Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Buy Side by Turney Duff - Book Review

The Buy Side A Wall Street Trader'sTale of Spectacular Excess by Turney Duff (Crown Busness, 2013, 320 pages, $26,00) can be read as a cautionary tale of the risks and rewards of success on Wall Street, a history of a time that may have seen its end with the past few years of struggle in the markets, a Dante-esque vision of the inevitable corruption that occurs when too much money and too little regulation and restraint co-exist, or merely the story of one man who could not resist the allures of the world in which he functioned. I choose to see all of the above and more in this disturbing and compelling account by Turney Duff of his years of self-destructive behavior as a hedge fund trader on buy side during the most recent go-go years of wall street from the late eighties to the crash of the 2007 and 2008.

Turney Duff's tale begins in January of 1984 when he is an eighth grader whose father has decided to travel through a snow storm to take him to a wrestling practice he doesn't want to attend at the local high school . His picture of a cold, demanding, undemonstrative man establishes the “search for father” theme he chooses to pursue as his primary motivation throughout his spectacular rise and fall. Duff is paired against several members of the team, pinning each before being pinned himself by the team's star. He never wrestles again, choosing to play football, a sport of which his father disapproves and never sees him play, in both high school and college. He floats through Ohio University in Miami majoring in English before heading for New York, where he imagines himself in a career as a writer. After some months of rejection, he calls upon an uncle in the investment business who opens enough doors for him to gain entrĂ©e into the world of Wall Street, for which he has no relevant training or experience except to follow his uncle's advice and to tell potential employers that he wants to sell. He also has an extremely likable personality.

Duff's Wall Street career begins when he is accepted as an intern at an investment house where he's the only new hire without an MBA or an Ivy League degree. According to him, he's told to watch, learn, and practice. He finds the excitement of the trading floor the most attractive place to be, and a mentor tells him he won't be asked to take a role on a trading team, he must sell himself to its members. Thus begins his upward rise. Eventually he becomes a specialist in health care stocks and becomes trader on the buy side, that is he purchases stocks from all over the Street, a position which places him in the position of making other people wealthy. The power of such a position is that it makes the sellers romance him in order to gain his attention and orders. The attraction, apparently from every corner of the investment community, and competition for his largess is fueled at first by free dinners, tickets to games, trips, and copious amount of alcohol. Soon the attractions are also unlimited access to beautiful women and lots of cocaine. Throughout this period of increasing success, Duff pictures himself as something of an iconoclast, dressing in hipster, if not bizarre fashion, in a world of rock and roll and hip hop music. Frequently he describes his suppliers as friends who just naturally give him everything that feeds his worst instincts, but, while getting all the accouterments that fulfill his fantasies finding himself to be empty during rare moments of self-examination.

Meanwhile, without actually detailing anything that looks like the hard work of learning about the products he buys and sells, he continues to move to upwardly mobile hedge funds where he makes untold amounts of money, culminating in a chapter of the book which consists only of a photograph of a bonus check for 1.8 million dollars. Duff's life careens downwards while his success apparently continues unabated as he spends money without thought in his urge to fill what he perceives as his emptiness. Meanwhile he takes on a full time girlfriend (unbelievably beautiful, of course) and thoughtlessly conceives a child. The Buy Side stands in intriguing counterpoint to John Coates' The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, a thoughtful study of risk taking among traders in a large brokerage house. Coates explores the effects of risk taking, winning and losing, and large swings in the movements of the market from the perspective of how our biology effects our ability to make effective decisions. Coates writes about the euphoria that ensues when testosterone and adrenaline course through a trader's body, not unlike the experience that Duff appears to have had during his trading career. He also writes about the “instinct” that develops in experienced traders to time their trades effectively. Duff experiences the euphoria and the subsequent depression Coates describes, seeking to control and contain them in his incessant use of drugs, alcohol, and sex. He does so without insight or introspection.

Turney Duff

Turney Duff has worked on Wall Street since 1994, including at Morgan Stanley, the Galleon Group, Argus Partners, and J.L. Berkowitz. A graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, he has written and produced two short films. He currently lives in Long Island City, New York. He no longer works on Wall Street and tells me he has been sober for 3 1/2 years, during which time he was battled his worse demons and written the present volume, which he hope is the first, with more to come.
Eventually Duff's lifestyle catches up with him as he ends up in rehab with his life falling down around him. Writing his story and seem to be the extent of his therapy. Despite, or perhaps because, of the life Turney Duff leads, this book is intriguing and, at times, exciting. His hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyle may be attractive to some, but serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who looks and thinks. His suggestion that the lifestyle is inevitable doesn't wash, but Duff's experiences and character signal an essential internal state that serves as a warning. The book is at once highly entertaining and horrifying. The Buy Side A Wall Street Trader's Tale of SpectacularExcess by Turney Duff (Crown Busness, 2013, 320 pages, $26,00) is well worth the read, but may prove distasteful to some audiences. I received The Buy Side from the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelwiess.