Novice traders offer a welcome dose of reality TV

 

Compared with earlier glamorous business programmes, ‘Million Dollar Traders’ offers the pleasures of watching failure and desperation, writes Lucy Kellaway

THE MOST horrible moment of my working life was when I was employed on a trading floor and one day got into such a muddle that instead of buying $10 million, I sold them instead.

The chief foreign exchange dealer – a nasty piece of work if ever there was one – shouted at me, the whole trading room stared and I ran off to the ladies’ loo and wept. The shame of it all: to lose so much money by being so stupid was bone-crushingly wretched.

In the intervening 27 years I had successfully buried this memory, but last week it all came back when I watched the first episode of the BBC business reality television series, Million Dollar Traders.

The idea behind the show came from a Dutch hedge fund manager who has put up $1 million to prove his theory that anyone can be a trader as long as they are good at maths and can cope with stress. He hired eight people of assorted ages, races, sexes and trades, gave each some training, a computer terminal, a share of the $1 million and told them to get cracking.

Last week, we watched them buy their first shares. And then we watched their faces as they watched the prices of those same shares move briskly in the wrong direction. Their raw misery and terror was not like the hyped-up emotion of reality television – this was the real thing.

“I thought it was going to be difficult. It’s f***ing impossible,” said one despairing trader. “The last time I had trauma like this was getting divorced,” said the oldest of them, who had done a Lucy and bought when he should have sold.

Maybe the Dutch hedgie had chosen the wrong people. Perhaps instead of asking them to do mental arithmetic at the interview stage, he should have examined their fingers. Last week, a Cambridge scientist revealed that what sorts out successful traders from the rest of us is that they have relatively longer ring fingers than index fingers. Yet even if he had hired according to this unusual principle I doubt if things would have gone more smoothly.

The message that the programme rammed home is that being a trader is the worst job in the world.

It is horrible in normal conditions – all that fear of losing, and never being able to leave your desk. But in abnormal ones, when markets are volatile and falling, it is more beastly than a human being should be asked to bear.

The luckless novice traders were let loose on the week of the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae bailout last summer and, as we now know, that was only the beginning.

The good thing about such suffering, however, is that it makes for great viewing. Over the last decade business television has fed us an unvarying diet of glamour, greed and ambition. There were the endless chauffeur-driven cars and shiny high heels of The Apprentice, the hard-nosed entrepreneurs of Dragons’ Dentrying to get rich on other people’s frivolous ideas. It was diverting enough at the time, but so much ambition and greed gets tiresome.

By contrast, failure and desperation offer a richer seam of viewing pleasure.

In Argentina in 2002, when unemployment was well over 20 per cent, there was a smash-hit television programme called Recursos Humanos. In the show, two candidates were interviewed for lowly blue-collar jobs – such as waiter or window cleaner – and they would competitively demean themselves to see who was the more wretched and the more desperately in need of employment.

Viewers would then ring in to vote. The show was such a hit that other countries – including Portugal, Greece and Germany – copied the format, until trade unions complained that it was sordid, exploitative and a violation of human rights, and a stop was put to it.

However, I have a better idea for a recession television series: it would also be compulsive viewing but might do good rather than evil.

My show, to be called The Begging Bowl, would make the chief executives of failing businesses compete for loans and handouts. They would each give a brief presentation and then be grilled by a panel. (I like to see myself as its Sharon Osbourne – tough yet compassionate). Viewers would then decide whom to bailout and whom to abandon to the receivers.

To be under such televised scrutiny would surely change business behaviour for the better. Think what happened in December when the three big US carmakers went cap-in-hand to Washington and had to admit on television to having got there in three separate executive jets. They went by car the next time.

Such awkward questions about pay and perks would routinely be asked of contestants on my show.

The chief executives would have to talk about how their companies had got into their current mess and how they proposed to get out of it. Those, such as Land of Leather, the UK sofa company that went under last week in spite of having been fairly prudent, might end up being saved by popular demand.

You could say that the public is too ignorant to decide on difficult matters like this. But the banks have made such a hash of deciding whom to lend to in the past that the public could hardly be any worse.

You might also wonder where the bailout money would come from. But if a Dutchman can hand over $1 million of his own cash to novice traders, I really can’t see why Gordon Brown should not put the £20 billion that is being made available to troubled businesses into the television hat and let taxpayers decide who gets what.

It is their money, after all. – ( Financial Timesservice)