In Defense of Bobby Axelrod

Hi everyone!

We are extremely happy today to have our lovely Lady Trader blogging for us in defense of Bobby Axelrod. Lady Trader is not just a fan of Billions, but she has been living and breathing the world of Bobby Axelrod with 20 years of experience in the securities industry. For 8 years, she was a software and media equity analyst in asset management at The Bank of New York and Weiss, Peck & Greer. In addition, she was responsible in supporting the portfolio managers in portfolio construction and risk-control. She previously worked for 6 years at the American Stock Exchange as a special assistant in the Finance and Information Technology Departments. Prior to that, she was at Dean Witter Reynolds in the Retirement Plan Operations Division.

Dear Lady Trader, we cannot thank you enough for sharing your expertise with us over the months and it feels wonderful to have you share your own perspective on Axe and his doings, particularly in the wake of 9/11, in your own words.

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

Let’s face it: Bobby Axelrod would be the last person who would say he needs defending. He’s a big boy, playing in the big leagues. He knows who he is, and is OK with it. And basically, could give a shit about what others think of him.

However, in light of the revelations regarding Axe and 9/11 over the past two episodes of Billions, I feel the need to try and explain his actions from the point of view from someone who not only trades for a living, but was in lower Manhattan on 9/11.

I have lived in New York my whole life, and worked in lower Manhattan from 1988 until 2003. My first job out of high school was at a firm called Dean Witter, and I worked in 5 World Trade Center. Growing up in Brooklyn, my dream was to work in “the City” as we called Manhattan. From my bedroom window, I could see the Twin Towers and felt that if I could work in those buildings, I would have “made it”. At the age of 17, both those dreams came true.

WTCbklyn

It was brilliantly clear, beautiful late summer morning. I was in my office at the tip of lower Manhattan (approximately 3-4 blocks from the World Trade Center) on 9/11, dialing in to a conference call. Word started to spread around the office that a plane had hit one of the Towers. At first, everyone assumed it was a small prop plane. The thought of a commercial airliner never crossed my mind. I went around to the side of the building that faced north, and saw smoke coming from the Towers, but still nothing to make me think it was a 767. As I went back to my desk, I thought “I hope not many people were hurt”. Several minutes later, the news that another plane had hit the South Tower came across my news feed. Then, the word of the crash at the Pentagon.

Being in the tallest building at the southern tip of Manhattan, panic and fear spread across the office. Would our building be next? Both my mother and husband worked two blocks from me, and phone lines were down. I could not reach anyone. Even as I write this, the emotion of that morning is as fresh as the minute it happened.

I eventually made contact with both my husband and mother, and went into my Mom’s office. She was in a sub-level of her building, and we felt it was safer underground. Around noon, we left her office, trying to make our way out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn. All transportation out the city was shut down, so we walked over the Manhattan Bridge with many others. I walked over the bridge with thousand of New Yorkers, and there was a deafening silence. As I got to the mid-point of the bridge, I looked towards Manhattan, and where two buildings that meant so much to me used to stand, was nothing but smoke. Surreal does not even come close to what I felt. Empty, sad and scared is a much better description.

liberty

Why do I tell this story? And what does it have to do with Axe? Well, if I am going to explain Axe and his actions, I want to give you, the reader, my experience so you will understand my point of view as well. I was one of the lucky people who did not lose a loved one on 9/11. But I lost of the feeling of safety, and part of my identity that day.

We see in Episode 1, June, a 9/11 widow, make the comment “It just wrong that you are the one standing there…”. We later find out that Axe was at his lawyer’s office going over his severance package because he was being fired. Is that his fault? There are literally hundreds of stories of people who were supposed to be in the WTC that day and were not. It was primary day for Democratic candidates for Mayor of New York City. Many people were not in the office because they went to vote before work. Also, the New York Giants had played the previous night on Monday Night Football, and I know from first hand experience, after a late night football game, some fans sleep in a bit and come into the office a little later. No matter what reason Axe was not in the office, it was a matter of circumstance. Perhaps it was his fate not to be in the office that day. I just don’t believe it’s a reason to paint him as a villain.

source: spoilertv.com
source: spoilertv.com

Now, the trading. This is a little bit more complicated and nuanced to explain. First and foremost, Axe is a trader. And he’s a good trader because he sees an opportunity, and runs with it. We find out in Episode 8, that Axe, after hearing a plane hit the WTC, shorted stocks in the aviation, hotel, and shipping industries. Most people would immediately think: what a cold hearted, money grubbing monster. But remember: most people did not know this was a terrorist attack; most of us thought it was an accident (at least those of us not watching it on TV). Even if it were just an accident, the market would open down, because the one thing the market hates is uncertainty. How many were hurt? How would this effect business in New York? And a whole list of other questions would have spooked the market. So, Bobby does what would be natural to him:  place a bet.

