Ch.1 Thrown a Lifeline to Escape the Mundane
It’s Friday, midnight. I’m riding home from the Steyne Hotel, Manly Beach, grogged out of my mind after an evening at the Round Bar, smashing pints, yelling at footy games. The usual. Pedaling my BMX (with pegs) along Manly beachfront, to my right, whitewater bounces in the moonlight, to my left, heavily sea-salted air is misting around street lamps and infiltrating car engines. My mobile rings, more numbers on the screen than the screen can hold. Who the hell is this?
“Hello” I stammer, pulling the thrasher to a stop.
“Hi, am I speaking with Flynn James?” The razor sharp voice of some Englishman barks down the line. Sober up Flynn. Fast.
“Yes, Flynn here. How can I help you?” That was fairly convincing. I hope.
“Great, great. OK, I’m Steve Pemberton, head of recruitment at Scion Commodities. I received your CV, excellent stuff mate. Listen, I need you in Singapore next Saturday for an interview. I will send you an email, reply to my assistant cc’d and she will arrange the flights.” These words travel down the phone line as if it is the most normal, matter of fact, mundane conversation ever.
“Yes, OK. No problem…thanks.” I mean seriously, what the fuck?
“Good night.” He was gone. That was that.
I continue the short ride home, sporting the unmistakable glazed expression a dumb-fucker sports when he has no idea what is going on, but thinks he can work it all out if he just holds that feeble stare long enough. Sit in an exam hall and watch the vacant gazes of all the poor battlers who inhabit the lion’s share of the bell curve. This stare is unavoidable.
I’d sent a CV off merely a week earlier to a Swiss commodities company advertising for junior trading positions in their oil and metals trading arms. I’d sent plenty of CV’s around the financial world juggernaut, usually to receive no answer or, occasionally, be sent some pithy reply, often months later, at best, about lowering headcounts, keeping ears to the ground, fingers on pulses, things in loops, synergies, blah, blah, total unrequited blah.
I had previously worked in an investment bank for three years trading precious metals derivatives, whatever the hell they are, sneaking my way on to the trading floor via a global markets traineeship. I was eventually turfed via the joys of international banking mega mergers and was now back doing what I hated…physiotherapy. Don’t get me started. I’ll come back to that little topic some other time if I’m completely bereft of ideas and want you to stop reading. Suffice to say, when you’re 18 years young, wide eyed, simple minded and commercially useless, it is no time to be choosing career paths. Although studying physiotherapy at Sydney University was a great way to see and touch scantily clad young ladies in the noble pursuit of mastering anatomy.
I wake up Saturday morning to Steve’s email outlining various flight options Sydney to Singapore. This hadn’t been some drunken reverie on the ride home. I reply with option number 3; Take off 8am Saturday from Sydney, land in Singapore at 2pm, head to a 3pm interview, wrap that up by 4.30pm and be taking to the skies on the 10pm flight home, straight to Sunday brunch. Seriously.
Only yesterday I was tooling around being a physiotherapist, pretending to give a flog about ruptured tendons, torn muscles, arthritic joints and how much they can hurt when the right person decides to crank up the pain perception volumes in their misery-focused thoughts and grace me with their half naked presence. My destiny was never supposed to comprise being subjected daily to these whining, brain-dead, pain worshippers looking at me for answers, some sympathy at the very least. Listen, I don’t care! Shut up. Toughen up. Piss off. Surely there was a better way to fill the years between graduation and retirement than this.
But, to fulfill life’s two certainties, death and taxes, an obvious requirement is the need to make a buck. ‘No mun, no fun’. No taxes though, that is compelling. No food either, dammit. The cursed swings and roundabouts. But if you’re put on this Earth to make money, why settle for a pittance by feeling up old ladies when you could be making shitloads playing with someone else’s hard earned? Greed is good, a modern necessity really. And when you’re university qualified with postgraduate icing on the supposed money making cake, it’s soul destroying that simply paying for rent, food and a few alcoholic refreshments is enough to clear the bank balance.
