The ‘least offensive person in finance’ has Wall Street billionaires listening

On April 20, something occurred that was unprecedented in the history of financial markets: The price of oil went negative.

It wasn’t the case that the cost of a barrel had fallen to some scary-low number. It actually went below zero, meaning there were traders out there who would pay you to own oil. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, sending stocks sharply down, and by the time the exchanges closed at 4pm, many financial news outlets were still struggling to explain why.

Matt Levine was at Goldman Sachs before pivoting to journalism.
Matt Levine was at Goldman Sachs before pivoting to journalism.Credit:Benjamin Norman/The New York Times

“Commodity futures need to be standardised and tied to a physical delivery point, which in this case was overwhelmed,” wrote one publication. “The front part of the oil futures ‘curve,’ which is the May contract that expires on Tuesday, was hit the hardest since it applies to fuel that’s set to be delivered while most of the country remains on lockdown thanks to the coronavirus,” said another outlet.

One group of news consumers got a more comprehensible take. The approximately 150,000 people who subscribe to Money Stuff, a free newsletter written by Matt Levine, a columnist at Bloomberg, found an email in their inboxes with the subject line “There’s Nowhere to Put the Oil.”


Remarkably, Levine’s piece was written more than an hour before the market went haywire. It was a cleareyed, colourful distillation of something almost no one had contemplated. It read like a bedtime story about West Texas Intermediate Crude.

“Oil is voluminous and oozy and poisonous and flammable and smelly,” Levine wrote, beginning an exposition on monthly oil futures contracts.

“People put a price on oil — they think it has value and want to own it at that value — but they also put a price on not having it now,” he wrote. “Conceivably, in theory, the latter price (what you’d pay to not have oil now) could exceed the former (what you’d pay to have oil eventually), leading to negative spot prices.”

In financial news — a medium not known for cultivating eccentric or literary voices — there’s no other writer quite like Levine, a former Goldman Sachs banker whose deadpan style mixes technical elucidation and wit.

Each weekday, Levine, 42, wakes up at 5 in the morning. He looks at what’s going on in the markets, scrolls through emails from readers and plugs into the chatter of early-to-work traders. Then he starts to write. Roughly 5000 words later on a long-winded day, he files Money Stuff to his editor, and it’s sent to subscribers around noon.

Billionaires read Money Stuff. “Matt is one of the best writers today chronicling the ironies, paradoxes and absurdities of modern business and finance,” wrote one of them, hedge fund manager Jim Chanos, in an email.

“His work is some of the most sophisticated analysis of what is really happening on Wall Street,” said Bill Ackman, another billionaire fund manager.

Levine went from working on Wall Street to writing about it.
Levine went from working on Wall Street to writing about it. Credit:AP

“He’s the least offensive person in finance,” said Gary Shteyngart, author of “Super Sad True Love Story.” When Shteyngart was working on his latest book, “Lake Success,” a darkly comic novel about a hedge funder spiralling out of control, he asked Levine to review a draft for accuracy. “He knows his stuff,” Shteyngart said, praising Money Stuff as “cogent, insightful, dryly funny at times — as in, ‘Can you believe this stuff is happening?'”

After graduating from Harvard in 2000 with a major in classics, Levine taught Latin at a high school in a Boston suburb. Then he went to Yale Law. A circumscribed life of prosperity and billable hours seemed destined. He clerked for a federal appeals court judge and put in time as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.

In 2007, he took a position at Goldman Sachs, applying his knowledge of corporate law to the financial markets.

As riveting as it was to help exceedingly rich people and companies make even more money, Levine was not happy. “I felt both that the job was bad and that I was bad at it,” he said. Whenever he got particularly frustrated he would fantasise about quitting and becoming a writer.

Some of Levine’s friends were writers, including David Lat, a fellow Yale Law School graduate who founded the seminal legal blog Underneath Their Robes, about the “superhotties of the federal judiciary,” and the slightly more professional Above the Law. By 2011, Levine had decided to leave Goldman. Above the Law‘s sister blog — Dealbreaker, focusing on Wall Street gossip — was hiring. Levine got the job, paying something north of $US50,000.

The idea of leaving Wall Street for a precariously capitalised blog would probably strike a lot of financiers as romantic, quaint, even idiotic. But Levine was never a high roller. He never joined an elite social club or spent six figures on a Hamptons summer rental. And so, at 33, Levine sat down to write.

It took Levine exactly one week to find his voice.

Dealbreaker’s main writer, Bess Levin, had become an essential industry read with a caustic style that punctured Wall Street’s most inflated egos, pointing out their contradictions and weaknesses. Levine tried to write like that, with snarky punchlines, and failed. Part of the problem was that he couldn’t really access a contempt for Wall Street titans. He was of the place, and he found its workings genuinely interesting.

"Matt is one of the best writers today chronicling the ironies, paradoxes and absurdities of modern business and finance.": Legendary short-seller Jim Chanos.
“Matt is one of the best writers today chronicling the ironies, paradoxes and absurdities of modern business and finance.”: Legendary short-seller Jim Chanos.Credit:Bloomberg

“I encouraged him to use his own voice,” Levin said. “I was writing more about the gossipy side of Wall Street and more the culture of it, and I thought it was a great opportunity for him to use his incredible knowledge of how the business works.” Levine regrouped. If Levin found an audience by tearing down the personalities of Wall Street, Levine set to work pulling apart its structures, to better explain the wiring in the walls.

He began by combing through the complex legal battles stemming from the 2008 financial crisis over who deserved to be paid and who deserved not to pay, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the combatants’ claims. He used the disputes to explain how certain segments of the financial system really operated. He seasoned his analyses with humour and a nerdy, confident tone. It was like a combination of everything Levine had done before: emailing friends, teaching, clerking, and problem-solving on behalf of rich actors.

And so there was a sense of inevitability on the day in 2013 when David Shipley, editor of the billionaire-backed Bloomberg opinion desk, took Levine to lunch and offered him a job. “It was like this long, Matt-type silence, and then kind of a sigh, and then, ‘OK,'” Shipley recalled.

‘People want a lock of his hair’

Bloomberg offered Levine stability and a larger platform. His readership grew and became more obsessive. A group of fans once made themselves T-shirts bearing the text of one of his tweets about cryptocurrencies. Some of Levine’s readers write to him and attempt to mimic his style, as if he were JD Salinger and they can’t get over how “Catcher in the Rye” spoke directly to them. I asked Levine for some examples, wanting to see exactly what shape this took, but he declined because he considers these correspondents to be sources.

“He gets these letters from people, like, ‘My boyfriend loves you; can I get an autographed card for his birthday?'” said his friend, journalist Mary Childs. “I joke that people want a lock of his hair.”

Levine, of course, is not a conventional writer. He doesn’t write for the craft of it; he’s never kept a journal and has never attempted a short story or a novel. He said he thinks he might not exist as a writer if he didn’t have his audience, if he couldn’t sit down on weekday mornings and write his Wall Street view directly for them.

When I asked him what he would do if the internet went away tomorrow, he responded quickly.

“A tax — I’d be an M&A lawyer,” he said.

The New York Times

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