The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess

November 30, 2013 - Comment

The Buy Side, by former Galleon Group trader Turney Duff, portrays an after-hours Wall Street culture where drugs and sex are rampant and billions in trading commissions flow to those who dangle the most enticements.  A remarkable writing debut, filled with indelible moments, The Buy Side shows as no book ever has the rewards –

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The Buy Side, by former Galleon Group trader Turney Duff, portrays an after-hours Wall Street culture where drugs and sex are rampant and billions in trading commissions flow to those who dangle the most enticements.  A remarkable writing debut, filled with indelible moments, The Buy Side shows as no book ever has the rewards – and dizzying temptations – of making a living on the Street.
Growing up in the 1980’s Turney Duff was your average kid from Kennebunk, Maine, eager to expand his horizons. After trying – and failing – to land a job as a journalist, he secured a trainee position at Morgan Stanley and got his first feel for the pecking order that exists in the trading pits.  Those on the “buy side,” the traders who make large bets on whether a stock will rise or fall, are the “alphas” and those on the “sell side,” the brokers who handle their business, are eager to please.
How eager to please was brought home stunningly to Turney in 1999 when he arrived at the Galleon Group, a colossal hedge-fund management firm run by secretive founder Raj Rajaratnam.  Finally in a position to trade on his own, Turney was encouraged to socialize with the sell side and siphon from his new broker friends as much information as possible.  Soon he was not just vacuuming up valuable tips but also being lured into a variety of hedonistic pursuits.  Naïve enough to believe he could keep up the lifestyle without paying a price, he managed to keep an eye on his buy-and-sell charts and, meanwhile, pondered the strange goings on at Galleon, where tens of millions were being made each week in sometimes mysterious ways.
At his next positions, at Argus Partners and J.L. Berkowitz, Turney climbed to even higher heights – and, as it turned out, plummeted to even lower depths – as, by day, he solidified his reputation one of the Street’s most powerful healthcare traders, and by night, he blazed a path through the city’s nightclubs, showing off his social genius and voraciously inhaling any drug that would fill the void he felt inside.
A mesmerizingly immersive journey through Wall Street’s first millennial decade, and a poignant self portrait by a young man who surely would have destroyed himself were it not for his decision to walk away from a seven-figure annual income, The Buy Side is one of the best coming-of-age-on-the-Street books ever written.

Q&A with Turney Duff

Q. When you had big money coming in, you were spending as fast as you got – sometimes on bizarre over-the-top purchases. As a small-town kid from Maine, did you ever look in the mirror and say, “What the heck am I doing?”

A. Yes, but I probably didn’t use the word “heck.” I would have moments where I’d say to myself “I can’t believe this is my life,” which likely only added to the excess. My attitude was, “What’s the point of making a lot of money, unless you’re going to enjoy it?’” so I tried to enjoy it. Conversely, when I was bottoming out, I constantly was saying to myself, “What happened?” The real danger comes when people start equating net-worth to self-worth.

Q. You seem to have been the Einstein of networking, a guy who made being a party animal work for him in a big way. Why do you think the social aspect of Wall Street came so easy, and did it startle you when you realized that having a high social I.Q. could be more profitable than “reading the tape” or being a quant?

A. I’m flattered but, please, I wasn’t the Einstein of anything. I just didn’t have any other skill to rely on and I’m very social by nature. There’s no magic to it, I just treat people the way I’d like to be treated. But I don’t think I ever had an “ah ha” moment where I realized this was the key to success. I just knew that whatever I was doing was working, so I kept doing it. I guess this could add to the I.Q. vs. E.Q. debate. (Oh, and by the way, I understand Albert was also a big fan of shaking the snow globe.)

Q. You worked for Raj Rajaratham, who was convicted of insider trading on an unprecedented scale. Do you think that insider trading is endemic to Wall Street’s culture?

A. I can only speak to what I saw and experienced but I think it’s headed in the right direction now. When I was placing bets on the market, Wall Street had convinced itself that the area of insider trading was very grey. It felt like a victimless crime. The thinking went, to compete you have to bend the rules. It’s not all that different from the steroid era and Major League Baseball. There are a lot of guys whose careers have asterisks next to their earnings. As long as there’s big money at stake people are going to cheat. That’s not only how Wall Street works, that’s how the world works. But with the spotlight now on Wall Street it’s harder for inside traders, and it’s getting harder all the time.

