By Karl Grimes, Vice President of CMO sales, United Axis Group, Stamford, CT
It's bound to happen. Just a matter of time. We do what we can to prepare ourselves, but it always comes out of the blue, pops up and startles you like a goofy-faced Jack-in-the-box. Just a matter of time before you have to face the Question. The Question can be a harrowing, humiliating experience. For some, the Question is a spook haunting the back rooms of their conscience and to finally get it out into the light of day is a relief, a release. I confronted the Question and now live to tell about it.
It happened a few days ago. I had just picked up my ten year old daughter from her ballet class. My girl, Regina, got into the car and it didn't take me long to know she's got something on her mind since she wasn't chattering in her usual way.
"What's up, sweetie?" I asked. "Cat got your tongue?"
"I wasn't good in school today, Daddy," she answered with a pathetic pout.
"My little sweetie doll wasn't good? Daddy can't believe that."
"The teacher asked us a question and I didn't know the anwer."
"And what was the question, snookums?"
She paused before answering, twisting the folds of her private school plaid skirt. "Teacher asked what our daddies do at work. And our mommies too, if they work."
That high-pictched screeching sound from the "Psycho" moive shower scene went off inside my head. I took a big gulp, steadied the wheel and concentrated on keeping the car on the road.
"And Lisa said her mommy was a doctor and Chris said his daddy was a dog sitter and Whitney said her dad was a lawyer and Morgan said her mommy worked for the newspaper and Rick said his daddy built houses and Bud said his dad was an astronaut but nobody believed that. And then Teacher asked me and I said I didn't know and everybody laughed."
Why in the hell do teachers have to pry like that, asking such nonsense questions like, What do your parents do for a living? What does that have to do with reading and math? And wouldn't you know it, but my little girl started bawling right there in the car. But here it was finally, the Question rearing its big quizzical head.
I have to confess that after hearing my baby doll's plaint, my first reaction was surprise that there were actually some people still around who did practical things, maybe even made stuff. Here in Darien, CT, I thought everybody was like me and worked in the investment biz in one way or another...you know, money changers, paper hangers. I sell collateralized mortgage backed securities. How am I supposed to explain that to my ten year old kid?
Should I have said that I am an agent operating in the arena of global capital markets and my function is to intermediate the smooth and efficient flow of capital from savers to investors, from those with the dough to those without, so that everybody can buy a house at ridiclously low rates no matter how bad their credit stinks? Yeah, I'm an intermediary...I'm sure that would have gone over well.
And what skill does selling CMO's require? A good phone voice? Maybe I should have told her what I spend most of my day doing. On slow days, which sometimes can seem like most days, I'm surreptitously pulling up porn on the internet, or discussing with my colleagues for the thousandth time why the Mets suck, or cracking jokes about the imbecile talking heads on CNBC, which for some reason is played on television sets arrayed around the trading floor. We kill the time by making stupid bets, like how many times the treasury bond trader down the aisle will pick his nose within a fifteen minute period. Or maybe I should have just told Regina that what I really do has no redeeming value to society but that sometimes it's an easy way for the lazy and stupid to make a boatload of jack.
No, I should have told my daughter that I'm a soldier, a capitalist warrior. I'm on the sell-side and opposing me is the soldier on the buy-side. The buy-side soldier is smart, but his greatest weakness is his arrogance. He underestimates me, thinks I'm on the level of a used car salesman, glorified carnival huckster. He thinks that I don't have enough brain power to move a rat turd one inch. And I score "kills" by trading his mortgage-backed bonds at spreads that are wider than I deserve and keeping him in the dark about it. And somehow I'm able to sell him bonds that are as volatile as nitroglycerin, even though he thinks he's so much smarter than me. And I'm not out to sell him what he doesn't really need; no, I want to sell him what might land him in jail because that would mean a huge spread and a lot of commish. My victories are earned in commissions earned. And at the end of the year, my buy-side opponent will once again realize that I make a hellava lot more mulah than he does, notwithstanding his Harvard MBA. And he will be resentful and envious, which is the same thing as being defeated.
Fortunately, I didn't have to say anything because Baskin Robbins appeared on the right side of the road. "How about a Triple Raspberry Swirl Blaster, baby cakes? Your favorite, right?"
"Yeah, Daddy, yeah!" No more tears. And thank god, no more silly questions...at least for awhile. Maybe the next time she asks the Question, I will have made enough stupid money to have retired.