Trading is the quickest way I know to become flush with cash and now I have a chance to get back in the trading game. You fucking beauty! I have to nail this. Where is the CV I sent them? What garbage have I spewed in their direction that they think is so excellent?
Ch.2 The Geneva Simulator
I grab my suitcase and hold my head side on as I wave Dad goodbye. I walk on in to complete all the usual checking-in, scanning-thru, form-filling sort of rigmarole that’s required to board a plane. My business class ticket does entitle me to wait for my flight in the business class lounge. Air travel, the true bastion of class division and social inequality. So civilized. Regardless of how much money I could ever make, there will never come a point where I could justify forking out the cash required to fly any other way but in the cramped confines of cattle class. But when someone else wants to foot the bill, then please, pass the caviar.
I arrive in Geneva on Monday afternoon, feeling a million bucks. Anyone with the audacity to whinge about business class travel can fuck right off. Once I’m checked in at the hotel, I set off walking through town, around the lake, Geneva on a Monday afternoon in late spring, gorgeous. To be perfectly honest, it’s a pretty odd place. Signs everywhere for ridiculously overpriced watches and handbags, serious looking people carrying briefcases, baguettes and stern faces. 17 francs for a ham and cheese croissant, that seems a bit pricey.
Groups of peeved looking black youths abound on street corners, looking menacing, freestyle rapping in French. I hesitate a moment, assessing the pedestrian tunnel ahead, Nigerians hanging out all around it. CNN-pre-programmed-racism is powerful stuff. Ah fuck it, I may as well, live a little.
I loosen the grip on my wallet as I stroll through and off down the street, Mont Blanc smiling down in the distance.
Tuesday morning, 9am, I’m seated in a large boardroom with 17 other candidates. It’s safe to assume the table is mahogany. Steve wasn’t kidding, the UN would be proud to see such diversity in a room. I’m scared shitless, mega-litres out of my depth, certain to vomit any moment. Yeah, I’m ready. Along the walls stand a group of maybe a dozen Scion staff, all gents, one steps forward to the end of the table.
“Welcome, everyone. We’re delighted to have you here. I’m Steve Pemberton, head of global recruitment and in charge of our junior trader program. I’ve spoken with all of you over the phone and will be sure to meet each of you today. Firstly, congratulations on being here, we received close to 5,000 applications, no easy task assessing all of those, but much more difficult to stand out in such a big crowd, so, well done. Secondly, I want you to enjoy today. It will be stressful, no question. We will be assessing every single thing you do, which is obviously awful. Please, be yourselves, and just enjoy the challenge. And finally, if successful, we want you to slot straight into a trading desk, learn the ropes in the shortest time possible and be trading metals, oil or both in a commercial role in the very near future. I will now hand over to Mr. Joel Ryan, our Head of Far East Trading and Senior Director.”
“Thanks Steve. Welcome once more everyone. You are all obviously tremendously gifted and smart. Today, we want to see how you react to situations, which we deem critical in the successful day-to-day functioning of a physical commodities trader. There are 18 of you here today. If you are all exceptional, we will hire all of you, if you are all atrocious, we will hire no one. There is no quota. So please, you are not in competition with each other. Do your best, have fun. Myself and a whole bunch of other senior traders and members of Scion will be asking you questions and assessing your every move throughout the three tasks we’ve arranged for today. As Steve said, this is awful for you. Sorry. It’s critical in assessing you. I will now pass over to David Simmons. He is in charge of the nitty-gritty of how today will work. Listen closely. Enjoy. Good luck.”
David steps forward and outlines ‘Simulation Day’. Game one is an individual task, lasting 84 minutes, divided into twelve 7-minute trading windows, each window designed to represent one trading week, twelve windows designed to replicate a 3-month trading period. We will receive an email at the start of each window containing information about all manner of events and will have until the 6:59 mark of that window to ring one of the brokers (i.e. one of the Scion people seated in the room, manning the phones) and buy or sell January or February crude oil futures contracts or January or December gasoline futures contracts. The email will contain the opening price of the crude and gasoline futures, as well as various other pieces of market information. Prices may shift throughout the 7-minute window. Markets rely on prices moving otherwise traders face extinction.
Each candidate will have two computer screens to work with, one with an email account to receive the 7-minute-ly updates, the other with an excel spreadsheet to use as a trading blotter. We will also have a notebook, pencil, calculator and a phone to call the brokers. At all times, a Scion trader will be seated next to each candidate, asking questions and assessing, while other Scion staff will be roaming the room, asking questions if they want to, and assessing from afar.
David finishes his outline of the next 84 minutes with, “it’s not necessarily about making money, it is about being able to articulate your strategic reasons for the trades you make and reacting to the news and price movements throughout and placing new trades accordingly. Taking profits, stopping losses, increasing or decreasing exposures.”
Despite this pep talk, I’m sure if you do make a lot of imaginary money that has to help your well-paid-cuntiness prospects.
Ch.3 Treading Water in the Deals Lane
“Cheers to the new boy, Flynn.” Joel raises his glass.
“Cheers.” I join the chorus with my new workmates from crude oil and derivatives trading. And why not, cheers to me. I’ve arsed my way through yet another day, have not fucked anything up too severely, even the July hedges were apparently without error. I’m still on track for trading greatness and now have a pint of tiger to lubricate any grave thoughts regarding the churn and burn nature of the industry I’m now a part of.
We’re gathered around a bench in the early evening happy hour glow of an Irish pub overlooking the sullied, steamy waters of Boat Quay. There’s an ice cold, air-conditioned bar inside, completely empty of customers. My drinking buddies couldn’t possibly enjoy the indoor comforts. Their nicotine addictions render the great outdoors the only viable location for downing alcohol.
The Singapore crude trading team comprises Keith Wang and Huan Lee. I hope that I don’t spend too many hours chuckling at Keith’s surname. Obviously it’s hilarious, Wang, gold, but Keith is one fucking serious looking fella. He is Singaporean, but as I’m quickly realizing, being Singaporean can mean just about anything. Most likely, it means you’re of a Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and English combination of descents. He seems reasonably calm with a pint of tiger in his grasp, but I’ve watched him through the afternoon inflicting certain ulcers on his gastric lining, and brokers’ alike, as he yelled orders and spat instructions down his broker box. My sympathy is with the brokers who mixed up his orders. When Keith speaks, it is incomprehensible unless you are fluent in English and Mandarin, which I guess I am. According to my CV at least.
Meanwhile, Huan Lee is the picture of cool. Sure, he’s been dealt a poor hand in the looks department. To a Lord of the Rings fan, Huan resembles a less malnourished Asian version of Gollum. A modeling career was never on the cards, my precious, but he is a silky smooth character, swigging on his tiger, drawing on his Marlboro, chatting with the sort of polished international accent gained from an English college tertiary education mixed with a youth dedicated to US gangster rap.
My original interviewer Andrew is here too. He trades fuel oil, not crude or derivatives, but felt compelled to pop along for a few pints, having met me at ground zero when I was in the interview stages, as well as to feed his alcohol dependence. He’s from Durban, is a rugby fanatic and alarmingly racist considering the two crude traders are quite obviously Asian and standing right next to him.
A fellow Australian, Paul Maher, is the oil derivatives trader for whom I’ll be deals desking. He is a no-nonesense kind of bloke, heart on the sleeve, beer in the hand, ciggie in the ear, fists of fury in dispute resolution sort of man. I like him. Within moments of shaking hands and about to wallow in the obligatory small talk requisite when meeting new people, he instead launches into a merciless diatribe of the debacle which is the Mumbai office.
They routinely cost him small fortunes by managing to ‘lose’ his trades… yeah, his trades just ‘go missing’ between being executed on the exchange and traveling through cyber space to the world’s second most populous nation for settlement and reconciliation. These David Copperfield trades then usually ‘turn up’ moments before expiry or when they’ve become heavy losses. Fucking beauty. I will now be taking care of all his trades, risk reporting, positions management, etc and he makes it clear that it will be impossible to be worse than the Mumbai-ans, but his shouting will be far more intense face-to-face as opposed to over the phone, “so don’t fuck anything up, mate”.
Joel takes charge after the fourth tiger pint and says we should dine at a Japanese place nearby, Kinki’s. Noone argues. Kinki’s raunchy title doesn’t quite match the sumo wrestler on the restaurant’s signage. No funny business or pole dancing here, this is a ‘Japanese with an urban attitude’ restaurant overlooking Marina Bay. We’re seated at a table for the six of us by the window. It’s now 8.45pm. The Marina Bay light show sprays neon through the night sky and across the harbour as Joel orders a combination of dishes for the group as well as six Asahi’s, two jugs of sake and asks for the wine menu. Before I have a chance to feign marvel at the light show, plates of sushi, bottles of beer and ceramic cups of sake arrive.
“Gents, grab your sake. To Flynn, welcome.” Joel leads the way and we each shot our sake in unison. As my first hit of sake makes its way south, Joel is already refilling everyone’s ceramics. “One more to Paul.” Swig. Refill. “To Keith.” You get the picture, six sake shots in sixty seconds. Nicolas Cage lost in Fukushima. I’m wasted, but the drinks keep coming. Joel is now in possession of three bottles of red, pouring us all hefty glasses in between ordering us to shot more Sakes and to eat more ‘faggy’ sushi.
I’m thumped to life by the blaring of my 6.30am alarm on the Blackberry drumming bedside. Piss off. I fling my arm and magically hit the snooze button. Bullseye. I’m lying prostrate, palms by my side facing the ceiling while my neck is jammed at ninety degrees, peering out from my pillow through the window to the glares of the waking sun next to that fucked up floating serpentine. Hangovers like this shouldn’t be possible on a Tuesday morning.
“Mmm, good morning.” I roll over. There is a blonde with flawless fake breasts, zero clothing and crystal blue eyes, “I have very fun night. You very nice, crazy man. I had such a fun.”
Who the hell is this chick? And where did she learn English? Her language teacher should be ashamed.
“That’s great. Listen, I have to get to work. I got your number yeah?”
“You don’t want fuck?”
She rolls my aching body over and straddles me, rubs her cement bolt-ons in my face and with both hands violently pulls her blonde hair towards the ceiling as she arches her back and grinds me. My hangover vanishes as I search alcohol-fortified memory banks for any idea of who this girl is. She starts screaming, loud, licking her fingers and telling me to fuck her harder. I try my best, that’s all anyone can ask of you right, and down her in my morning glory with impressive speed. You’re welcome. I roll away a load lighter, oddly well prepped for day two on the path to international commodities trading superstardom, and walk to the shower.
I try in vain to wash myself. I doubt a liberal dose of nivea visage exfoliant over the loins will clean me sufficiently. I hop out, dry off, shave and head back to the kitchen for some breakfast. The blonde, name unknown, is sitting by the kitchen bench in a little black dress and pink stilettos, brushing her head of sex hair and looking extremely whorish.
“So, you pay me now, yes?” Ah, for fuck’s sake.
The five-minute walk to the train platform is more than a tad discomforting. I suppose that’s inevitable. It’s not customary for my journey to work to include being mistaken for a pimp. There’s a Citibank ATM at the station, $300 SGD and this debacle can be over.
It’s a blessing barely a soul in Singapore actually knows me. Imagine dear Nan was part of the throng of public transporters walking past right now. Sure, I’m copping plenty of raised eyebrows of curious approval from male gawkers, and even though Jesus was praised for associating with prostitutes, I’m fairly certain none of the horrified women walking past will be following me to Galilee.
I hand the blonde the cash, not bothering to ask her name, how rude, though she mustn’t care too much for such etiquette, she kisses my cheek and asks me to marry her. I politely decline. Shame, she might have been the one. I escape through the turnstiles and continue solo down to the train platform.
I walk up the stairs at Raffles Place station with the balance of a new born giraffe thanks to a resurgent hangover beating drums through my temples while images of bouncing silicone play on repeat in the front, centre and rear of my thoughts. Day two, I’m ready. It takes more than a hangover and the need for an urgent STD test to sour my mood.