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Writing On The Wall
John LeFevre was the anonymous high-flyer behind the Twitter feed that exposed the ugly side of banking. Now he's written a tell-all book to rival The Wolf of Wall Street.
By the time John LeFevre had been persuaded to take a job in Asia in the autumn of 2004 - by a boss who suggested, among other things, that he learn to appreciate Hong Kong by purchasing a stack of Asian porn and reflect on the fact he could swap his London girlfriend for five new foreign ones - he thought he'd seen the worst banking had to offer.
After all, the British-born Texan banker had joined the fixed-income desk of Salomon Brothers straight out of college. He had worked in New York and London for more than four years, and had experienced extreme banking culture at first hand, with its long hours (at lunchtime it was, he says, a point of pride to run downstairs, pick up a sandwich and be back at your desk before your computer fell asleep), heavy drinking (to wake from a blackout on the Tube and go direct to the office still wearing last night's tuxedo was deemed praiseworthy) and flexible personal morals (one of his bosses lived in a palatial home on Holland Park but also owned a flat in Mayfair that his wife didn't know about, where he could, to colleagues' envy, entertain his 'side chicks' while on fake business trips).
But Hong Kong, where he worked as a manager on a bond-syndication desk, still startled him. Within days of checking into the sumptuous Mandarin Oriental hotel, which would be his home for his first month, the dual-nationality bond specialist who would become, according to one trade magazine, one of the most prolific syndicate managers in Asia, was being given the number of a local drug dealer by a senior colleague by way of greeting.
Within hours of that he was stumbling into a room where the same married man, on more than a million bucks a year, was being fellated by a prostitute, with several clients and a pile of cocaine for company. And not long after that, he found himself at an Asian debt syndicate dinner, where senior bankers from several banks variously did tequila shots as forfeits if they checked their BlackBerrys, placed their genitals between bread rolls under a napkin, which were then served up to a member of the group, and roughed up a restaurant diner who dared to complain about their obnoxious behaviour.
These tales are not even the most extreme to feature in LeFevre's shocking memoir, Straight to Hell. He also recounts the time he paid for a prostitute with the contents of his hotel-room minibar; the time he got banned from the Four Seasons, where he was living at the time, for being repeatedly drunk and disorderly and abusive; the time he got so wasted on alcohol, cocaine, Klonopin, Xanax and Ambien that he thought his flat was being broken into and began fighting off the intruders, when he was actually in a neighbour's apartment, brawling with its inhabitants; the time he bought a cherry-red Maserati convertible while intoxicated, totalled it after staying up all night partying, and bribed a taxi driver to take him home - and not to call the police.
And if this whirlwind of bowling with wine glasses and ashtrays, fist fights, BlackBerrys mysteriously ending up in wine buckets, suit jackets finding their way into urinals, communal stashes of cocaine and trips to the hospital sounds familiar, it's probably because it is. The dark side of finance has been exposed in recent years through a series of memoirs, one of which, The Wolf of Wall Street, was adapted for the silver screen by Martin Scorsese.
More specifically, the excesses of expat bankers in Hong Kong, where 36-year-old LeFevre says Western financiers can 'show their true colours without accountability or consequence', were plastered all over newspapers last year when British Bank of America employee Rurik Jutting was charged with murder after the mutilated bodies of two women were discovered in his apartment.
And more specifically still, LeFevre himself exposed bad behaviour in the banking world through a popular anonymous Twitter account, @GSElevator, which purportedly chronicled conversations overheard in the lift at Goldman Sachs that dripped with arrogance ('I never give money to homeless people. I can't reward failure in good conscience'), callousness ('Groupon - Food stamps for the middle class'), misogyny ('Not only did I forget her name in the morning, I forgot what I told her my name was, too'), superficiality ('If there's a hot chick behind me at the ATM, I'll always leave my receipt in the machine so she can see the balance'), and self-obsession ('I can always tell a banker within the first two minutes of meeting him in a bar ... because he tells me').
LeFevre had been inspired by a similar account that reported preposterous conversations overheard in the elevators of the Conde Nast building in New York, and it quickly became so successful that soon he was being asked to write articles on banking, and eventually sold a book about Wall Street culture for a six-figure sum. But then his identity was revealed and it turned out he had never actually worked at Goldman Sachs. In the media storm that ensued, LeFevre had his career picked apart by journalists, faced allegations that he had plagiarised some of the tweets and, after initially standing by him, publisher Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, cancelled the book deal. It was snapped up by Grove Atlantic almost immediately, but publication was delayed from last November, and when I speak to him over Skype, the question of veracity looms large.