Shorting names in those industries after the first plane hit was not a slam dunk; often times, once facts are known, the market can rebound just as sharply and quickly as it craters. Believe me; I’ve been caught in it. Also, as Damianista, JaniaJania, and Bookworm have so brilliantly explained in several prior posts and in the Billions: Glossary, getting caught in a short squeeze can be a death blow to any position. So, it was pretty risky to short those industries before knowing all the facts.

nyse

It is more problematic, at least from an optics view, when we learn in Episode 9, that he “stepped on the gas” after the second plane hit. The excuse of not knowing what was happening flies out the window. But, if we believe that Axe is first and foremost a trader, then this makes sense. You wouldn’t expect a shark not to attack when there is blood in the water, so it’s not hard to see why Axe does what he does.

In the end, only Axe knows what he was thinking on 9/11 while the world was changing forever. Yet, since I can see things as he might have seen them that day, I can understand his thought process. The moral aspect of what he did is for others to decide.

20 thoughts on “In Defense of Bobby Axelrod”

  1. Thank you so much for the opportunity to write for this amazing blog. You have welcomed me into your FanFun world with such warmth and kindness.
    I loved writing this post, and I believe you may have uncovered the “writer” in me!

    1. Your post has brought tears to my eyes. I was in NY that day. We lived in Morningside Heights. Even seeing it all happening on TV was too much. And we all thought first it was a small plane that got into the towers. I went downtown only a month later. It still smelled burnt rubber. I will never forget that.

      What Axe did on 9/11: I am with you. I think he just did what he knew the best: Trade. You are right that we need to leave the decision to people about whether what he did is moral or immoral. But what he did that day, ultimately, did not change anything. People would die regardless Axe did the trades or not. He saw an opportunity and took it. No emotions attached. Just business. And I think it’s a hard sell on his part arguing he did it for the families of his partners/friends, he probably believes in it so he can live with it. Some of us may not comprehend how someone could be so emotionally detached from what is happening around him and could see an opportunity to make money. But I think this is the auto-pilot he’s been talking about. Autopilot = Be rational. Having talked about auto-pilot, we have been seeing the auto-pilot not working as well as Axe wants it to in the last episodes. His cool facade crumbled for a split second at the fire house and then at the funeral it crumbled once more when he found out about Donnie’s wish to live until Christmas. He is still a human being.

      I love it that this show gives us so much to think about and talk about topics that we may prefer not to talk about otherwise. 9/11 is a very sensitive topic that we are always forced to pass on or talk in a certain way. I find it brave that the writers choose to go there.

      From the way you write it, I feel that you have not been very comfortable talking about 9/11, either. I find writing a very liberating experience and I hope you feel the same way. Thank you so much for being part of this for a while now, and I sincerely hope the writer in you does not go hide again 🙂

      1. Everyone has their experience of 9/11 and everyone’s is so unique and personal. And it always seemed odd only a few blocks in Manhattan separated a war zone and some sort of NY normality. I know what you mean about that smell downtown; I had to smell that everyday for months. I avoided going to “the pile” as it was called until my Dad and sister wanted to go and in a way pay their respects to all the victims. I did think it was important for people to see the utter destruction of the Towers, but to also see the many people working (so many just volunteering!) to try and find remains so that families would have some sort of closure.

        I so agree with your auto-pilot comment! For him auto-pilot was not just rational but doing the only thing he knows and feels comfortable doing: detaching emotion and trading. Emotions should play no part in trading. Because if it does, you are sunk. Too many people fall in love with a stock, or hate it. When you do that, you can lose focus of pulling the plug on a profit or loss. Also, if I believe Axe and I are about the same age (45) and he says he met Lara on 9/11, on that day, he’s a 30 year old single guy. I had family in the immediate area, and my first thought was “are they safe?” If he did not have any emotional strings (besides friends at a firm that just fired him), you can see how the business side took control. And I agree, Axe’s auto-pilot has been shaky lately. I think he tells himself stepping on the gas after the second plane hit was for the families, but in reality it’s just to give him an excuse not to really look at what he did.

        You are so right; I don’t talk about that day because it is still so emotional. It has been almost 15 years now, and I still well up when I think of that day. If I told the whole story (I remember every detail!!), it would have been a book! However, just re-examining my feelings that day helped so much. And, no, the writer in me will not hide! I have found that if you are writing about what you know, or about what you love, the words just flow!!

