Saturday April 19, 2014
The Only Goldman Sachs Employee Arrested by the FBI in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Meltdown
Most of Michael Lewis' book, “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” focuses on Brad Katsuyama, his team, and the revelation of how the game is rigged, the high-frequency trading game, and what Brad and his team try to do to fix it. But there's a chapter in the middle of the book about Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian programmer for Goldman Sachs, that may be even more depressing.
Initially I thought Serge would wind up on Brad's team. That's how Lewis handles most of these chapters. He'll introduce someone, give us their background—talents, smarts, disillusionments—and wind the story around to where they hook up with Brad.
Serge's story is different. He's a sought-after programmer that winds up at Goldman Sachs in the mid-2000s.
What does his story reveal? The kind of awful person who thrives in our society:
The programmer types were different from the trader types. The trader types were far more alive to the bigger picture, to their context. They knew their worth in the marketplace down to the last penny. They understood the connection between what they did and how much money was made, and they were good at exaggerating the importance of the link. Serge wasn’t like that. He was a little-picture person, a narrow problem solver. “I think he didn’t know his own value,” says the recruiter.
What else? How little companies and corporations look to the long-term; how all the goals are this year, this quarter, this month, this week, today:
After a few months working on the forty-second floor at One New York Plaza, Serge came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do with Goldman’s high-frequency trading platform was to scrap it and build a new one from scratch. His bosses weren’t interested. “The business model of Goldman Sachs was, if there is an opportunity to make money right away, let’s do that,” he says. “But if there was something long-term, they weren’t that interested.“
A few weeks ago at a nonprofit fundraiser, I heard a speech from a grassroots organizer in which he encouraged everyone in the audience to not think of the world as a zero-sum game. You don't have to fall if I rise; we can both rise. I nodded. Then I thought, ”Except there are people out there who will think of it as a zero-sum game. And you can't change them. And they will always have the advantage because of it."
Here's an example from Lewis' book. Open source coding is a great, utopian concept. You take, you improve, you return. We all rise. But some people just take:
For their patching material he and the other Goldman programmers resorted, every day, to open source software—software developed by collectives of programmers and made freely available on the Internet. The tools and components they used were not specifically designed for financial markets, but they could be adapted to repair Goldman’s plumbing. He discovered, to his surprise, that Goldman had a one-way relationship with open source. They took huge amounts of free software off the Web, but they did not return it after he had modified it, even when his modifications were very slight and of general, rather than financial, use. “Once I took some open source components, repackaged them to come up with a component that was not even used at Goldman Sachs,” he says. “It was basically a way to make two computers look like one, so if one went down the other could jump in and perform the task.” He’d created a neat way for one computer to behave as the stand-in for another. He described the pleasure of his innovation this way: “It created something out of chaos. When you create something out of chaos, essentially, you reduce the entropy in the world.” He went to his boss, a fellow named Adam Schlesinger, and asked if he could release it back into open source, as was his inclination. “He said it was now Goldman’s property,” recalls Serge. “He was quite tense.”
There's horror in this chapter. Serge gets tired of working at Goldman Sachs, of repairing old code rather than starting from scratch; so when he has the chance to start with another compamy, building their code from scratch, he takes it. The pay is less but he still takes it. He also emails himself some of the open source coding he improved upon at Goldman Sachs. This code would be useless in his new job, which was using a completely different programming language, but he wanted it anyway. Just in case.
You see what's coming, don't you? Just before he leaves he's arrested by the FBI for stealing Goldman Sachs' proprietary information. He's charged and put on trial. And convicted. And sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
All of this is bad enough. But Lewis saves the coup de grace, the final outrage, for near the end of the chapter:
Thus the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested by the FBI in the aftermath of a financial crisis Goldman had done so much to fuel was the employee Goldman asked the FBI to arrest.
At least there's an appeals process, and, a year later, on the day his lawyer argues before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Serge is released. Only to be—believe it or not—re-arrested for the same crime. Just different code. So no double jeopardy.
I don't know if this story can take more irony but here it is. By the end of the book? As Brad and his team work to create a more equitable Wall Street? Goldman Sachs is one of the good guys.