Sitting by the pool in the backyard of his five-bedroom home in Houston, Texas, where he lives with his wife, 20-month-old son and 6-month-old daughter, LeFevre repeats the arguments he made then and makes in the prologue to Straight to Hell, which is subtitled, True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery and Billion-Dollar Deals: that he was always frank about using things submitted by readers (the bio stated, 'Things heard in the Goldman Sachs elevators do not stay in the Goldman Sachs elevators. Email me what you hear'); that the aim, from the beginning, was 'to illuminate Wall Street culture in an entertaining and insightful way', and he chose Goldman Sachs because of its position as 'public enemy No 1'; that in going through the arduous process of being offered the prestigious job of head of debt syndicate in Asia at Goldman Sachs ('three or four times'), he 'found the cult of the bank to be an amplified version of Wall Street culture'; that his personal details were irrelevant, because the tweeter was never a real person and the premise was to convey 'a culture and a mentality'.
So many of the names, characteristics and descriptions of people, and other minor details have been changed in the book in order to protect people's identities and for legal reasons, that it is almost impossible to verify in detail. For what it's worth, I believe him.
It is odd that his CV, unlike any other I have ever come across, mentions a job (at Goldman Sachs) that he didn't actually take up. The book is focused mostly on his time in Hong Kong and omits, he says for legal reasons, the year he spent working at a small finance firm based in London. Many of the stories he tells have the feel of being embellished. When I ask him about his drug intake, he says, 'I've never been a big drug person,' yet he writes in the book that he and his colleagues were doing so much coke that they had 'a strictly enforced buddy system for checking and reminding each other to look out for bloody noses'. When I ask how his 22-year-old half-Texan, half-Norwegian wife feels about him writing about sleeping with prostitutes, he claims not to have admitted to having done so ('Find me that page and chapter'). When I point to incidents where it is more than strongly implied (on page 62, in relation to the aforementioned scene where his mentor is consorting with several hookers, he writes, 'I won't lie; we're having a blast'), he tells me he doesn't recall what happened: 'I'm not even commenting on those subjects. Put it this way: it was unclear and I don't really remember it.'
His lack of self-awareness doesn't come as a complete surprise, because it is a chief characteristic of the book: LeFevre expresses almost routine disgust for anyone who isn't a banker; non-bankers at one point get referred to as 'lower class', and he dismisses the children of important people in Asia hired by banks to curry favour from their influential families as 'dumb and undeserving'. Yet at the same time, he claims that he and his colleagues regularly lied and cheated and, at times, acted fraudulently in the course of their work. LeFevre seems to want to have his cake and eat it: to get the glory of admitting to wild behaviour, without accepting he did it.
There is a bigger problem, however, than all these issues combined: that the life he describes in Hong Kong may actually be true. Which would mean that LeFevre is a pretty loathsome human being. Not because of his sexual or narcotic predilections, whatever they may or may not be, but because, among other things, the narrator of the book is so self-aggrandising. He points out that he got one of 350 jobs out of 25,000 applications when he started out, celebrates his own karaoke talents ('I remember being the big hit, owning It's Not Unusual by Tom Jones'), and gloats about his relative generosity to his maid ('For Easter, in addition to a few extra days of vacation, I surprise her with an extension device that allows her to clean my exterior windows without putting her life at risk').
He also gleefully recalls puerile pranks, which border on bullying: stuffing a colleague's travel case with hardcore gay porn and a gun-shaped metal spatula just before he goes through airport security; replacing a colleague's £2,000 pair of Lobb shoes with bright red wooden clogs; somebody grabbing a colleague's Bluetooth earpiece while he's out of the office and wiping it over their genitals. He describes seriously dodgy racial attitudes, casually using the 'n' word, and the telling of racist jokes ('A long-standing banking tradition'). And then there is the misogyny.
My God, the misogyny. He describes a world where female bankers are excluded from meetings if they are 'mingers', where men discuss whether or not you should hire an attractive maid ('Ugly and old is the only way to go,' apparently), and where female analysts get texts from their bosses to leave social occasions when it is deemed a male client needs 'entertaining'. But LeFevre is an enthusiastic participant. He joyfully recounts a banker from New York visiting, getting drunk and hooking up with an intern. He then was unable to remember which girl he had slept with, and walked around the office the next morning, 'trying to identify her by the top of her head, much to the amusement of the rest of us'.
