Fahrenheit 52

Way Out of the Money

Will pulled the black Aeron away from the desk. He took off his suit jacket and hung it on the back of the chair, just like everyone else, and sat down. Day 1, here we go. Will used his heels to shimmy into position in front of his double-monitor setup. Quadruple, actually, if you count the double-stacked Bloomberg he shared with his associate on his right. The Bloomberg computer required its own proprietary primary-colored keyboard and its screen looked like an ARPANET terminal from the 80s - Will thought it was badass.

He pulled himself in closer, and bumped his shoes into a cardboard box deep under his desk. The former printer-paper box now contained folders of potentially-precious copies, memos, and other handwritten notes, passed down to him from two generations of analysts on the desk. Will's ancestors. These papers were remants of past "special projects", invoked by the former head of his desk, Jack Dunn, who now ran the entire division. Will’s immediate predecessor warned him that, any any time, Jack may ask for some bit of information from that box and expect complete recall, as if the analysts had not been swapped out with entirely different human beings and were instead one single continuous collective memory. With luck, Will would never have to open the box and his next two years would pass and he simply would deliver the box to his successor with the same warning. Maybe Jack would never even talk to Will. That would be fine, thought Will. It’s not like he’s ever talked to me before.

This wasn't really Will's first day on the desk. He'd spent the last summer here for an internship. It had been the halcyon days of 2007, when a history major with a steady pulse could get a job on Wall Street. Will received two, despite responding to an alumni interviewer that he thought the Dow Jones had closed at "100" the day prior. One offer was on a desk doing something-something-mortage-backed-securities and the other was something-something with equities and capital. Will chose the latter, mostly because that bank had a branch in his hometown where Will’s 8th grade assistant coach for cross country worked and he loved that guy.

Will aced the internship despite never having opened a spreadsheet before, leveraging his earnest "I'm just happy to be here" New Jersey values. Will was the only intern who literally ran to the printer whenever his managing director printed something. But Will figured why else was he even there - it wasn't like they wanted his ideas.

Will's only near-catastrophy came during the second-to-last week of the internship, days before the coveted "job-offers" would be doled out. As long as you weren't a complete buffoon, the offer was basically a lock. But one of Will's peers had had a few too many at their last intern outing and supposedly spilled wine on the co-head of trading's white shirt, and everyone was pretty sure that Timmy from Duke was getting stiffed. Over the course of the summer, Will learned that one of his important intern-ly duties was placing the 30-odd-page selling memos on each of the auditorium chairs ahead of the internal IPO roadshow kickoff meetings with the sales department. Since it was near the end of the summer, Will had perfectly executed the task and was rewarded by being able to stick around to listen to the CFO of this food-processing-company give his canned pitch. Up to this point, Will had never even had time to read one of these selling memos, so this was going to be a treat. Maybe he'd actually learn something about quote-unquote business. As the CFO began his presentation, Will casually leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, accidentally triggering the light switch with his back. All the lights went off in the auditorium. Everyone gasped. Will turned around in panic and found that it wasn't a normal lightswitch - it was a bunch of little dip switches. Will frantically flicked them, unsure which was the correct switch, flickering the lights so much that the CFO on-stage joked that he thought he was having a seizure. He was pretty old, too, so Will thought he might even be serious. When Will finally figured it out and got the lights back on, the managing director next to him looked at Will and said, "Idiot."

But Will still got the job offer. Which, by the way, was impossible to decline.

"Don't you want to go back to senior year and not worry about a job search? Oh, and if you sign now, we'll throw in $10,000."

Will would have signed in blood.

"I just need to survive two years," thought Will as he logged into his Windows XP computer. Then he'd go to law school, or maybe business school. And, along the way, he'd probably be able to pay off some of his student loans.

But even that wasn't a given. It was the fall of 2008, and the times they were a-changin'. The stock prices of major Wall Street banks were plummeting. People were gettin’ fired. It was all the talk of the incoming analyst class, a looming unknown over their onboarding training sessions the weeks prior.

"I heard they're gonna fire anyone who doesn't pass this accounting quiz."

"Well, I heard the entire analyst class across the street is getting canned. I bet they're all wishing they took consulting offers.”

Will mostly ignored it all during training and focused on getting better at quickly formatting stuff in Microsoft Excel. But, still, he felt a small thrill at being part of history. This stuff, his company, was in the news. He was a history major, after all. Will vaguely recalled some quote about "living in interesting times." Will ended up getting pretty good at formatting spreadsheets after three weeks of training, but he was nowhere near as good as some of his analyst-mates. There was literally a competition, organized by the training operators, for fastest-turnaround of a sample spreadsheet. Will could never get it done in under 10 seconds, but he did make the important suggestion that their class's victor enter the competition with "Lose Yourself" blaring. This wizard shattered the record, and Will felt somehow proud for his contribution.

The phones started ringing and Will glanced up at the TV. The anchors were talking about options sales last spring. CNBC played 24/7 on the little TVs all over the trading floor, contributing to an overall sense of jitteriness. It was as if you couldn't lower your shoulders while on the floor. You were always stressed, always tensed up, always waiting something bad to happen. Options were a concept that Will knew he didn’t understand. One of those things you hope the teacher doesn’t ask about on the quiz.

"You! Come in here!"

Will looked up. The yelling seemed to be directed at him. And it was coming from Jack's glassed-in office.

Yep. Jack was staring at Will.

Will took a deep breath and went into Jack’s tiny office.

