In recent years there has been a growing curiosity about why, in 2008, so many financial assets went up in smoke. Consequently it seems that the cultural marketplace is now more receptive to books, films, magazines—even theory—attempting to shed light on the mysterious workings of money markets. David Graeber provided a radical anthropological examination of some of the underlying issues in his book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. The Brooklyn magazine, n+1, conducted a series of very candid interviews with a hedge fund manager, and the result became Diary of a Very Bad Year. Even Margaret Atwood joined in with her witty tome, Payback. And few in North America, anyway, can have failed to see the ubiquitous posters for the new Scorsese-di Caprio collaboration, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Money has never been so big! Debt is, perhaps, even more popular!
Seeing fertile territory here, three Frenchmen have teamed up to bring us a gripping new graphic novel, part thriller and part explication of a very complicated world. Hedge Fund: Les Hommes D’Argent is volume one of a trilogy by illustrator Patrick Hénaff, author Tristan Roulot, and story consultant and co-creator Philippe Sabbah, released here in Quebec this month.
What I admired most about this work was its refusal to glorify its protagonists, while simultaneously acknowledging the intoxicating mix of risk, power and massive rewards that entice some of the world’s smartest and least scrupulous people to embark on careers in high finance. On the very cover, Hedge Fund announces an utterly different aesthetic from the posters for The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s hero is smug and handsome, foregrounded against a backdrop of revelers, many of them half-naked women. The protagonist of Hedge Fund, by contrast, is seen utterly alone in silhouette against a row of computer terminals, and beyond, innumerable tiny sparks from the windows of Hong Kong officer towers.
Franck Carvale is something of an everyman. When we meet him, he’s trying and failing to earn his stripes as a purveyor of high-priced insurance products. We learn that back home in France his father is embroiled in legal wranglings over 30,000 euro. Franck is essentially couch-surfing in a tiny apartment belonging to Kate, a rich former lawyer who has dedicated herself to working for a noble cause—developing prosthetics for children who are victims of landmines. At night, Franck goes out with his friend, Alex, and the duo attempt to woo beautiful air stewardesses from Cathay Pacific. Invariably they are passed over in favour of much richer men.
It’s quickly established that the financial markets of Hong Kong are fuelled by machismo and competition. At one point, a young trader called T-J has sex with a woman in front of a cheering audience. The woman is pressed over the hood of a Ferrari. The Ferrari, it turns out, belongs to an older, senior trader called Andrew Campbell. His resulting fury leads to a longstanding rivalry with T-J, which Franck is later able to use to his advantage.
Yes, this is a world of fast cars and casinos and expensive escorts. But the plot transcends mere surface glamour. It is also very interested in the workings of the system. Enter the shadowy figure of Bilkaer, an old, powerful trader who plucks Franck from relative loser-dom, polishes him up (new suit, new knowledge, new contacts) and propels him toward success. In so doing, he provides in dramatic fashion a clue (to the rest of us) as to how this seemingly abstract business actually works. His early monologue about the world of speculation is one of this book’s many gems :
Imagine une cour de récré. Il y a un gamin qui collectionne les billes. Il les a toutes, sauf une, la plus rare : la bleue ! Et il est prêt à payer un prix fou pour l’avoir, mais ceux qui l’ont ne veulent pas s’en séparer… Toi, tu la lui vendrais bien, cette foutue bille bleue, mais tu ne l’as pas. Par contre, tu sais de source sûre que le marchand de jouets va en recevoir toute une cargaison dans une semaine. Et à ce moment-là, elle ne vaudra plus rien.
On ne peut pas vendre quelque chose qu’on n’a pas. Mais on peut vendre quelque chose qu’on a emprunté. Alors tu vas trouver quelqu’un dans la cour qui va te prêter cette bille bleue, juste pour une semaine. Et là, tu vas la vendre plein pot au collectionneur… Une semaine plus tard, tu l’achètes pour trois fois rien au marchand de jouets et tu la rends au gamin qui te l’avait prêtée. Tu auras alors réalisé un énorme profit en vendant quelque chose que tu n’as jamais eu… Remplace les billes par des actions, et tu as compris le principe de la vente à découvert, la clé de voûte de toute spéculation à la baisse. Pigé?
Imagine a playground. There is a kid who collects marbles. He has all of them, except one—the rarest : the blue one! And he is prepared to pay an obscene price to have it, but those who have the blue ones don’t want to part with them… You [Franck], of course you’ll sell it to him, this fucking blue marble, but you don’t have it. However, you know from a credible source that the toy market is going to receive a shipment of blue marbles in one week. And at that point, blue marbles will become practically worthless.
You cannot sell what you do not own. But you can sell something that you have borrowed. And so you’re going to find someone in the playground who will lend you his blue marble for just a week. You sell this for a big price to the collector… A week later, you buy a blue marble for next to nothing on the toy market and you give back to the kid the blue marble that he lent you. You’ve made an enormous profit out of something you never owned… Replace marbles with stocks and you’ve understood the principle behind short selling, the key to all speculation on falling assets.
With telling explanations like these, the contributions of Philippe Sabbah–a banking expert–ensure Hedge Fund is so much more than a thriller.
Books about money are almost as difficult to pull off as, say, films about computing. An unschooled audience can feel deterred by the apparent insider knowledge required to fully appreciate the plot. But that’s never the case here. We come to better understand the system, which in no way devalues our investment in the plot, which is considerable.
Hénaff’s illustrations zero in on fraught moments—the heat of an argument, the smile of triumph on a trader’s face—while also pulling back often enough to allow us to appreciate the setting: the Hong Kong waterfront, a cavernous nightclub, a sterile airport lounge. Author, Roulot, understands the need to make the characters more than simply pawns in some kind of manic chess game, and so provides numerous illuminating details. When we first meet him, Campbell is distraught that his beloved Australian rugby team has been massacred by the hated Springboks, the national team of South Africa. «Fifteen years ago we wouldn’t have even let them on our fields, your team of Nazis!» he yells at T-J.
In this highly cosmopolitan tale, at each turn of the page the stakes get higher and higher—and Franck’s connection to productive reality becomes a little more tenuous. Without ruining any of the plot, I think it’s fair to say that by the time we see him jetting off to New York at the end of this volume, we’ve witnessed something quite spectacular. Franck’s ascendancy is based not simply on greed and ambition, but on faithfully playing his part in a system that requires profit to be made regardless of the human consequences.