[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
HEIDI N. MOORE: A lot of what makes humor, humor, is pattern recognition. And finance, it is very helpful on that front, because there are a lot of patterns that keep repeating themselves. You know, the same banks find themselves in the same hot water over and over and over again. And they rarely learn from them.
LILY PERCY, HOST: Just like people.
MS. MOORE: Just like people; exactly.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
MS. PERCY: I’m Lily Percy, and this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully, by listening, we learn how to create our own.
This season on COOL we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And no one is more surprised than I am to find that humor can also be used as a tool for understanding the world of finance. But that’s the lens that Heidi N. Moore uses. She tells stories about the people behind the money — why they do what they do and how they do it, and has done so for many years as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and Marketplace. By humanizing something as intimidating as finance, she helps me actually understand it.
MS. PERCY: Well, Heidi, I have to admit, I am so intimidated, just because reading your work, first of all, is amazing. You're such a great writer, so, so talented.
MS. MOORE: Oh, that's so sweet.
MS. PERCY: But I'm intimidated, because I feel like you understand financial things in ways that I just don't, and will never, understand. And automatically, I just wanted to say that I'm just — I'm in awe of you. I really am.
MS. MOORE: Thank you, but I think I can actually share this skill, because it is about — it's about stories. And I think that's probably what we're going to be talking about. But the way to understand finance is so much less about the actual numbers, which is good, because the guys in finance don't understand the numbers, either. And once you realize that, it's very liberating.
MS. PERCY: But you make it enjoyable to read. And I'm like, how — what is this magic? What is this magic that you do? It's incredible.
MS. MOORE: There is a ritual. I mean it involves a cape and some candles, but, you know...
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MS. MOORE: But I do think that the baseline stuff can be picked up without the spells.
MS. PERCY: All right. Well, I'm going to ask you questions so that I can internalize this and learn and then tell all the people, all the people.
MS. MOORE: Awesome. Awesome.
MS. PERCY: Just to start out, so where in New York did you grow up? I've never actually read anything about your background in New York.
MS. MOORE: Yeah, I mean I went to school in New York, went to Bronx Science, a super-nerdy school, and went to Barnard, up at Columbia, another super-nerdy school. So I basically spent my entire life nerding out and then went where that was considered an acceptable life practice, which is journalism.
So then I got started in financial journalism, just almost as a lark. But it was the late 1990s, and the tech boom was just starting, and it was madness. It was total madness. Like, you couldn't get enough hands on deck to cover all the IPOs that were happening. So I started that way, covering IPOs during the tech boom.
MS. PERCY: You know, one of the things that I read about you that I found so surprising — and I guess it's just because of your work that I found it surprising — that you said in an interview that you grew up in a house that didn't talk about money.
MS. MOORE: Yeah.
MS. PERCY: Yeah. So, how — I mean —
MS. MOORE: Maybe that's how we kept our sense of humor.
MS. PERCY: That's what I was — well, yeah, number one, right?
MS. PERCY: So was it a huge shock to you that you ended up in a field where you're covering it all the time?
MS. MOORE: Yeah, actually. And it's still — it's still remarkable, I mean even to my mom, who really kind of led the movement of not talking about money in our house, right? She's kind of come around, as well. And I think a large part of that was how many crises have happened since I started covering finance. And all those crises — I saw it. I use my mom as my barometer, and every time there was another crisis — first of all, I knew it was coming because my mom would come to me with some strange question, like, you know, in 2007, she asked me what a CDO was. And I thought — I asked her, in a somewhat condescending manner, "Do you mean a CD from the bank?" And I was surprised, because she should know what that is. And she's like, "No, no, a CDO." She tried to explain a collateralized debt obligation to me in 2007, and I realized, because my mom's a doctor, that one of her clients had been essentially trying to pitch her this product.
