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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Livin' large

News came out this morning that Citigroup is trying to hang on to its brand new $50 million dollar corporate jet.

I don't blame them.

The plane comes with a leather interior, gourmet gallery, and entertainment center. Sounds like fun. (C'mon, when you're working hard, you gotta take a break every now and then.) I'm betting the flight attendants who work this plane are pretty good-looking, too. Hey, let's have a party in the sky!

The only problem is, the taxpayers just shelled out $45 billion to keep Citi afloat, not to mention the $300 billion in guarantees to back potentially toxic Citi assets.

Without that taxpayer-funded bailout, those same Citi execs who use this aircraft would all be on the unemployment line right now. So the plane does seem just a trifle self-indulgent.

The story reminded me of some of the people I knew when I was working on Wall Street, people who would take advantage of every expense account and every perk they possibly could.

In my business (bond trading), people like this were known as "broker slime" since they would generally hit the brokers up for whatever they could. The brokers were generally happy to oblige, since they depended on us (the dealers, i.e., investment banks) for business. As a rule they didn't have a lot to distinguish their services (which consisted of facilitating inter-dealer trades) from those of the other brokers, so they relied on entertainment. I don't blame them for providing these services, it was what they had to do. But a fair number of guys on our side of the business were known for being particularly shameless in terms of what they'd ask for.

Guys like this seemed to have a different mindset. To them, having a good time consisted purely of "living large," i.e., doing something which cost a lot of money, preferably other peoples' money.

Full disclosure: I was offered theater tickets, and accepted them a few times. And I tagged along when other people ordered limos on a number of occasions. But a lot of the other stuff just didn't appeal to me.

One thing the broker slime would ask for on a regular basis was limousine rides, no matter their destination. I guess it does make you feel more important when you have someone else working for you, i.e., driving the car. And "limo" does have a nice sound to it: it evokes memories of prom nights, and evidently makes some people feel like Gordon Gekko.

Personally, I find it more relaxing not to have a stranger in the car. Driving yourself just isn't all that hard.

Some of the traders enjoyed being taken out to fancy restaurants where they could order expensive bottles of wine. It's true, the food at fancy restaurants can be quite tasty. But I find it hard to relax and enjoy the food when I have to make conversation with someone I don't particularly like. Don't misinterpret, I didn't dislike most of the brokers, I knew they were just doing their job: to wine and dine (and flatter) me because they wanted more of my business. It's just that I don't see how spending an evening like that is fun. And you'd have to be awfully self-indulgent to believe whatever the brokers tell you about yourself.

Personally, I'd rather have a peanut butter and honey English muffin at a kitchen table with someone who actually enjoys my company. (Unfortunately, that excludes my family, the people with whom I most often share that fare.)

Anyway, the fancy stuff is wasted on me -- I can't tell the difference between a fifteen dollar bottle of wine and a five hundred dollar bottle. And even if I could, it would have been hard for me to enjoy. All I was ever able to think about in that situation was how much each sip I was tasting cost.

One man who does have more discerning tastes, by the way, is recently deposed Merrill exec John Thain, who spent $1.2 million on his office redecoration, including $1400 for a wastebasket. (I swear, I can't tell a $1200 trash can from a $1400 one.) He also spent $35,000 for a commode. In this case "commode" refers to a dresser, although it might have been more apropos had it referred to the other kind.

One of the more infamous broker slime moves was to ask a broker to take you to strip club. The brokers would show up, acting as if they were really happy to see you, and take you in a limo to one of Manhattan's well known strip clubs, where the women would act as if they were equally happy to see you. (At least the limo drivers didn't act overjoyed to see you.)

Once again, full disclosure: I once tagged along to one of the more downscale local clubs, where a couple of guys who looked like Hells Angels stood guard at the smoky bar in front of the dancers. (Trust me, I've never been in a less arousing situation.)

But I did hear stories from guys who had gone to Scores, the most famous "gentlemen's club." And it always left me wondering. What kind of guy sits at a table tucking twenties into a stripper's g-string while she gives him a lap dance, shoves her her implants in his face, and whispers in his ear that he's not like all the other guys who come there -- and then believes her?

Pretty much the same kind of guy who feels important because he is flying in a corporate jet with a "Citi" logo on the outside.

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