“Where’d you go to school?” asked Jack, tossing a small football into the air and catching it himself.

“Uh… UVA,” muttered Will. He wondered if Jack was going to toss the football over. He hoped he wouldn’t drop it, if so.

“So, you think you're smart?”


“Then why’d we hire you?”


Jack shook his head. “Oh boy.”

Will’s face flushed.

Jack shouted out the door at his assistant. “Roxy! Do you have those articles?”

She nodded and brought them in, standing next to Will.

“Give them to…” Jack stopped and gestured at Will.

“Uh… Will.”

“Right. Give them to Will. Thank you. Now, Will, I need you to do me a favor. Dan wants these brought to him upstairs. Can you do that for me?”

Will nodded. Dan. Upstairs. That could only mean Dan Black - the CEO. A legend. A lifer. A Zeus-like figure, who might fire you for not having a good answer to his question in an elevator.

“Good. You have ten minutes. Read these two articles quick, in case he has any questions about them. If you don’t know the answer, don’t make it up. You can call me, but… you don’t want to call me.”

“Yes. Okay,” said Will. What are they about?”

“Read ‘em. You saw that options sales story on the news, right? Go. Ask Seth to help if you want. Clock’s ticking.”

Will nodded again dumbly and walked out of the office with the two articles, which were both a lot of pages. Too many to read in the minutes he had. Maybe this Seth person could help. Will walked over to Seth, a young managing director who sat nearby.

“Hi. Jack said you could help me read these.”

“You can’t read?” Seth didn’t even look up.

Will sighed. “It’s for Dan Black. I’m supposed to bring these up to him. Do you mind reading one and I’ll read the other.”

“Fine.” Seth grabbed one of the articles. Will went back to his seat to read the other.

It was some sort of business profile on the CEO of a Wall Street bank that had collapsed the year before. Will didn’t understand the relevance of the article, but he tried to focus on any details that Dan might conceivably ask him about.

Then Jack came out of his office. “It’s on TV again.”

Will looked up. The options story. It was about the same bank whose CEO Will was reading about. An investigation was happening into a suspicious option sale during the banks collapse.

“Are you getting this, Will?”

Will nodded at Jack. But he was not getting this in the slightest. He did realize, however, that, of the two articles, the one he was reading was useless. The other article, the one he gave to Seth, must be explaining this options situation.

“Will, you’d better go.”

It was Roxy. Jack’s assistant. Will glanced over at Jack’s office. The door was shut and he was on the phone.

Will walked over to Seth’s desk. Seth was not reading the article. The article was flopped on Seth’s desk.

“So, hey, do you mind summarizing the article for me?” asked Will.

“You only gave me five minutes…” said Seth.

He hadn’t read it. Wonderful, thought Will. Will snatched it from Seth’s desk and walked towards the aisle, the towards the exit, and the towards the elevators, where he would find his impending dismissal from the company on his first day.

Will boarded the elevator, headed down to the ground floor so that he could transfer to another set of elevators that would usher him to the upper levels. As the door was shutting, a hand burst through and someone came in.

“Hey, I’m Matt. Saw the whole thing with Jack. Figured you need some help.”

Matt sat behind Will. He was an associate or some mid level role.

“Yeah, oh my god. Thank you. I’m supposed to bring these up to Dan and like explain them if he asks about them but I literally have no idea what’s going on.”

“Okay, got it. I got you. I’m from Jersey, too, by the way. Heard you telling someone where you’re from. Here’s the deal.”

Matt explained the options story to Will. Essentially, the stock price of this bank went from something like $100 to $1 in a matter of days. Something shocking, something that would have been considered impossible given the stature of this bank. But that’s not the story. The story is that there was some options trade where someone bought “put options” around $30 price point when the stock was still around $100. A put option, Matt explained, gives you the right to sell stock at a certain price. You would want to use that option if the market price was way below the sell price. Will nodded. This sort of made sense to him. It sounded like things he’d read about corn farmers doing with their crop sales in the 1900s. Buying a put option by itself isn’t the story, explained Matt. The story is that the option had an expiration of something like 36 hours. The only way this trade would have made sense would be if exactly what happened to the bank happened exactly on this timeline. Someone either predicted the future or…

The elevator dinged. They were on the executive floor, obvious by the wood panels and fancy art hung on said wood panels.

“Good luck, kid.” Matt smiled and nudged Will out of the elevator.

Will opened the glass door and walked up to the executive reception.

“Hi, I’m here to bring these to Dan.”

“I’m sorry but we have a strict dress code requirement on this floor. Do you have your suit jacket?”

Will looked down. His jacket was on the back of his chair, dozens of floors below them. He looked up at the receptionist with dread.

“No problem. We have a closet of jackets you can borrow.”

Will donned a slightly too small jacket and took directions over to Dan’s office.

Will could see Dan in his office. Will made eye contact and then looked away quickly. He started to head in, when Dan’s phone rang. Dan got up and shut the door in Will’s face.

“I can take those and give them to Dan, if you’d like.”

Will nodded vigorously at the executive assistant and fled back to the entrance. He rehung the tiny coat and got back on the high speed elevator. He’d survived. It wasn’t his fault that Dan got a call right then. He did good. Hopefully Jack would see that.

When Will got back to his floor, everyone was standing up and looking at him. Then they started clapping. And laughing. Maybe cheering.

Jack slapped Will on the shoulder.

“Welcome to the desk, kid.”

Will sat back down. It was 10:03 AM. He banged his toes into the cardboard box again and knew he was probably going to have to open that box soon.