And that's a really good sign of financial crises, where you see these really arcane products being pitched to people who are, you know, doctors or lawyers or just laymen — people who aren't in finance. And it's a sign that there is just no more room in the financial world to be — no more appetite to be able to buy up these things. And so they start reaching into the middle classes [laughing], and that's how you know a crisis is coming, usually.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, I was going through your writing from that time period for the Wall Street Journal. And it was so awful to read about that crisis and to watch that unfold in people's lives. And I kept thinking about you and having to cover that. And I wondered, how did you deal? I mean was humor a help at all during that time?
MS. MOORE: Oh, it was huge; it was huge all throughout covering finance. I mean one of the great things about finance that I think really does not trickle down to people, because most people only see it when it's really messed up their lives, but the amazing thing about finance is that the people who get into it are strivers. And they're seeking a way to make a lot of money in a relatively short period of time and then get out and live their real lives. And what happens is, they get so attached to the money that they never leave. And so it's an essential comic premise, right, which is, you're like, "I'm out of here." And then they drag you back in, right? Like the Godfather.
And so that creates a lot of really interesting tensions and stories and just this kind of struggle of the individual against the system, who he comes to resent more and more. So all of these bankers that we see as sort of in cahoots, all of them see themselves as individuals who are fighting a system that is trying to kill them. And they want to hack that system. And the fact that they are working with enough money and big enough companies that they see themselves as world historical figures, very frequently — they can move billions; they can change the fates of millions of people — and all of that, with the mix of ego, plays out into some really interesting stories and some really hilarious narratives.
And I actually don't want to use the word "hilarious," because there's such a range of what happens in the stories of finance. It ranges from slapstick to humor to tragicomedy, right? So a good example is, there was a Libor scandal. I won't get into it, but it was this big international scandal that accused some traders at banks of getting together and rigging a major interest rate. And you know interest rates are the things that mortgages are built on, and lending, and all of that. And so one of these — as you read the investigations, you just find these moments that are beyond hilarious. Like one of the traders had, in order to not forget to rig the interest rate, set himself a Microsoft Outlook reminder every Monday to rig Libor.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] That's amazing. Wow.
MS. MOORE: It's just like pure — it's — so that's sort of an example of a kind of a slapstick thing, like this kind of attention to detail that challenges reason.
And you see that, you see that theme a lot in finance, and you definitely saw it during the financial crisis. I mean I remember when they came up with the bailout money, right, it was supposed to be $700 billion. And as reporters, we were looking into this as, okay, why $700 billion? Is that the amount that's needed to secure the banks? Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, if you add up all of their debts and liabilities, is $700 billion going to save you? And we called people, and we looked into it, and we did all this digging. And it turned out that $700 billion was just completely made up.
MS. PERCY: Really?
MS. MOORE: So it was just the number they thought they could get. And so somebody said a trillion. And somebody else said, no, that's too much. And so they countered with $700 billion. And they're like, all right, let's try it. And Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary, went to Congress and asked them for $700 billion. It was totally made up. So it would create ridiculous situations, but everyone just trying to find some way to keep their heads above water. And it was interesting to see.
MS. PERCY: Was humor something you always used in your writing? Because in reading, especially, those articles from that time, 2007, 2008, I was so struck with how you were covering even Congress's hearing with the CEO of Lehman Brothers. You gave a play-by-play with highlights, but you were also inserting humor into the play-by-play. And I just wonder, when did you realize that this would be a way to explain this anxiety-producing topic, such as finance, to people? When did you realize that would be a way in?
MS. MOORE: Well, I think the first — I just want to give a shout-out to Mystery Science Theater 3000, which...
MS. PERCY: Awesome, yes.
MS. MOORE: ...which I grew up watching with my friends. And we watched every episode in the 1990s. We were such MST3K fans. And once your mind gets into the MST3K sort of habit of seeing something happen and then immediately commenting on it, immediately seeing what's funny or absurd on it, it's really applicable to anything. I mean presumably you could do this with medicine in some way.
And then with finance, when I first started it, it was an intrinsically hilarious time, right? I mean I don't even think that it needed all of that much more embellishment. Going public used to be this big thing. Like, you're going to open your shares to everyone in the country, and it shows that you're a grown-up company, and you are truly mature. And then you'd see these madcap guys, practically wearing jester hats, rushing into banker's offices, and they're all just IPO after IPO after IPO.
And I remember thinking, "Okay, this is going to be hilarious," when once I asked these two founders of a company — this was back in 1999 — why they were doing an IPO. And usually CEOs, at that point, were smart enough to give an answer that at least pretended to be serious. But these guys just laughed, and they said, "Why not?"
MS. PERCY: Of course.
MS. MOORE: Right. And I was like, there is $200 million at stake here, and your answer is "Why not?" And the lightness with which they were approaching really heavy subjects showed me a little bit of how this was very strange. And that's where I also saw this individual-against-the-system thing, where I remember asking one guy who had been an analyst, and then he decided to become a venture capitalist. And I asked him why, and he said, "Well, I looked around, looked at whose rear I was kissing, and decided I wanted to be that person," which is as a good career plan as I can come up with.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] Exactly.
MS. MOORE: But it all kind of came down to this thing where it's like, the rules are being rewritten right now. And people were looking at these really heavy issues with a weirdness and a lightness and a non-conformity that was working within a very conformist financial system.
And that's where I learned that you have to explain it with — really with metaphors. They really are stories; they are human stories, just like the ones in politics. We listen to the stories in politics with rapt expressions, right? We're all attached to our Twitter or our Facebook, and we see the narratives of these people and how their policies affect others. It's basically the same in finance. It's just that the subject matter is so much more off-putting, and money makes people so nervous that they don't often think about it.
But that's where I learned that the metaphors or similes were really important. And I remember specifically the moment. It was — I was trying to explain to my mom. I was working on a story, and she was asking me what the story was about. And it was about this banker, Frank Quattrone, who's still working, and he was one of the leading bankers of the tech boom in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I mean a real powerhouse. Everyone came to him. He just oversaw the whole Valley, and everyone sort of had to kiss his ring. And he was at Credit Suisse First Boston at the time. And I remember trying to explain to my mom why Frank Quattrone mattered — and this could not be done in any real context of a society that we knew — and why I was writing this story about him taking whatever it was, 200 people from one bank to another, from Morgan Stanley to Credit Suisse. And I realized she'd only understand it if I portrayed Frank Quattrone as a Pied Piper of money. [laughs] And so he sort of blows his whistle, and then all these people who hear this tune, and it resonates with them — the tune of money, right, the tune of monetizing technology into making stock options and making people rich — all the people who follow that tune, follow him. And so those 200 people go from bank to bank to bank, following this Pied Piper of capitalism. And then she got it. And then, after that, she would call me up and say, "Have you heard the latest about Frank Quattrone?"
MS. PERCY: [laughs] She was following him.
MS. MOORE: She became one of those people who now could recognize him. And that's the thing, right? It's pattern recognition. A lot of what makes humor, humor, is pattern recognition and being able to tell the story with the essential truth. And finance, it is very helpful on that front, because there are a lot of patterns that keep repeating themselves. You know, the same banks find themselves in the same hot water over and over and over again. And they rarely learn from them.
MS. PERCY: Just like people.
MS. MOORE: Just like people; exactly. And the people who work at those banks, it's the same thing. It's like, I can't believe this guy is in the same scrape again. And so that becomes kind of intrinsically funny, because a lot of it is realizing — at some point, it's sort of like Wile E. Coyote falling off the cliff, right? At some point, mid-fall, they realize they've made a mistake. And so that's what I look for. I look for the themes and the patterns that maybe even the people going through them aren't recognizing.
[music: “Don’t Wanna Try” by Saskwatch]
Heidi N. Moore is the editor in chief of Ladders and a writer who covers finance and economics. Check out her interview in Billfold. As a single woman with a basic comprehension of math, I found her breakdown of how she handles her money so helpful.
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.