“I’ve kept my job this long by knowing I must never bring him bad news”
All the folks at NR, excepting guest contributors like Dennis Prager who already has a job, imagine themselves the heirs to the William F. Buckley legacy. They believe (or at least hope) that the world would be a better place if everyone acted a little more like the late WFB. But some people simply aren’t cut out for that kind of relatively stoic intellectualism. And that does not make them doomed to failure in any area, least of all politics.
Let me tell you about a few of them that I know, who have managed to make their small way in the world regardless.
Louis Bacon is a self made Billionaire. He has an irascible personality, is fanatically private, and as professionally driven as any man I’ve ever met. He worked hard and was very generous with the pay of his staff, but demanded a level of excellence from them that left marks. Saying his firm was a pressure cooker totally understates it. Take a pressure cooker, fill it with gunpowder and kerosene, turn the heat up to high and go at it with a pair of additional blow torches, and you have a vague idea of what a typical morning in the place was like. The saying was that it took a year to recover from working at Moore Capital. For some it took longer. I think my favorite LMB story summarizes the personality of the man very effectively.
One of the responsibilities of my team was to put together a daily book of research for the boss. It involved collating thousands of data sets and analytics from hundreds of different sources, and collating them into a few hundred charts and reports describing dozens of markets. These were placed on LMB’s desk every day in a large red binder, and were the very first thing he looked at when arriving in the morning.
I had one young technician whose entire job was to babysit the data set’s arrival, run the analytics, and ensure the reports were all up to date and correct. That’s it. That was his entire 6 figure job. He didn’t even have to print the thing, we had another guy for that. His expertise was in running the systems that performed all the work. And the fact that we paid him so well was testimony to both the complexity and the relative importance of that piece (really thousands of individual pieces) of research.
That kid would typically arrive in the office near the close of the trading day when the data would begin to trickle in, and stay until the research book was complete. If that were at 8PM he had a short day. If things ran poorly or if some data was late, he would often stay until 2 or 3 AM. If things went really badly, I would usually get a call at about 3:30am asking me what he should do.
One morning after what I thought was a smooth run, I went to the office a little late. On days when I knew we’d had an issue I’d be there about 5am, but I hadn’t had a call the night before and I was a newlywed at the time, so my morning ran a little later than normal. I sat down at my desk on the trading floor about 7:45 and noticed that LMB was already there. I knew this, because sitting on my desk was a piece of the research from the night before, torn from the book we’d delivered, with a red circle around a single missing data point - just a single missing dot, on a page with hundreds of dots, in a book with hundreds of pages just like the one I was looking at. And scrawled in marker across the entire page in large, red, angry letters were the words “What the F*** is this!” with an arrow pointing to the red circle where the data point was missing. And down at the bottom in equally angry letters, the initials “LMB”.
That missing datapoint, just a single number, was a tiny tertiary blip on an obscure currency market that wasn’t seeing any particular action. But LMB knew it should be there and wasn’t. That the guy I paid to notice such things had missed it was something of a miracle. That LMB caught it wasn’t unlikely at all.
The next Billionaire I met was Bruce Kovner, who was also self made. Bruce couldn’t be more different than Louis Bacon. He was handsome, charming, impeccably dressed and well cultured. Louis liked pheasant hunting and privacy, while Bruce preferred the opera and rare books. Bibi Netenyahu was his close friend, and at one point, Bruce was Chairman of the AEI.
Bruce was an inside the box, big picture guy who delegated responsibility, but (typically) not the pay that went with it. My job there, which had the same description as my job at Moore Capital, paid about 50% what I made at Moore, and gave me only a fraction of the budget. Other transplants between the two firms had a similar experience. Bruce was more worried about getting value for his dollar that LMB, who was only ever worried about perfection, and would be happy to pay to get it.
But the effect of this is that where Moore Capital would have a single brilliant person working themselves to death to meet the LMB standard, Caxton Associates, Bruce’s Firm, would have three people each doing a mediocre job in comparison, in order to get a similar result. This left his firm with less pressure, more employees, and more of an ‘office politics’ focus. LMB only ever wanted profit, and didn’t care if you showed up for work in a green tutu if you were making enough money. Bruce tended to favor the people he favored, whether they were doing a good job or not.
You could call that loyalty to his friends, or you could call it kindness (you couldn’t call it generosity because he paid so poorly). But favoring personal relationships and office politics over hard numbers, doesn’t always have the kind of outcome you hope for. Yes the culture was more genteel and polite, but it was also more backstabbing and you never really knew exactly where you stood.
I won’t get into my personal experience there, or the specifics of why I had to leave. It should suffice to say that when I did, I was running a wildly successful strategy producing the kind of results that most firms would have given their eye teeth to see. And two weeks after I left Caxton, Paul Tudor Jones did that very thing.
Paul Tudor Jones was the third self made Billionaire that I worked for. He was an eminently grounded, family focused man who waited in line for his lunch at the corporate cafeteria more days than not, just like everybody else. More than anything he encouraged frank and open discussion among his decision makers. He wanted to hear what you really thought not what you thought he wanted to hear. On this score he really walked the walk.
I once watched another staffer at my level of seniority tell him his ideas on the gold market at a particular moment were ‘idiotic’. It’s a big thing to call your legendary billionaire boss’s idea idiotic to his face. Say that to LMB and you’d get an earful, but he’d listen to your view and if you turned out to be wrong, it might get you fired. Say something like that to Bruce Kovner and no one in your family would ever work in finance again.
Paul was the Billionaire I most liked. He was approachable, easy to get along with, and had a measure of charm. He and I spent one quiet afternoon talking at length about hunting big bears in Alaska. LMB was a hunter too, but if I ever brought it up to him during open market hours, I had better have a way to generate profit from it. No one could even lay eyes on Bruce without a meeting scheduled and he tried to avoid associating with the underlings, so all personal talk was off the table.
Paul didn’t think that way. Paul was a balanced man with a balanced life, who thought ‘a life’ was as important as anything else. He was a man with personal humility who recognized that you make many decisions in life and a great many of them are going to be wrong no matter what you do. “Be less wrong than the other guys” says a lot about the culture of his shop. “Fail less” would be another way to say it. And if it weren’t the fact that I went to work for him 2 weeks before the banks ‘broke the buck’ in late 2008, changing the quant markets forever, I’d probably still be working for him.
So here are three self made Billionaires, who all work in the same job, but who couldn’t be more different. Their personalities and the consequences of their likes and dislikes, shaped the organizations they ran, but all were wildly successful. Bruce Kovner is the one who is the most like William F. Buckley, but his firm was the least well run, and the most inefficient. So being like WFB may have it’s genteel upsides, but it’s not the end all and be all of every situation.
And lest we forget, WFB may have been a brilliant mind, but he couldn’t get elected Mayor of New York City, and even Napoleonic Mike Bloomberg managed that. It’s becoming cliché to say but Mitt Romney did it the NR way and John fund very much approved, but Obama trounced him because that isn’t what drives American decision making anymore. So deep intellectual posturing doesn’t seem to me to be the clear path to success that the NR team wishes it would.
As I have often said, I have my problems with Donald Trump. But I think we’d all be better off if the folks at NR would simply recognize that in politics like business, there are lots of ways so skin a cat. And not everyone who wins, does it by being like William F. Buckley. Trump may be a bit garish to the beltway ear, but he is an effective persuader and understands media. He is fighting fights that the right has been afraid to fight on their own, and doing so effectively. So if we all need to deal with a little gold lame to get the right engaged in the intersection of culture and politics, it’s a pill I’m perfectly prepared to swallow. NR should start doing the same and quit pretending that it’s a question of political principles.