Q. Has Wall Street grown less trustworthy? Should we credit what those in power have to say about their integrity?

A. Believe it or not, there are plenty of people with integrity on Wall Street. I was there during 9/11, and there wasn’t a more courageous and patriotic place in the country. Ironically, as more negative press comes out we should probably trust the trading community more. The jig is up. Sure, we’ll still see some bad guys get taken down now and then, but my guess is, the majority of people are playing by the rules. It’s all fear-based now.

Q. The book describes in vivid detail some of your most vulnerable moments – truly jaw- dropping addiction. At what point did you realize that, without help, you’d be unable to pull out of your downward spiral?

A. I made the decision a year after my first rehab that I was only going to relapse once. I knew that I couldn’t just have one, or party just a little, so I told myself that I would blow it out one night and then get back to recovery. After that night I told myself I was allowed to relapse once a month, very private and nobody gets hurt. Soon after, I told myself that I could party twice a month and before I knew it I was right back where I was before rehab—even worse. So by the fall of 2008 I knew there was no end in sight. Something was going to break, but I didn’t have the courage to stop it myself. I had to crash.

Q. Ultimately, what pulled you back from the brink and made you say no to Wall Street’s seven-figure seduction was your daughter. You don’t hold much back. Do you worry how she’ll view the book when she’s old enough to read it?

A. The two people I wasn’t sure I wanted reading this book were my daughter, Lola, and my mom. But once I decided to write it I was fully committed. I can’t predict what my daughter will eventually say, but at the very least she’ll know I was honest. All I can do is show her my love every single day. It only took my mother a week or so to digest the book. Now she’s my biggest supporter. She says she’s proud of my honesty and courage. I hope that’s more than a mom’s take.

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Debra says:

AMAZING memoir This book was absolutely awesome – it was everything a memoir should be. It was brutally honest, extremely well written and engaging but not over the top, and didn’t come across as overly self focused.The thing that I think I loved the most was that it was a really unique perspective that most people wouldn’t have a lot of access to. I don’t know people that make 2 million dollar bonuses, so it was fascinating based on that alone. I also don’t know much about the world of finances or Wall Street, so that was also fascinating (and disturbing).I also really appreciated the chronology. You become lured into his drug addiction just like he was. He believed he could quit and as you’re reading it, you do too. It’s written so that you become attached to the people involved and experience his life as he’s experiencing it. I loved the honesty. He gives you enough detail to make it real but not so much that you feel like you’re looking at him naked – it’s a…

Srikumar S. Rao says:

Good description of one man’s journey in high finance Duff writes well and I guess he would have done well if he had pursued his original ambition to be a journalist. Instead he took a detour into finance and landed up as a gofer on the trading floor in a well known investment bank. He worked his way up and eventually became a trader in his own right and discovered in himself skills that made him a good one. For example, he did not fall in love with any position he took and was quick to cut losses. He also had sound instincts about the direction the market would head and the steady nerves to bet big on this. So, in glory years, he made a lot of money for his firm and for himself.As he became successful there were wild parties with alcohol and girls and eventually cocaine, lots of cocaine. He lost control, quit before he was fired, went into rehab, recovered built his career back and became addicted again, went into another rehab and hopefully is now clean and will remain so. But – as he mentions at the end of his book – he…

Evelyn Uyemura says:

A Personal Memoir, with some insight into a major social issue This book at first reminded me an awful lot of Michael Lewis’s 1989 book Liar’s Poker (later of Moneyball fame). The basic plot starts out the same–bright but not particularly qualified young guy gets a job on Wall Street and is amazed at how much money he can make, and how arrogant and crude the guys around him are (Lewis has a guy known as Big Swinging Dick, while this book has a guy known as Baby Arm, for similar reasons), and gradually comes to accept that he has a right to this sort of wealth, but in the end, sees the error of his ways.But this latest version of the plot is actually more personal and less about Wall Street as the problem, although in the end, he comes to the conclusion that he can’t work there anymore and survive as a human being. But in this case, the book was written more or less as therapy, in an attempt to come clean and stay clean. Turney Duff developed a major cocaine addiction, and destroyed his relationship with the mother of his child along…

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