I wonder how the father of two will justify such attitudes to his now six-month-old daughter when she grows up. 'Why should I feel bad?' he responds. 'That's how it is and I'm glad I know that's how it is. I can raise my daughter to understand the world accordingly.' But he is not just observing the world: he is a part of it. 'I'm not denying that I was fully wrapped up in that culture when I was in it. It's a learning experience. There was a sales girl in Singapore who was a little bit heavy. And they called her the Walrus. Did I refer to her as the Walrus? Of course.' For the sake of all the women he insults, I feel the need to point out that the man in front of me, balding and wearing a T-shirt, bears no likeness to his smooth author portrait.
Which leads to the question: why give the book any attention at all? Well, LeFevre speaks from a unique vantage point - from the bond-syndicate desk, which, he says, is 'at Wall Street's epicentre'. And from this rather lofty position, he does make some rather serious allegations about banks, beyond the behaviour of staff, not least explaining quite explicitly how bankers put their bonuses ahead of their clients and routinely handed confidential information to favoured clients to help win deals. Most sensationally, how the big investment banks got together and colluded to set prices, effectively agreeing not to undercut one another on fees.
'So one of the most senior syndicate figures organised a meeting for all the syndicate guys,' he writes. 'And we shook hands [on the agreement to fix fees] and then we just went out drinking and having fun like we always did. And that agreement lasted for about six or seven months.' Does he expect the authorities to be interested in his account? 'I hope so, it's really interesting.' He wants them to come calling? 'I don't have an axe to grind, but there are definitely some issues that need to be fixed with respect to how banks operated. Certainly how they allocate bonds and, in some cases, how they collude on fees. It's worth discussing.'
If you are struck, as I am, by the detachment of this description, you will be even more so by the narrator's detachment in his book. I suppose it is in some way admirable that the memoir isn't, in his words, 'an indictment of any particular firm, some kind of expose, or a moralistic tale of redemption', and that it lacks 'epiphanies'.
I've interviewed bankers who have written similar books, and it is annoying when they claim to have had some kind of moral awakening, just after they have been enriched by finance and offered a (lucrative) book deal to dish the dirt. But in LeFevre's case, this detachment veers into a refusal to accept any kind of responsibility. The way he talks about this collusion, it's almost as if he wasn't even there. And by the final scene of the book, where he describes a bachelor party in Manila for 'one of the more notorious hedge-fund managers', the detachment is maddening.
It is a grotesque weekend, which involves the group of 12 bankers paying to have a bar in the red-light district packed with 30 to 40 prostitutes for themselves, and where the attendees indulge in a game of 'love-monkey bowling' (which involves taking turns to slide naked prostitutes down a bar covered in cooking oil). They eventually move on to a casino where LeFevre turns $1,000 into $10,000, after which he describes heading back to the hotel with one of the prostitutes, who he claims he doesn't sleep with (on email he says: 'I simply dropped the girl off in my room to enjoy it for herself. That's totally different from 'taking her back'), before going on to brunch and nearly inciting a riot by throwing his cash winnings from the rooftop of a mall.
'The bill flutters around magnificently as it makes its way slowly down, catching the invisible currents that push it ever so gently one way or the other,' he writes. 'Money continues to rain down with a slow but increasing frequency. The security guard working the door at the adidas shop abandons his post and sprints across, making a leaping grab over the outstretched arms of a meek woman. Things are starting to get crazy ... People are running around chaotically as the breeze pushes the money back and forth, up and down, in all directions ... One rather large, overzealous woman fails to see a bench that takes her out at the knees, sending her tumbling headfirst onto the unforgiving granite floor ... I hand out bills by the handful. All discretion and subtlety on our part is now gone; we're laughing, pointing, and gesticulating wildly in full view of the crowd below.'
It is interesting that at one point of this description he claims that for him, 'This is a social experiment or maybe some kind of performance art,' and that he 'can't help it if a dozen drunk white guys in polo shirts, khakis and Havaiana flip-flops are laughing their asses off'. Because the thing is, he could have helped it. He could have not done it. He could have stopped doing it once he had started and people started injuring themselves. He could have not written about it in such a celebratory fashion. Or he could, at the least, express some remorse for being so obnoxious. But no responsibility is taken.
Which brings me to another reason why LeFevre's account of bankers and their belief in their invincibility should not be ignored: these individuals still have power and influence. LeFevre, for his part, has dropped out: at the end of 2010 he joined as a partner, investor and adviser to a start-up in the financial technology sector, and although he hasn't received a pay cheque since Hong Kong, he has invested in some new businesses, and spends most of his time in a sleepy suburb of Houston, playing golf and playing with his kids.
