Bank of America

Book review: Bright lights, big money, lost souls

February 20, 2014: 9:40 AM ET

The young, hungry Wall Street kids profiled in Young Money are raking in the dough. They're also overworked and miserable. But you knew that already.

By Daniel Roberts, writer-reporter

WHITE BOOK

FORTUNE -- If you live in New York City, you know the young Wall Street type: dark suit, wide-knot tie, meticulous hair, and an all-business demeanor that contradicts the baby face. Oh, and they're making a ton of money.

But it turns out that wealth isn't free. The job is their life. The hours are excessive -- and not limited to the workweek. Their superiors own them. One iPhone ping and your friend must leave the movie and head to her office.

At one point in Young Money, the well-written new book by Kevin Roose, a senior associate at a Wall Street firm lectures a young go-getter: "Helping the world is great and all, but you need to be motivated by money." We're meant to find such a quote shocking. But many who follow the world of finance will see it as confirming what they already thought.

Thus, it's unclear who the audience really is for Young Money. The New York media world is buzzing about it, but the revelation that young bankers are unhappy does not constitute news for that world -- neither for financial journalists, nor for the bankers themselves, nor for any person working in business in Manhattan, San Francisco, or Boston. The picture Roose paints may indeed shock and enlighten the legions of people in America who live away from the power centers and are thus not already acquainted with young bankers or aware of the less glamorous, day-to-day demands of the job. But how much do they really care?

Nevertheless, Young Money is a fun and fast read that will make you laugh out loud, or perhaps scoff instead. Chelsea isn't satisfied with her $25,000 bonus. Derrick entered finance because, "I want all those people in high school who thought I was stupid to fucking suck it." He cherishes his "deal toys" ("clear, Lucite hunks" commemorating big deals) and likes to look at them before bed. J.P. plays the rap song "Live Fast, Die Young" for inspiration -- but he's listening on headphones, at his desk, where he's crunching numbers into the night, alone, tired.

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If Roose has a mission, it's to inform America that until they hit a certain job level, Wall Street's ladder-climbers are in fact harried, frustrated, lonely, and, above all, dead tired. They lead an unhealthy lifestyle, physically and emotionally. One of Roose's subjects develops a brutal disease, perhaps not unrelated to his work stress. Many of their relationships collapse under the weight of their work; dinners out with girlfriends are cancelled night after night.

Your reaction to all of this may be "boo-hoo" and an eye-roll. Pity the poor, overworked 22-year-old making $150,000 in her first year out of college. Roose acknowledges that these people have chosen this path, and that the sums they find disappointing are staggering to most of their non-banking peers. ("J.P. knew he wouldn't find much sympathy on Main Street, where being paid $90,000 as a twenty-four-year-old was still a tremendous accomplishment.") But in general, he resists from commentary.

One highlight is the discussion around Soo-jin Park, a risk analyst at Deutsche Bank (DB) and one of only two women among Roose's eight subjects. An optimistic Wellesley College grad, Soo-jin "quickly discovered that her risk management group was still a man's world." She is the only female in her division who is not an administrative assistant. Her experience affords Roose the opportunity to discuss the important issue of women on Wall Street. "Women's progress in finance has been somewhat shallower than it appears," he explains, backing it up with numbers.

Roose's style is more "just the facts, ma'am" than the magazine feature formula of quote plus commentary. At times, that can be disappointing. When we learn that Bank of America (BAC) recruit Chelsea "fought back tears" after learning she'd be placed in public finance ("she would be doing something she barely understood yet again ... she went out to a bar with friends and drank until the world blurred"), we crave some analysis from our guide: Is this the case with all Wall Street recruits -- they have no clue what they're doing at first, and pick it up as they go? But Roose doesn't pursue it. Instead, he follows her quote up with a line that you could imagine is written with a wink: "Three days later, things were looking a little brighter. A boozy corporate field day was hardly the worst way to start a job."

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Well, yes. Watch Chelsea play flip-cup with her bosses at the annual Bank of America Merrill Lynch field day, "held at a posh New Jersey country club" with "a keg of beer at each activity station," and you'll have trouble sympathizing with her. Roose never overtly pities nor mocks his subjects. He is mostly absent from the narrative -- a Michael Lewis romp, this is not -- which can be a positive or negative, depending on how you like your nonfiction.

One notable exception is the book's finest scene, a thrilling undercover operation in which Roose sneaks into a bizarre, closed-door affair: the annual dinner of Wall Street society Kappa Beta Phi. (New York magazine wisely chose this as its excerpt of the book, headlining it "What I saw when I crashed a Wall Street secret society," and has reaped the resulting clicks. There is also some must-hear audio.)

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The highlights of the event are so ludicrous that Roose finally just rattles them off as bullet points: a man singing about money while clad in a Confederate flag hat; a joke about Hillary Clinton (she "has whiskers and stinks"); a group performing a song from The Book of Mormon with the lyrics rewritten ("I believe that the Lord God created Wall Street"). Inevitably, someone picks up on Roose's presence: Billionaire investor Michael Novogratz asks Roose to identify himself, then demands his cell phone. "His eyes were bloodshot, and his neck veins were bulging," we learn -- some of the most vivid writing in the book, at last, perhaps because it happened to the author himself. Our fearless guide narrowly escapes to the lobby, where two of the group's members try to convince him "that what I'd just seen wasn't really a group of wealthy and powerful financiers making homophobic jokes, mocking poor people, and bragging about their business conquests."

The scene feels a bit out of place, delightful though it is, because the naughty KBP revelers are top dogs: They are the old guard, now swimming in money. The focus of Roose's book is the newest generation of Wall Street strivers. But you get the sinking feeling that many of the naive young bucks he focuses on are the aspiring KBP members of tomorrow -- that once they're billionaires in their fifties, their days on the bottom will be distant memories, and the cycle will continue.

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