Food for Thought

Before the word "organic" seeped into our collective consciousness, I was into the health food kick. I've always eaten healthy, way healthier than my colleagues and friends. As a matter of fact, every guy I dated was amazed at the proportion of vegetables I had vis-a-vis meat.

Mom instilled that in me. She believed in serving a salad during lunch and dinner. Over the years, it developed into a meal onto itself: a veritable garbage salad with olives, artichoke hearts, onions, tomatoes and other assorted vegetables tossed in. The only problem was that she used iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value whatsoever.  Even more so, the damn thing felt like little razors in the digestive tract.

My salads are usually plain. From time to time I'll add something, but I love arugla like there's no tomorrow. When I drifted to the brand-new organic side, reducing meat further, I tested out new kinds of foods. Like seitan and tempa. Honestly, it all tasted like shit back then. Significant strides were taken since and I'm sure it tastes just fine today. However, you won't get me to try it.

I wanted to get good snacks for work. During 1998, I consulted for CSFB in their equity department as a bank/financial institutions and insurance analyst. At this point, I had under my belt around 9 years of consulting work among the top financial institutions. I was an old hand with office intrigue and the types of people in an office environment. In a heartbeat I can assess who the idiots are, the true leaders and the backstabbers.

The good thing about that department was their professionalism and distance, something I adored after a recent horrid bout in Merrill Lynch in their equity/compliance department. I took that stupid gig to tide me over until the one at CSFB came up. The head of the area was a true backstabbing snake. She spearheaded a project which required me to water taxi between lower Manhattan and New Jersey sometimes three times a day. After the first week, she pulled me into her office.

"I hate Jake. I wanna fire the fucker and hire you instead."

As I stated before, I can assess in a heartbeat who the idiots are, the true leaders and the backstabbers. I knew her game. Jake was a dedicated long-term employee who did his job well. She had no intention whatsoever to fire him; the goal was to make me believe I'd have a shot in her shitass department. It's the snake charmer way to get upfront and instantaneous loyalty: the pay-by-the-hour worker ingratiates themselves to work harder, produce more and skimp on their own salary for that tarnished brass ring, a full-time job.

I smiled in return.

"Glad to see we're on the same page," she notified me.

I hated working at Merrill Lynch. The back offices were filthy, people sat on top of each other and the employees were disenfranchised. One day, after running back and forth to New Jersey at her whim, someone said to me, "Ms. Schmuck doesn't like your attitude."

The bad attitude occurred after I submitted my billable hours. She didn't want to pay me for the hours I worked. I muttered, "Who the fuck is she?"

Aghast, the woman stated, "She's a VeePee!"

Big fucking deal. Everyone's a VeePee in finance except for the back office workers.

That was a Thursday. On a Friday night, 10pm, I received a phone call from human resources at Merrill Lynch. "We don't need your services anymore."

I replied, "What the fuck's wrong with you guys? You call on a FRIDAY night at 10pm? What's wrong with firing me while I was there today? Or is Ms. Schmuck too chicken shit to do the dirty work herself?"

As you can tell, dear Readers, I excel in tact and diplomacy.

The staff at CSFB was polite, yet elitist for they were the 'best of the best' and treated me like the help which I was. I adored the head of the department. He was a Brooklyn-boy done well and spent his days ordering special porcelain from France to complement a 12-piece arrangement his wife spotted their last trip to Paris. Over the time I spent there, he imported half of France to his home in Sheepshead Bay.

And then there was the divisional managing director who sat all day in his office reading. Turns out he published a novel which got critical acclaim.

"What does he do?" I asked one of the staff members who gushed about him.

"Not much. But his book's absolutely lovely!"

I wish people today in finance would give me a job like that. I, also, received literary acclaim. Oh well.

My work at CSFB was fucking boring. When 3pm rolled around, I got bored-hungry. Hence, running over to the health food store for something to eat. There, I discovered baked barbeque pumpkin seeds, "Plumpkins."

Seated in my cubicle at CSFB with really high walls, I munched every afternoon on those damn Plumpkins, cherishing each morsel. It made the tedious work more endearing.

I loved Plumpkins so much I checked out their website. Just my luck! They held a contest for the best recipe utilizing their product. If it was published online, they would send the person a Plumpkins t-shirt.

Recalling Mom's garbage salad, in minutes I emailed them a recipe: iceberg lettuce, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, baked chicken, chickpeas, avocado, onions, topped with Plumpkins in a sesame-seed dressing. AND I WON!

A week later, I received at CSFB my Plumpkins t-shirt. Thrilled, I showed everyone around me. Only the department head was as excited as I was.

Then, one afternoon, I dropped the bag of Plumpkins on top of my keyboard. They spilled inside and got wedged deep making the keys inoperable. While waiting for a computer systems guy to help, I asked a neighbor analyst if I can use her computer for a sec to input data from what I analyzed. The data I needed to input were the recommended lines, degree of risk and to update the risk exposure.

While on her computer, I noticed that none of the work I did the previous three months registered. I met with the IT department and discovered that only three out of the 20 analysts' work was integrated and aggregated into the collective computerized system. It was then duly brought to the department manager's attention. After tons of meetings with IT and all the department heads, they realized that NONE of the lines and risk exposure in that department were integrated or aggregated.

It got better: it turns out that, across the board, CSFB's risk exposure wasn't fully aggregated or integrated from department to department. Meaning, not even at the corporate level did the senior executives know where they stood on their exposure in the US, let alone throughout the world.

All this resulted because I dropped a bag of Plumpkins on my keyboard! I'm a fucking genius!!

This underscores an even larger problem still endemic in most global institutions: there's no such thing as an aggregated risk exposure. I know firsthand from interviews up to five years ago that most financial institutions don't have a handle on their off-balance sheet derivative exposure.

As a matter of fact, several years ago, I was interviewed by honchos from a TARP bank to head up the Credit Department.

One of the top people said, "We still can't aggregate our derivative exposure. What do you suggest?"

I laughed. "Simple. Cut lines until you do!"

Aghast, he said, "We can't do that! The traders make their money from these transactions."

As well as the bank. Makes you wonder why banking is the way it is?

Two weeks later back in 1998, CSFB got hit with the Russian bond loss. They hadn't a fucking clue what their exposure was. NOT A FUCKING CLUE! It took them a year to assess the damage. A YEAR!

After the news broke about the Russian bonds, the head of the Russian bond department came over to me. It was mid-afternoon and I sat munching on Plumpkins. He barely knew me and broke down in my cubicle, sobbing, "I'm gonna be fired."

Let me tell you something: he wasn't. I was.

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