A short-term investment in high-yield talentSep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By JOE QUEENAN
When writers become famous, it is easy to forget that they were once obscure, and sometimes very poor. Yet with few exceptions—Homer, Tacitus, Omar Khayyam, Jonathan Safran Foer—even the greatest writers had to slave away at menial positions before their careers took off and they could support themselves with their pens alone.
William Faulkner worked as a night watchman in a mine. Herman Melville delivered newspapers. Harper Lee was an airline reservations clerk. J. D. Salinger, after working construction at Madison Square Garden, was briefly employed as the entertainment director on a Swedish luxury liner. While waiting for fortune to smile upon them, many young writers took jobs far below their talents. George Eliot moonlighted as a seamstress. Suetonius sold figs. Herman Hesse spent three years as a bouncer at a tough Bremen nightclub called Das Boots und Dem Saddles. Even the immortal Aeschylus interned as a hod carrier during summer vacations in Egypt.
One little-known field where our greatest writers marked time while waiting for their ship to come in was financial analysis. Such luminaries as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Simone de Beauvoir, and Gabriel García Márquez all worked as financial analysts for major brokerage houses in the United States, England, France, Switzerland, and (in García Márquez’s case) Caracas and Puerto Vallarta. Their job was to collate raw materials supplied by the firm’s top research analysts and write them up in clear, levelheaded reports that were then sent off to wealthy investors. In effect, they were hired as ghosts.
Usually, these jobs did not last very long. To their employers’ great displeasure, the writers regularly deviated from the arid, boilerplate language that was considered de rigueur at the time, instead writing up the reports in needlessly colorful and often quite inventive prose. The fruits of their labors are now on display on the mezzanine level of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
What is most remarkable about the work is the extent to which the writers had already developed the prose styles for which they would soon become famous. Consider this section from a report on the European bond market penned by Ernest Hemingway when he was just 22 years old and doing an eight-month stint at a Toronto brokerage house:
Europe’s fiscal woes worry the Canadian investors. It is not fine to worry the Canadian investors, because if the Canadian investors worry about the leveraged-debt problems of Southern Europe, then the Americans will worry next, and after them the toreadors. This is not fine. It is fine to worry the toreadors a little, but it is not fine to worry them a lot. “Qué tal?” ask the worried picadors. “Qué tal?” ask the bartenders. The camerieri and the garçons and the chanteuses all worry about international sales exposure within the Dow. All of them say: “If the report on consumer durables is not fine today, will the report on cyclical goods and copper be fine tomorrow?”
Many other documents of this nature are on display. Here is the future Nobelist Albert Camus discussing valuation metrics in a 1932 report for the Algerian brokerage firm Tuareg & Fils: “There is no point in discussing valuation metrics,” he writes. “Not now. Not ever. There is no point in it. Life is completely and utterly meaningless, and valuation metrics cannot change that.” Needless to say, Camus was quickly shown the door. So, too, was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who got canned after his very first day on the job, after writing this snide report on 30-day moving averages:
Listen: The 30-day moving averages are moving. And so it goes. The 30-day averages are moving, all right. Moving. And so on. They are moving along at a zippy pace. Very zippy. And so it goes.
Though it was quite rare for women to work in the world of finance, Jane Austen spent four months at her uncle’s wire house in Winchester, where she generated a thought-provoking, albeit somewhat meandering, report on consumer durables, containing such extraneous asides as this: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man concerned about the direction of consumer durable prices, must be in want of a wife.”
One of the most fascinating reports on display in Paris has a gloomy 23-year-old Samuel Beckett offering his terse opinions on the advisability of buying zero-coupon bonds as a long-term investment for one’s children: “Buy zero-coupon bonds. Watch bonds fail. Buy more zero-coupon bonds. Watch bonds fail. Buy more zero-coupon bonds. More zero-coupon bonds. More zero-coupon bonds. Watch bonds fail. Next time, fail better.”
12:00 AM, Jul 26, 2014 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
Celebrating a fourth birthday and growing nicely. That’s the story of the Dodd-Frank law, designed to end a “too big to fail” banking system that forced taxpayers to bail out bankers who took not only their own banks but the entire financial system to the verge of collapse, and brought on a record recession. Dodd-Frank, which weighed in at over 2,000 pages at birth, has since put on 14,000 pages of implementing regulations, with more to come.
12:00 AM, Jun 28, 2014 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
To meteorologists, an inversion is a deviation from the normal change of an atmospheric property. It can lead to pollution and adverse health effects. To Wall Street dealmakers, and now to most boards of directors, an inversion is a cross-border merger that allows the buyer to reincorporate in a more tax-friendly jurisdiction.
5:03 PM, Jun 19, 2014 • By JIM SWIFT
In January during his State of the Union Address, President Obama unveiled his new myRA program. “Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401(k)s. That’s why ... I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: myRA,” he explained.
Obama’s inexplicable admiration for China’s infrastructure policy. Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By YING MA
President Obama likes to promote his domestic policy agenda by highlighting economic competition from China. In particular, he has repeatedly pointed to China’s massive infrastructure investments to tout his proposals for infrastructure spending in America.
September 15, 2008.11:58 AM, Sep 19, 2013 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Sunday was September 15. It's an important anniversary, because it's the day that gave us President Barack Obama.
The European Union’s coming attack on the Anglo-Saxon financial sector Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
Take a visit to the cyber-belly of the beast, to a website run by the European Commission, the EU’s bureaucratic core, and you will be told that “the financial sector was a major cause of the [economic] crisis and received substantial government support.” Soon it will be payback time, in the form of Europe’s new Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), set to be levied at a rate of 0.1 percent on equity and debt transactions, and 0.01 percent on trades in derivatives. It will ensure that the financial sector “makes a fair and substantial contribution to public finances.”
9:52 AM, Apr 27, 2013 • By JONATHAN SCHANZER
On Sunday, the leading experts on terrorism finance in the Middle East and North Africa will convene for a five-day conference. The Financial Action Task Force is essentially the United Nations for combating terror finance, and MENAFATF ranks among its most important regional bodies. So why is the group meeting, in all places, in Khartoum?
12:43 PM, Apr 8, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
For all the talk of "changing the culture in Washington," it appears to be business as usual ... only more so.
Revises downward GDP forecast.4:02 PM, Mar 20, 2013 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
In a press conference today, the Federal Reserve announced it will keep interest rates low and leave QE3 unchanged, continuing to buy $85 billion a month in bonds to prop up the economy.
We need a better argument against the massive federal debtFeb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
Politicians are not known for originality. In their public speech, most cling to the security of clichéd stock phrases the way toddlers hold fast to threadbare blankets.
9:04 AM, Jan 26, 2013 • By DANIEL HALPER
President Barack Obama pledged this morning in his weekly radio address to continue to crackdown on "irresponsible behavior."
"Here in America, we know the free market is the greatest force for economic progress the world has ever known. But we also know the free market works best for everyone when we have smart, commonsense rules in place to prevent irresponsible behavior," Obama began.
2:01 PM, Oct 19, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
Earlier today, the Obama campaign pushed around a story that they claimed proved Mitt Romney "was against the auto bailout...but personally [benefited] from it."
2:40 PM, Sep 5, 2012 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
Always looking "forward," President Obama has asked Bill Clinton—who was elected to the presidency 20 years ago—to speak tonight and suggest to the American people (whether explicitly or implicitly) that this is really a choice between Clinton and George W. Bush, rather than between Obama and Mitt Romney. If you're Obama, this beats running on your record.