GSElevator crashes into Hong Kong financial markets
John Lefevre’s account of his time as a bond syndicate manager in Asia lifts the lid on some sordid personal and inappropriate professional activities. But beyond the shock factor, it’s the humour in the book that stands out.
When John Lefevre, a formerly Hong Kong-based fixed income banker at Citi, was unmasked as the man behind the famed @GSElevator Twitter feed last year, within a week he was stripped of a book deal he had signed.
Having read the book Straight to Hell, which is about to be launched under a new publisher, one can begin to understand why the first lot got cold feet.
Straight to Hell chronicles Lefevre’s adventures with Salomon and Citi from New York to London and mainly Hong Kong, and is in essence a 300-page account of abysmal behaviour.
He flinches from nothing: the Herculean inappropriateness of trading-floor antics, the hookers, the cocaine. Such is his openness about the profligacy of his drug use that if Lefevre was not American, one suspects he would be banned for life from America.
Some of the stories are extremely funny. On a European bond roadshow on a private jet, Lefevre finds himself battling an urgent bowel movement and eventually begs for a toilet, only to find that the plane doesn’t have one, save for an emergency facility that turns out to be not only within the open cabin but beneath the seat of the roadshow client’s CFO.
Out of options, he evicts her from her seat to let nature take its course, separated from his colleagues and the people paying his fees by a small curtain.
Others are revealing, particularly the accounts of open sabotage among fellow bookrunners on conference calls with issuers. I can recall reporting on the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s plans to issue a sovereign bond and had little idea that the bookrunners, on their frequent conference calls with the Vietnamese government, had recorded a load of farmyard noises which they would play during other people’s comments on market guidance, forcing the speaker to claim to be on a due-diligence trip to Indonesia or stuck in New Delhi airport with a rabid dog.
Some are flat-out objectionable: sexist and cruel, from mocking the dwarves who work in Manila’s notorious Hobbit House to driving – and crashing – while wasted in a Maserati, and goading prostitutes to hold their hands on scalding-hot plates for a game. (Lefevre generally paints himself as a spectator to the very worst of it.)
And then there’s the tales of collusion on bond fees, rigging of allocations to clients during the bookbinding process, and hiring of Asia ‘princelings’ just because of the improved chances of winning mandates from their elders, that might well attract the attention of regulators and thereby proffer the most lasting impact of the book.
What redeems the material is what Lefevre does with it, or rather, what he doesn’t. He doesn’t try to find meaning or art in it, which frankly nobody has been able to pull off since Liar’s Poker; he doesn’t apologize for it, and he most certainly does not seek redemption from it.
Just like the Twitter feed, the book just puts the information out there without judgement or explanation, which is the right thing to do: it would have been sorely disappointing and transparently false to find an epilogue full of glib atonement. What the epilogue actually says – and this is verbatim – is: “I remain unapologetic for all that I saw and did. I enjoyed the fuck out of it.”
The fun part for those in the industry is figuring out who the real people behind the pseudonyms and the blacked-out redacted text are. Regrettably, Euromoney’s lawyers have a similar view on these things to Lefevre’s, so our conclusions on the guilty parties can’t be printed, but for those in Hong Kong there is a familiar cast of characters populating the Captain’s Bar and Wan Chai.
In truth, many of the best lines are the ones that preface each chapter drawn straight from the Twitter feed. There’s something about the truncated pithiness of the 140-character Twitter limit that suits the bull-headed bluntness of investment banking: no room or need for context or explanation, just the one-liners.
But the one that made me smile the most was the dedication: “To my wife and children. I wrote this for you, on the condition that you never read it.”
This book is going to annoy and offend a lot of people, with good reason. It is a vicious, vacuous, caustic world he illuminates. But it would be a shameful waste if we didn’t have Lefevre to find the humour in it all.