The Bookish Banker: An Interview with The Epicurean Dealmaker

As we all know, the internet is filled with overlapping blogospheres that cater to different tastes. There’s the food blogosphere and the fashion blogosphere, one for sports and another for literature. There’s also the finance and economics blogosphere, which, like its peers, has its own distinct center of gravity and cast of characters. Among these is the anonymous investment banker who goes by the name The Epicurean Dealmaker. A fixture of the high finance commentariat, he’s known for holding forth on the scandals and headlines of the day with a droll, semi-Victorian persona equally happy to quote Yeats or explain merger math. He was featured in a well known 2010 New Yorker article by John Cassidy, “What Good Is Wall Street?”, where he was stuck with the task of interpreting the habits and behaviors of his colleagues to a frustrated country in the depths of recession. He counts among his Twitter followers Wall Street Journal and Financial Times columnists along with big-time money managers and has become an established authority on his industry for lay people and investment advisory firms alike.

I reached out to him over Twitter, and frankly was not expecting to hear a response. To my surprise, he got back to me pretty quickly. I corresponded with him over the next couple of weeks, and found him to be eager to talk, self-effacing and open about the particular niche his writing fills for his audience. We chatted about literature, his blog and his business. Some of my friends who work at big banks were pretty impressed when I told them.

How did the blog start?
The beginnings of my blog are shrouded in the mists of internet time. I dimly recall beginning to read certain online blogs like Marginal Revolution, Calculated Risk, and Going Private in the 2005-2006 timeframe and thinking–if not exactly that I could do that myself–that it might be quite nice to have my own soapbox. Part of it, I suppose, was driven by the sense I had that few people commenting or reporting online actually knew what the hell they were talking about when it came to finance. I thought I could actually add something valuable–or at least factual–to the conversation. Part of it was undeniably driven by boredom with the quotidian concerns and demands of my profession which, I am the first to admit, can be staggeringly sterile, routine, and blinkered. And part, of course, was driven by a desire to test whether I could write entertaining and informative prose, bolstered by the narcissistic conviction that I could. I started blogging in January 2007, and the world has been suffering miserably ever since.

When did you realize that it was starting to take off?
I’m not sure. The transition from being completely ignored to only mostly ignored has been a long and painful one. In the beginning, I actually tried to promote my blog by submitting entries to blog carnivals (do they even have those any more?). Later, I would put links to purportedly relevant posts of mine in the comment sections of popular blogs or online news feeds like Dealbreaker and The New York Times Dealbook. This often earned me temporary spikes in readership and some poor fools who signed up to email subscriptions or RSS feeds and forgot to cancel them. But for a very long time, I remember being thrilled when more than 200 people read my blog in a day. Now, a big day for me is over 1,000 visits, which is pathetic chump change in the world of online blogs. So I think we must admit that “take off” is a highly flattering and likely inappropriate description of whatever slim popularity I have garnered.

Your blog has a distinctive style. It’s ostensibly a finance blog, and its primary purpose is discussion of various aspects of your business, but it distinguishes itself from its peers through its sharply different tone and stylistic choices. Who are your literary influences, and how have they shaped the voice of the blog?
I don’t have conscious literary influences, in large part because I am just not that professional a writer. I guess you could call my technique intuitive. I do try to test my writing aurally, by reading it out loud in my head, but I often leave awkward phrasings untouched. Part of that is intentional, because I think clotted, overwrought prose can be funny. Part of it is lazy, because I can’t be bothered to edit myself thoroughly. And part of it is just experimental: trying out what works. I am the first to make fun of my own writing, probably because nobody else can actually understand it. It’s my signature style, for better or worse. Sometimes, when I am busy addressing a complicated, important topic, I eschew baroque stylings and try to write straightforwardly. But in those instances the content of my writing becomes dense of necessity. I guess you could call my signature style dense. In every sense of the word.

As far as influences, I have no idea. But as a reader I admire Chandler, Hemingway, Yeats, Austen, Pullman, Helprin, Wodehouse, Stoppard, and a billion others. I come from an autodidact, mainstream Ivy League education of many decades ago, so I am probably the opposite of a bog-standard MFA creative writing student (not that there’s anything wrong with them, necessarily). I have no professional training and no professional, third-party editing. It shows.

In one of your posts, you wrote that “a book, properly considered, is a recorded performance of a piece of literature.” Given that more and more people are engaging with literature through devices other than books, how do you see the prospects of the publishing industry at present? There are hugely successful franchises and bestsellers, but also clearly some serious challenges to the old model. 
I despair of the future of publishing as we know it. We have never had so many books as we do today, and we have never had so much dross and utter crap either. The mere idea of Fifty Shades of Grey makes me quasi-suicidal (then again, a chacun son gout). I love printed books, and as a failed visual artist I appreciate them as physical objects.  In my opinion, the physicality of printed books influences their aesthetic impact and presence. I am not a fan of electronic books, but I have several favorites loaded onto an ereader on my phone.  There are certain current books which I would like to read but have no interest having on my bookshelves, so I would be happy to buy or rent them in electronic form. I am not a big reader of current fiction–sorry, folks–because there is so much classical literature I have not read or would like to reread that I have no time or inclination to pursue it. I suppose you could call me a pragmatic Philistine. The only overarching truth is that I have far too little time to read what I would like to read. I have an entire library of unread books to prove it.

What are you reading right now? 
I recently finished Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, which I enjoyed but do not consider his best work (Winter’s Tale is).  I also just reread Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, the second and third novels in the Dune trilogy.  You may be interested to know I read these last two on my iPhone while traveling on business.  I am in between books at present, but I am weighing a number of non-fiction works.  I often pick up more than one book at once.  I probably read more nonfiction than fiction nowadays.  It tends to be in the areas of philosophy or science.

