Prowling After Profits : Three...

David Ignatius is financial editor of the Washington Post. His third spy novel, "The Bank of Fear," was published by William Morrow last summer. His new novel, "The Hatchet Man" (Morrow), is not a financial thriller

Just when you begin to think that the new financial thrillers flooding bookstores this season are based on absurd premises--kids in their 20s betting hundreds of millions of dollars in screwball financial trades--along comes someone like Nicholas Leeson to remind you that truth really is stranger than fiction.

What novelist, after all, would dare create a character as outrageous as Leeson, the 28-year-old trader who lost more than $1.5 billion last month betting on Japanese stock futures and thus destroying Britain's oldest merchant bank? A few weeks earlier, this amazing young fellow was fined for taking his pants down and mooning guests in a nightclub--in Singapore, of all places, the home of the rattan cane. And the day before he skipped town, leaving Queen Elizabeth II's own bank in a shambles, Leeson called a chum at Barings in Tokyo to inquire casually, "How's life?"

Against such facts mere fiction pales. But you have to credit the authors of these three new financial thrillers for being in touch with the Zeitgeist . So similar are their themes and approaches that you can't help but suspect that we are witnessing the creation of a suspense genre for the post-Cold War world. Just as spying was the defining activity of the old order, so the machinations of high finance may be emblematic of the new.

These days, the trading rooms at Merrill Lynch and Salomon Brothers are more powerful than the KGB ever was: They can slash the value of the Mexican peso by 40% in a few weeks and sink a comfortable American community like Orange County in a sea of debt. The fictional KGB spymaster Karla could never have achieved such results.

If the financial thriller has a problem, it's that money is--let's face it--sort of boring. Can readers really be persuaded to care about heroes and heroines who spend most of their days staring at Quotron screens?

These three books offer a useful test. One features a handsome British bond trader who battles a dastardly investment banker. Another involves a beautiful British currency trader who battles a corrupt finance minister in league with the Mafia. The third, a satire, turns the new genre upside down by describing an investment bank gone so bonkers that it attempts the leveraged buyout of an entire Caribbean nation.

The three books--all first novels by talented young writers--are being heavily touted by their publishers, with the whopping first printings and six-figure publicity campaigns that suggest the front office is thinking bestseller. But all three novels are flawed, in ways that show the limitations of the financial thriller as a new genre for the masses.

The premier page-turner of the group is Linda Davies' "Nest of Vipers." Her book tells the story of Sarah Jensen, a smart and beautiful, Oxbridge-educated merchant banker. The author herself is--surprise!--a smart and beautiful Oxbridge-educated former merchant banker.

Jensen, "one of the top foreign-exchange traders in the City of London," likes to leave work early and aerobicize at her health club after a hard day shorting peso futures. She is innocently involved in making obscene wads of money when a slick British intelligence officer and a smarmy governor of the Bank of England lure her into their plot.

Their scheme is vintage financial thriller. The British authorities want to catch a Mafia don who is receiving leaked information about future currency alignments from meetings of the G-7 industrialized nations. Who'd have thought that anything so exciting could happen at a G-7 meeting?

But never mind. The English spies need a mole in the currency trading department of a big merchant bank, who can catch the malefactors red-handed on the execute button of the Quotron machine. And who better than the smart and beautiful Sarah Jensen? Throughout the book, however, we are warned that this is not a gal to trifle with: "If they ever betrayed her, she would, like Samson, pull the pillars down around them all."

They do, and she does.

Davies writes well enough, and her heroine, in addition to being a total babe ("one of the most gorgeous creatures I've ever set eyes on" a character exclaims), is a generally vivid, plausible character. But Davies has an unfortunate tendency to lapse into the Time magazine school of thriller writing, in which she enumerates every item Sarah eats for breakfast, or describes each of the seven newspapers Sarah reads one morning--as if this hemorrhage of detail will lend authority to her tale.

And there are a few sentences such as the following, to confound even the most devoted reader of the financial thriller: "When Barrington asked Marcus Aylyard, the head of the Markets Supervision Department of the Old Lady, to look at the monthly profit-and-loss statement of the ICB's FX Prop Department for the past year, it became evident that there was substance to the young auditor's suspicions."

As in many thrillers, the windup in this book--the recruitment of Sarah as a mole, her accumulation of evidence, her growing suspicions that she is being used--is better than the pitch. We have been apprised, in the early pages, that this is a woman who, if scorned, will exact revenge. But the way she chooses to do so is so utterly implausible that it seems unfair to the reader not to give the final plot twist away.

