as it is an argument over his bonus that eventually leads him to walk out the door.

He waxes populist. “Our obsessive accumulation of money had led to the widest inequality in centuries. Our hoarding had left millions of people unemployed, starving, and marginalized. Prison populations were swelling; families were starving. Our greed was the source of that poverty. We were the source of that marginalization.”

“It’s not where you are but who you are” may never have made it to a poster. But it may be a way to sum up my attitude to this book. Polk had a knack for making the worst of the many opportunities he was offered, and the financial world shouldn’t be unfairly vilified because it couldn’t solve his personal problems. It’s got enough problems of its own.

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