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The Spider Network hides a financial system fiasco in a character study

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Image: Libby McGuire
Image: Libby McGuire
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The Spider Network: The Wild Story Of A Math Genius, A Gang Of Backstabbing Bankers, And One Of The Greatest Scams In Financial History

Author: David Enrich
Publisher: HarperCollins

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Wall Street men are such sad stereotypes of themselves. Throughout The Spider Network, David Enrich’s exhaustively researched book about the rate-fixing scam that jarred global financial markets in the early 2010s, the traders, brokers, lawyers, and executives responsible for the gaming of a system already structurally geared to screw over everyone not privy to their insular world demonstrate an almost pathological fealty to the alpha-male ideology that shapes their professional lives. One of the two trials constituting the climax of the story hinges on traders defending themselves in court via the argument that the financial world is by definition amoral and dishonest—that it’s a culture of kill-or-be-killed (in this case, the “killing” representing the wrecking of pensions, publicly owned funds, and the economic well-being of anyone who isn’t the trader himself) in which they can hardly be blamed for behaving exactly as everyone else. It’s less the Twinkie Defense than the Asshole Defense. It’s also the defense of children caught picking on an unpopular schoolmate, though Enrich leaves the reader to intuit that for themselves.

That unspoken indictment of the world’s markets as a hopelessly corrupt and broken network of institutions suffuses the background of Enrich’s narrative, which sets aside such weighty considerations in favor of a detailed character study of a man who came to publicly embody the worst of the financial world’s excesses, in ways both deserved and not. Tom Hayes was a mathematical whiz kid who entered the world of markets the same way many do, lured by the allure of big paydays and complex models that rewarded the smartest intellects in the room—intellects that were quickly engulfed by the cutthroat mentality requiring checking any and all ethics at the door. Hayes developed fantastically involved programs for assessing a subsector of the markets, but the plot pivots on his increasingly blatant efforts to sway Libor, a London-set interest rate whose trustworthiness is paramount for determining the values of countless loans across the globe. Dispatched to Tokyo, Hayes began colluding with traders the world over to try and artificially push Libor higher or lower, based on his trading positions. By now, shock lies less in the realization that screwing with this vital interest rate wasn’t illegal at the time (of course it wasn’t, the financial industry never met a need for regulation it couldn’t ignore) than in the depths of human failings found in the book’s unusual antihero, Hayes.

Enrich’s thesis is that Hayes was chosen as a fall guy for this culture of cronyism because he never fit into it in the first place. Hayes is bookish, socially inept, and uninterested in the frat-boy, glad-handing, party-all-the-time atmosphere of the financial universe. Yet ironically, these same qualities also made Hayes one of the worst practitioners of the business field’s most appalling tendencies, such as inveterate rudeness, an obsessive selfishness at the expense of all else in life (at one point he abandons his newborn child and wife to go on a road trip to see his favorite football team), and a propensity for treating those around him as tools to be used and abused as he saw fit. (An eventual diagnosis of Asperger’s is as unsurprising as it is unconvincing an excuse for his more extreme behavior.) Near the height of his public vilification, Hayes reaches out to Enrich, eventually providing him with a trove of insider information relating to this very public scandal. The resulting work is both the classic cautionary tale of arrogance laid low and assessment of a global culture of finance gone horrifically awry. Only in this case, the arrogance is as much cluelessness as anything—Hayes is a pirate amid a ship full of them, who doesn’t realize why the others are being so quiet every time they make land to pillage and plunder under cover of night.

Hayes’ true crime, Enrich argues, the one that got him set up as the face of banking-industry greed, wasn’t that he was an amoral piece of shit, making himself and his employer incredibly wealthy by hurting those people and groups not in the know of the financial system’s inner workings; it’s that he wasn’t a big enough piece of shit to also lie about his behavior enough to keep it under wraps. This boys’ club prides itself on discretion from the prying eyes of those outside interests that might wonder what’s going on in all those hundreds of millions of complex trades flying between banks all day. Hayes didn’t talk behind their backs, as all his co-workers did—he was a jerk to their faces, and in the end, that’s what brought the punishment down on him.

It’s an entertaining and outrageous story, full of smiling scum who pride themselves on being cool, fun-loving guys as they screw over 99 percent of the population, but it’s also a tough one to begin. The first 75 pages of this sizable tome often require delving into arcane and unavoidably dry financial explanations, simply to do the legwork necessary for all the nefarious subsequent wheeling and dealing to make sense. Enrich does his best with this material, but in the early going, it can bring the momentum to a standstill. Still, once that’s over, his breezy and occasionally soapy prose fits the subject matter when he’s detailing the strange aspects of Hayes’ private life and delving into the chummy but loyalty-free nature of Hayes’ associates, whom Enrich captures with an artful eye. By the end of this sordid tale, no one has learned a lesson: Not Hayes, not banking regulators, and certainly not an entire worldwide cadre of economic elites who would much rather things keep spinning on as per the norm, with the devastation visited upon the population at large just an ongoing cost of doing business. Enrich’s intent doesn’t appear to be inflaming the passions of righteous anger, but this account of a financial system literally structured to enrich the corrupt few at the expense of the many does just that, no matter how good of a guy each of the deluded assholes depicted herein consider themselves to be.


Purchase The Spider Network here, which helps support The A.V. Club.