But suppose you really want to know bond trading and could do without all the sex-and-violence thriller stuff. You're interested in how yields rise when bond prices fall, and how traders make millions arbitrating 50 basis points of difference in Eurobond spreads. Then the book for you is "Free to Trade," a book whose title suggests it might be the secret diary of libertarian economist Friedrich von Hayek.

"Free to Trade" is written by Michael Ridpath, a smart and handsome, Oxbridge-educated former merchant banker. His hero, Paul Murray is . . . yes, you guessed it. Written in a polite first-person, this book answers the vexing question: What do bond traders actually do all day?

Far and away the most interesting parts of "Free to Trade" are, in fact, its descriptions of life on the trading floor. The opening chapter--in which Paul makes a killing buying Swedish 10-year, 9 1/4 bonds at 99 and selling them at 99.10--is a corker. No kidding! The author makes you feel the intensity of the trading floor, the combination of number-crunching and gut instinct that leads people to take big risks, the thrill of playing a hunch and getting it right.

Unfortunately, Ridpath's sparkling descriptions of how you trade bonds are the novel's high point. As Paul Murray stumbles across a scheme to subvert an Arizona savings and loan, the book itself lurches into some quite dreadful plot machinations. And we figure out the identity of the supreme villain at least 200 pages before our hero. Maybe he was just too busy thinking about the yield curve.

The most ambitious of the three books is Po Bronson's "Bombardiers." A 30-year-old who briefly worked as a bond salesman for First Boston, Bronson has taken his revenge in this frenetic satirical novel. His premise is that the entire world of high finance--including the machinations described in the financial thriller--is a complete crock.

"Bombardiers" appears to be consciously modeled on Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." Emulating one of the great popular novels of the 20th Century is a risky venture, and it takes nothing away from Bronson's considerable skill as a writer to say that he does not entirely succeed. From the outset, the book speaks in Heller's "they're all crazy out there; we're the only sane ones" voice. But the bombardiers this time aren't flying missions over Germany; they're trying to unload junk bonds for an investment bank called Atlantic Pacific.

The Yossarian of the tale is a 34-year-old bond salesman named Sidney Geeder, fabled among his colleagues as "King of Mortgages" for his ability to sell bonds of that ilk. The structure of the book, to the extent there is one, involves Geeder's attempt to take early retirement by cashing out his 100,000 shares of the company's stock, worth about $4 million. But every time he seems to be getting close, his bosses add new conditions until he finally realizes that he can't retire, because if he tries to, they'll fire him, in which case he'll lose the 100,000 shares.

Sound familiar? There are many, many other echoes of "Catch-22" in Bronson's pages. There's a Helleresque character named Eggs Igino, who disappears to Mexico when he realizes that every time he's about to reach his quota to sell $20 million of Resolution Trust Corp. bonds, say, his boss, a man called Coyote Jack, will raise the quota to $30 million. Among the other characters in this financial fun house are Lisa Lisa, Nickel Sansome, Thom Slavonika--all bond traders--and a sex-obsessed Romanian doctor named Ivana Perkova.

The plot, though that isn't the right term for a novel that so completely disdains narrative conventions, turns on the sale of Romanian bonds. Atlantic Pacific issues bonds for Bucharest so it can buy fax machines from a company called Ingenesis, and then issues bonds for Ingenesis so it can sell fax machines to the Romanians. Despite this circularity, the deal is going along just fine until Eggs Igino actually looks at the Romanian prospectus and notices that the proposed payout adds up to 110% of the value of the deal. His superiors decide to promote Igino to senior vice president for discovering an extra 10% collateral.

What finally drives Eggs Igino and Sid Geeder into open rebellion is Atlantic Pacific's plan to buy up the assets on the Dominican Republic through a company called New Lincoln (the bonds are called Lincoln Convertibles) and then foreclose on the Caribbean nation and take it private. The motto of the privatized nation will be "One Vote Per Share." The climax comes as Geeder tries to sell his quota of $100-million Lincoln Convertibles, screaming into the phone: "Have you got the gonads to be part of history?"

The problem with all this is that "Bombardiers" is hard to follow. You don't learn what all the characters' nicknames are until somewhere around Page 137, by which time you no longer care. And oddly, in a book about the mad world of bond trading, you don't really learn very much about bond trading.

What drives this book, rather, is Bronson's vision of the modern U.S. economy as an absurd scam. He explains in one of the Swiftian rants that begin each chapter: "They disguised it all with numbers. They bought and sold money, and every year the Fed pumped more money into the money they had sold. . . . The money was in sales, and the real money was in selling money."

A powerful insight in a book full of promise.

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