The Long and the Short of Alcoholism in Financial Markets
When I was young, I used to spend hours looking at all of the football results and the
league tables. I would analyse them endlessly. Actually, I still do. I look at current form, home and away performance, goal scorers, attendances – the whole thing. In fact, I do it all of the way down from the Premier League to so-called grassroots non-league football.
I carried this fascination for statistics into financial markets. Now I can sit all day watching the colours flashing on the screen, analysing the charts, trying to discern trends and turning points. If I'm doing it at home then my wife laughs at me because she says it’s the way I've always been.
There is something addictive about this type of behaviour, of course. When you put working in financial markets together with alcohol and drugs then it’s potentially quite a toxic mix. Trading involves risk-taking, the sense of a high, the craving for more, and withdrawal symptoms - what do you do with yourself when it’s a bank holiday or a weekend and the markets are closed?
All of these behaviours characterise the alcoholic. I've known many alcoholics in my life in the City. In fact, I became one of them but I perhaps managed to hide it better than some. Like many, I began a pattern of drinking at a young age in my early teens. When I started work, I found that I could mix business with pleasure, so to speak. It started out with the long ‘liquid lunches’, which often carried on until the end of the day. These were deemed socially acceptable at one time because they ‘oiled’ the wheels of business.
At the outset, it’s fun. The camaraderie and bravado of traders provides for shared stories of how you’ve taken on the rest of the world and won, or for drowning sorrows until another day. But what started as a pleasurable way of handling stress turned into loss of control, binges and blackouts. When I look back, where was the fun in wandering around foreign cities in blackout in the early hours of the morning or waking up on the floor of hotel bathrooms? You’re putting your job at risk, obviously, but on reflection, with the wisdom of sobriety, even your life at times.
But I learned something with maturity about markets and with my background in economics. There is no point in being sucked into every ‘tick’ – every movement of the price. We call it ‘screen watching’. It’s not worthwhile trying to find significance in every micro move when there is none to be found. You get a better perspective if you stay out, reflect on the bigger picture, and talk to other people. Calm rational analysis is better than impetuosity and false bravado.
The same principles are at work when the alcoholic turns around and starts setting out on the path to recovery in treatment. You begin to realise that you've been locked into doing something for the sake of it. Reaching for the next drink is like wrongly believing that you always need to have a trading position. In reality, you're at risk of making things worse. You need to step back and have the humility to ask for the help of others.
The world of the financial markets trader is both global and local at the same time. You are a ‘citizen of the world’ – plugged into world events for twenty four hours a day – but often with a very narrow focus on a specific area of activity. As an economist, I can see that all parts of the global economy are interconnected to a greater or lesser extent. When responsible only for trading the Euro/dollar exchange rate, however, it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of events in some distant part of the world like China.
The danger for the trader is a retreat into self-isolation with a loss of broader perspective. The irony is that a trader can become very lonely, especially when things are going wrong. It’s the same for an alcoholic. What starts as a social activity can easily slide into self-centred behaviour. Most of my heavy drinking was done alone. Turning around is all about becoming a team-player and having the support of others around you.
The same principles are at work for all of us, and especially for alcoholics in recovery. We all belong to something much bigger in life in relation to others and to the world around us but often become enslaved by our own self-obsessions.
Being an alcoholic is lonely. Just as the trader needs to lift his head and take a broader perspective of the world around him, the alcoholic in recovery needs to come out of self-isolation and find his true place in the world.