King of Wall Street Remembered

I read a newsletter on and off that always features an obituary.  I know a lot of people read them every day, but I find that a little depressing.  I wrote about David Bowie’s passing back in January, and at the risk of writing too many obits, I thought I would note the death of John Gutfreund yesterday, who was dubbed the King of Wall Street by BusinessWeek magazine.

Gutfreund was the CEO of Saloman Brothers, or ‘Solly’ as it was known, during its heyday and was featured in Michael Lewis’ first book, Liar’s Poker.  You may know Lewis from his more recent books that have turned into movies, including The Big Short, MoneyBall and The Blind Side.

Liar’s Poker is a game of probability and bluffing that was popular on the trading floor, according to Lewis.  Gutfreund apparently played his star traders, John Meriwether and the bond arbitrage team on a nearly daily basis and usually lost since Meriwether’s crowd was stronger at math.

On one day, according to Lewis, Gutfreund approached the trading desk and said what has become legend at Saloman Brothers and a visceral part of its corporate identity.  He said: “One hand, one million dollars, no tears.”

Meriwether, without missing a beat, replied, “No John, if we’re going to play for those kinds of numbers, I’d rather pay for real money.  Ten million dollars, no tears.”

Gutfreund was famous for watching over the swashbuckling culture that allowed traders like Meriwether to flourish and transformed the bond business from the boredom of clipping coupons to the thrill of billion dollar wagers.

Of course, that hubris came back to haunt both Gutfreund and Meriwether in the following years.  Gutfreund’s aggressive traders cornered segments of the Treasury bond market by illegally rigging the Treasury’s regular bond auctions. Gutfreund didn’t alert authorities for months and he was forced to resign.

Even amid the turmoil, Gutfreund was unapologetic, according to the Wall Street Journal, saying “I’m not apologizing for anything to anybody.  Apologies don’t mean sh-t.  What happened, happened.”

Meriwether, who wasn’t involved in the auction scandal, left Salomon Brothers and formed Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), a hedge fund that famously blew up and shook the entire financial system.

Gutfreund epitomized Wall Street in the 1980s and everyone that’s been in the business for a while knows the story of John Gutfreund and Salomon Brother’s one-time dominance in the bond business.