Harvard graduate Paul Stiles is dissatisfied with government work after spending five years working at the National Security Agency. So he decides to move from Annapolis, Maryland to New York City to work on Wall Street where he lands a job as a bond trader in the emerging markets department at Merrill Lynch.
There are two central plots in the book. The first is his experiences on Wall Street, including: getting rejected from Morgan Stanley, the interview process at Merrill Lynch, the different departments within Merrill (retail, institutional), working with the "Latin Mafia" (the group that ran the South America debt operations), and his frustration with the internal politics within Merrill.
The other plot is his experience living in New York City where there were some interesting adventures, like his frustrating attempt to simply get an apartment.
The best thing about this book is that it is written much better than many of the other books in this genre. Stiles has a real talent for writing, with lively prose and crisp descriptions. The book's other main asset is that the author's tenure at the investment bank correlated perfectly with both the turmoil in the Mexican markets in 1994 and the Orange county derivatives losses. The book contains a good synopsis of both the Peso devaluation and the Orange County meltdown.
Like other books by investment banking insiders, it does a good job of illuminating the culture of universal cluelessness of the people who work there. Here is a good description of the environment that Stiles worked in:
"People in IEM were quite capable of carrying out their daily responsibilities, but the theory behind them and their broader meaning, not to mention the responsibilities of others, were shrouded in a fog of guesses, assumptions, and errors. This was especially true when it came to basic terminology: ask a trader to define a security, for instance, and you would end up with a stream of blather. Like physicists, they operated quite well with certain assumptions, but the meaning of energy or mass left them scratching their heads."
Some readers were annoying by the author's whining. They thought he was naive about the culture of greed on Wall Street. But his frustration wasn't with the level of greed, in my opinion. It was with the incompetence. He eventually wised up and realized that the culture of "universal cluelessness", as I referred to it earlier, was really a culture of "deliberate incompetence". The dysfunctional work environment (lack of communication, a complete lack of training, and vague goals and directives) was actually a premeditated attempt to create the illusion of innocent mismanagement, so the whole collusive gang could cover up the fact that they didn't really know anything about their jobs. This point is made in the book when one of Stiles' fellow workers tells him that he was put into his job precisely because he was expected to fail. It is obvious that they shouldn't have hired him when he had zero qualifications. But even after they did, he never received even one iota of job training before doing million-dollar transactions. Having a "sink or swim" environment is one thing, but this kind of environment is negligent to the point of being almost criminal.
The biggest disappointment about the book is that it has long stretches where it is boring. The author's lack of knowledge about the very industry he worked in at times led to a lack of perspective and dearth of insight. Much of the early story is filled up with inconsequential details of Stiles' early days where he simply drifted around and did no work.
Other readers were annoying by his moralizing about the cost of the current culture of American capitalistic greed. I, on the other hand, thought this section was good because it wasn't inaccurate - nor was it out of place within the arc of his story. I agree with an Amazon reviewer who says:
As a European Catholic, rarely have I read an American author who so clearly sees the problems with his own capitalist excess and its impact on the soul. Unfortunately, there are many who have not reached this level of awareness, and some are found in Mr. Stiles reviews. The tragedy is that such an honest book of the human spirit should be lost among books on finance, where it is judged by those who are predisposed not to understand it.
I liked these two particular observations that Stiles makes: