The real wolf of Wall Street

Ex-banker turned author John LeFevre gives a wild account of his days at the top of the finance world.

If even a quarter of what John LeFevre says is true, the banking industry is completely out of control. He spent nine years trading bonds for Citigroup in Hong Kong, New York and London and says his life makes the film The Wolf of Wall Street look tame. It was not just the rampant decadence, hedonistic lifestyles, infidelity, criminal conduct or misogyny; it was a mixture of all those elements at the same time. There was the time he and his colleagues threw thousands of dollars over a shopping mall balcony in Manila in the Philippines, laughing as they watched people scoop up the cash until the police told them to stop. Or the time he claims they took drugs in a church at a banker friend’s wedding and broke in a young banker by getting him to take a poll of the male executives about how attractive they thought the women in the office were and then give a presentation to them.

Even for a certain kind of alpha male, it might sound like extreme hijinks until you realise these men are the modern day Masters of the Universe. The ones who run the world. The ones who caused the 2008 financial crash. LeFevre says, “Within the world of banking, that is how they view themselves – as different and better than everybody else. Everyone is pretty aggressive, focused on money and that is the genesis of how the culture is just so far removed from reality in terms of how you live, how you think. The excess, how you spend your money, the deviant sense of humour – it is a game of one-upmanship.”

LeFevre published an account of his time in finance called Straight To Hell – True Tales Of Deviance, Debauchery And Billion-Dollar Deals. The book caused a stir not only because of its warts-and-all depiction of the world of finance but also because critics have questioned the truthfulness of his stories. Even its publication was mired in controversy after the original publishers Simon and Schuster dropped the book and cancelled a lucrative contract because of details which were not shared by LeFevre when the deal was signed. A new publisher, Grove Atlantic, stepped in but questions were raised about the veracity of his account.

For example, Manchester United football team has flatly denied an episode where he claims to have gotten into a brawl with striker Wayne Rooney in a Hong Kong nightclub. LeFevre bats away such criticism, despite quoting his own Twitter post between chapters in which he says, “If you can be good at one thing, be good at lying … because if you’re good at lying, you’re good at everything.” He adds, “All of the stories in the book are me and me alone living each and every one of those moments.”

It is hard to gauge how trustworthy he is, let alone feel any sympathy for him, but what is undeniable is that he is one of the few people who have given us a glimpse into what the world of finance is really like. Born in Britain, LeFevre moved to America when he was young and joined Citigroup in 2001 straight out of university in New York. He recalls how he told his first boss he was going to save his $75,000 bonus only for the manager to laugh in his face and tell him to spend it by next week. Another boss when he was working in London was revered by his colleagues for having a secret apartment in Mayfair where he saw his mistress after telling his wife he was away on fictitious business trips.

In 2004, LeFevre relocated to Hong Kong on the fixed income syndicate desk, where the worst of the excess described in the book takes place.

What also took place on a regular basis was, as LeFevre describes it, outright criminality. He says there are “systemic conflicts of interest in the way bonds are allocated” that are impossible to regulate. All of the trading phone lines were recorded so anything questionable was done on mobile phones. LeFevre says: “We had Bloomberg chat rooms with all of our competitors where we would share information. We would have weekly lunches and weekly dinners. It is very different from the banking world in the US and the UK because it is expat-driven and all of my friends were either colleagues, clients or competitors. The lines are so blurred you are very friendly with all your competitors. You work together even when you’re competing.”

As LeFevre sees it, the only way to stop this would be to send bankers to jail because they would realise it was “just not worth it”. But that would not put an end to the lifestyle that comes with banking. For LeFevre, it became too much in 2009 when he says life became “soulless”. He recalls how the partying became “empty” and left him wanting to do something “more fulfilling and beneficial to society”. He would no doubt by then have earned enough to set him up for life. Then there was the small matter of the 2008 global financial crash.

Around that time LeFevre started up his hit Twitter account @GSElevator, which he began anonymously in 2011 and which allegedly reported macho sayings overheard in the lift at the Wall Street offices of Goldman Sachs. He never worked for the investment banking firm but when LeFevre was unmasked, he decided to write a book. Today his plan to save the planet appears to have been shelved. Instead, he spends his days playing golf and being a house husband to his two young children at his suburban home in Houston, Texas. LeFevre says his friends who are still in finance tell him things are not as raucous as they once were, although the lifestyle is still not for the fainthearted.

On a personal level he claims to have had a number of “epiphanies”, though he adds he has no regrets for his past misdemeanours. His wife and mother have read the book and do not even recognise the man depicted as the loving husband and son they know. “Maybe it is just a coping mechanism to make them think I am not totally insane,” says LeFevre. Could the book lead to an overhaul of the industry or lead to some soul searching among his friends who are still in finance? “By and large people find it kind of funny,” he says. “All the bankers who I have spoken to have loved it. Even the ones portrayed negatively think it is hilarious.”

It seems the answer – for now – is a firmly resounding no.