What’s your favorite work of literature and why?
I am not a person who has favorites, in any field. I consider my tastes in reading pretty broad, although they might strike many as pedestrian or middlebrow. I enjoy almost all of Hemingway’s novels and his short stories, Raymond Chandler’s novels, all of Jane Austen, many Arthur C. Clarke stories, some Asimov, and the early Dune trilogy by Frank Herbert.  I enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy very much, and I reread P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels regularly. I enjoy several works of the leading Russian writers. Joseph Conrad amazes me. In poetry, I admire Yeats, Eliot, Cavafy, Pushkin, and Neruda, although I consider myself very lightly read there. I have read very little serious fiction of the last fifty years, although I can’t really say why. I am not an admirer of trends, fads, or fashions in literature. Perhaps that’s it. A common theme seems to be that I enjoy a strong narrative story that engages my imagination. I will even read good storytellers who can’t write to save their lives if I must, but I much prefer skillful writers who can spin a good story without butchering the language.

You’re a self-proclaimed “dealmaker”, working primarily in mergers and acquisitions. Do you feel it’s important to understand human nature in order to facilitate these agreements? Is that one way in which literature is directly relevant to your work?
I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure literature is relevant to my profession. Most of the successful investment bankers I know and know of–while often extremely intelligent and occasionally well read–are staggeringly uninteresting individuals who are focused with singular intensity on their job. It is a very demanding job which requires a limited skill set. That being said, my peers in M&A and corporate finance do need to have good people sense. Perhaps extensive reading in literature helps with that, but I know many competitors who are immensely successful, while being for all intents and purposes illiterate. I’d like to think my own reading has helped foster some little sense of wisdom in me, which might or might not help me in my job, but I am grounded enough to know I may be full of shit. A chacun son gout, I say. I like books, and I would like them whether they help me do my job or not.

Are there any financial authors, journalists or bloggers that you can recommend for a non-finance audience that are not only informative, but also good writers? Are there writings on financial matters that you think have real literary value in their own right?
There are a number of nonfiction works I think are entertaining, informative, and reasonably well written, if mostly in a journalistic style.  Barbarians at the Gate is classic, When Genius Failed is amusing, and Too Big to Fail is an exciting blow-by-blow inside account of the recent financial crisis told by a journalist with close access to the actors involved. There are many others like these, and they mostly have the simultaneous virtue of actually conveying interesting information while being relatively quick and painless reads.  I think everyone interested in finance, markets, and the economy should read Felix Salmon’s blog at Reuters.  I do regularly.  Steve Randy Waldman intermittently writes fascinating, demanding work at Interfluidity which is dense, closely argued, and uniformly thought-provoking, but it is not for casual readers.  I list and link to these and many others on my own blog.  As far as serious literature, I think the best financial education can often be garnered from authors like Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray, who say almost nothing directly about money or finance, but whose works are steeped in the social consequences of wealth, money, and the pursuit of both.  Read between the lines, and you will learn a lot.

As one of only two well-known financiers with penchants for the classics and Wittgenstein, what are your thoughts on Nassim Taleb and his ideas?
I like, appreciate, and firmly believe the core observation Taleb promotes: that chance and uncertainty play a far larger role in our lives than we like to admit. I was and remain a huge admirer of Fooled by Randomness. Since that book, however, I have found his writing to be overwrought and overreaching. He writes of things like art–which I know and have thought about a great deal–like an arrogant outsider who is less interested in truth and subtlety than in promoting himself and his one-note idea. I am an implacable foe of hubris, and I fear that Taleb has fallen into a hubristic trap of his own making. I have not finished any of his work since Fooled By Randomness.

Given the huge role the financial services industry plays (or has come to play) in shaping the economy in which we all take part, do you think the general public needs to become more fluent in financial matters?
Honestly, I’m not so sure.  Finance in general actually plays a very small direct role in most people’s lives.  They bank, they save, they invest in mutual funds if they can.  As far as the markets, fiscal policy, and economic trends, sure, those have big and lasting effects on everyone’s lives, but what is the average Joe going to do about them?  Most of us are “price takers,” in economic argot, of such things: we take what’s offered and try to adapt to these huge impersonal forces.  I’m not sure investing a great deal of time and energy understanding them offers a good return on investment for most of us.  My industry has grown hypertrophied over the last several decades in response to a number of these trends, but I expect it to shrink over time.  Of course everyone who can should learn how to balance their checkbook, save, and invest wisely, but these are basic skills beyond my purview.

Will you ever “go public” with your identity?
Not in the foreseeable future.  I cannot while I am working in my field due to regulatory constraints and my duty of confidentiality to clients, and I do not anticipate retiring any time soon.  When I do retire, who knows?  I quite like writing, and it is hard to sustain a serious career in literature when your publisher doesn’t know where to send the royalty checks.

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  1. I enjoy reading TED, although he’s a quite an ineffective apologist for bankers. Being a senior M&A dealmaker is the business equivalent of SEAL Team 6. Based on the tone and the frequency and length of postings, seems as likely that he’s really doing that as it would be that he’s posting from a forward operating base in Afghanistan.

  2. I love TED. He’s wicked, witty, arrogant (but one of those deservedly so), and a valuable source for navigating all things financial. So many of the so-called “financial experts” in mainstream media shoved down our collective throats are anything but; TED is a refreshing, if sometimes brutal, Master. Long may he reign.

  3. He strikes me as an old-fashioned banker like the erstwhile ‘city gent’ but more than that a real renaissance man. After all modern banking originated at the same time and in the same place.