But, as he says, the drugs, womanising, sexism, systemic conflicts of interest, collusion and insider trading are still part of banking. And, as he writes in the epilogue to Straight to Hell, many of the people he mentions in the book 'have moved on to more senior positions at the biggest and most prestigious firms in the world. They're held in high esteem by a society that values wealth and success. They're wielding influence in Washington. They're sitting on the boards of Fortune 500 companies. They're taking communion. They're leading philanthropic initiatives. They're married to your daughters.'
Which is absolutely terrifying.
'Things heard in the Goldman Sachs elevators'
John LeFevre tweeted overheard comments sent to him from bankers across the globe
- If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying... because if you're good at lying, you're good at everything.
- Every year, children learn a valuable life lesson: Santa loves rich kids more.
- If someone asks you a question and you don't know the answer, belittle them. It's better to be a douche than look stupid.
- Advice for a daughter depends almost entirely on how attractive she is.
- Why would I marry? It's betting some chick half my net worth that I will love her for ever.
- I never give money to homeless people. I can't reward failure in good conscience.
- Some chick asked me what I would do with ten million bucks. I told her I'd wonder where the rest of my money went.
- Insider trading is like p***ing in the pool. It sounds dirty, but really isn't that big a deal.
- Imagine the feeling of winning the lottery and then losing everything. I know a few ex-girlfriends who can.
- I doubt alcohol kills more people than it creates.
- If riding the bus doesn't incentivise you to improve your station in life, nothing will.
- Don't get married until you're at least 35. You want a trophy wife, not a participation medal wife.
- Hermes ties are like Air Jordans for white people.
- Hot girls will never know if they are actually interesting or not.
- On Valentine's Day, send your girl flowers anonymously. If she doesn't mention anything, dump her.
Hiring a maid
Living in the Mandarin Oriental is great, but after a few months, I'm ready to move into my own apartment.
My first order of business is to find a maid. During my many 'Welcome to Asia' dinners, this becomes a frequent topic of conversation. At one, I am sitting next to the head of fixed income for Japan, who is visiting Hong Kong. 'Go to one of those agencies and they'll give you head shots to choose from,' he says. 'Then pick a young, hot Filipina.'
A friend of his has a maid who, having failed as an aspiring model, chose the next best thing: working as a live-in helper rather than have her visa revoked. This guy likes to make her dress up in ridiculously skimpy outfits for his weekly poker nights.
The next night, I'm having yet another dinner. I throw the advice out to the table. 'I think I'm going to get a hot maid.'
'That's terrible,' Rob Chen jumps in. 'We hired a young maid. One afternoon, I find my maid with some random guy - on my daughter's bed. Ugly and old is the only way to go.'
My mind is made up. Fortunately for me, Dennis Lipton offers to let me have his maid once he completes his move back to the US. She's old and she's hideous - perfect.
Maids in Hong Kong generally work 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. Their minimum wage is set at US$500, which also tends to be their maximum wage. For the most part, they live in storage rooms connected to the kitchen - their quarters can be so small that, to lie flat, they fold out a cot and sleep in the doorway straddling the kitchen and their room. They only have Sundays off. They save as much as they can to send back to their families in the Philippines.
My new maid, Fe, is ecstatic to have me as her sponsor, as I allow her to earn money on the side. She's making more than US$1,500 working for a few laid-back, single expats, who all travel frequently and aren't demanding. Having said that, I still have needs. Fresh orchids on the nightstands. My boxers and socks crisply ironed. Initially, I request clean towels and sheets daily; to minimise wear and tear on my linens, I cut that back to three times a week.
As bad as it might be, nothing is worse to a Filipina than working for a Chinese or Indian family, who tend to be cruel and relentless. They have been known to install locks on the outside of maids' quarters, and dock their wages arbitrarily. One guy sent his maid to live with his mother in Pakistan for eight weeks so she could learn his favourite recipes. I have to admit, the food at his house is amazing.
One day, Fe comes to me in a state of distress. She wants to stop working part-time for one of my friends. 'Mr Randall yell at me because I make mistake. He say I throw away his drugs too many times.'
I just start laughing and call him up. He's still seething. 'I left a bunch of coke out on a plate last night. The next day, when I get home, it's all gone. She cleaned everything up.'
I calm him down; and she agrees to not quit. But from that point on, she is diligent - with all of us. Any time she comes across a little white baggie in one of our pockets, she carefully places it on the nightstand. If there's coke laid out on the coffee table, she carefully cleans around it, even making sure to leave the residue that has spilt onto the table ' just in case we get desperate.
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