  2. Brilliantly succinct and effective! Reading the first part gave me goose bumps and brought back my memories of the day. So many of our friends abroad felt the same that exactly because they also “lost of the feeling of safety”

    1. Thank you! I never really speak about that day, and gave a very brief description. I remember every minute so clearly, down to the clothes I wore that day (I never wore them again).

      I just hope giving that perspective, but also going into a mind of a trader, makes viewers see a different point of view when judging Axe’s actions that day.

  3. Wonderful post! Your description of the silence walking over the Manhattan Bridge was chilling. It was a horrible day.

    1. Thank you! I still get very emotional when I think of the hours, and even days after 9/11, so I rarely speak about it. However, this forum, and writing about it was very cathartic for me.

      Thank you for letting me be apart of this, and getting that off my chest!

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of 9/11 and your views of Bobby’s actions.

    I wasn’t as close as you were. You were right there. I was at 44th and 6th Avenue, looking out the skyscraper windows at a huge rising dark cloud way downtown. I only have sketchy memories of that day. I don’t recall when I went home. Or when I went back to work. Also I had just completed 6 months of chemotherapy on June 4, 2001, so by 9/11/2001 I probably still was in shock from my personal experience of treatment and surgery and might have had chemo brain. It was ovarian cancer. I was lucky. This June is 15 years. It was a rough year all around. My 38 year old psychiatrist died in May 2001 from a bad form of MS. I had learned of her illness but didn’t realize it could suddenly strike her dead by shutting down some system in her body. She was an amazing brilliant young doctor who actually specialized in treating cancer patients but I didn’t know that when I started with her. And as far as Bobby not letting Donnie decide for himself about the cancer trial that might have let him make it to Christmas to do his last Secret Santa. That doctor should have told Donnie anyway. It was his right to know. His life, his decision. Bobby is racking up quite a few bad karma points. But he knew Donnie wanted the money for his family and maybe thought Donnie didn’t need the added stress of that decision. Still, it was Donnie’s to make.

    I’m slow on this hedge fund and trading stuff. Would you please explain as if to a 3 year old what Bobby did? He shorted stocks in those industries likely to be affected by bad news about air travel, travel in general. You borrow to short (not sure how you borrow). Then the stock price hopefully goes down. Then you sell them before someone else knows what’s going on? Then you later have to buy them back? Would you explain very simply what he did and how did he make huge money from it? Sorry to sound dumb but I often need things spelled out explicitly.

    So he was at his attorney dealing with his severance package. He heard about a plane hitting the towers. Did he jump on his laptop or borrow an office computer and trade that way? Was everything still working normally for awhile this early? Did those people who let him short/borrow the stocks just do the transaction not realizing what what was going on? Also those he sold to? Did the stock market kind of freeze for awhile after everyone learned what happened? Or when you short do you just borrow, not sell them, but hold while it goes down, then you buy them cheap? Then sell them later? (sorry for rattling on)

    I don’t know if this stuff is easy to explain but if possible a very simple step by step short description would be much appreciated. As if to a Martian or 3 year old. What he did and how how he made so much from it.

  5. Of course I will explain! That is exactly what I am here for! (Oh yeah, and I’m appreciation for DL and is acting!!) Also, the Billions: Glossary is always a great place to get quick and dirty explanations about the high finance deals in the show. There is a link on the top of the page!

    When you short a stock, you borrow the shares at a price (say $10) from a broker. Your ultimate hope is that the stock falls (say to $5), then you buy the stock back, and return the shares (cover your short). In this case, you have made $5. That is a great return percentage wise.

    When you have an airline disaster or a terrorist attack, you will find that the stocks related to the airlines & travel (hotels, on-line bookers, even cruise lines) will decline. As I have read, Paris is seeing a decrease in the tourism industry following the attacks of November 13. Axe’s instinct was to short those names, hoping they would decline. Once he knew that 9/11 was definitely a terrorist attack, it was a forgone conclusion that those industries would suffer.

    If I recall correctly, he shorted stocks on the European exchanges. The NYSE and the NASDAQ exchanges did not open that day (and would not open again until the following Monday), so any trading would have had to be done in foreign markets. Those markets were open for trading so they would have taken any orders that were placed, even if they knew it was a short due to the events in NYC. Most orders are done by computers, so it’s just a matter of matching a buy to a sell. He could have called a contact he had in London, or traded on a laptop. He made a lot of money because those names basically cratered. Even before 9/11, there had been terrorist attacks (the 1993 WTC bombing, Lockerbie, various hijackings, the Achille Lauro), but this was on US soil, and the sheer size and scope was like nothing seen before. All air travel in the US was grounded for days. The feeling was not if we would get hit again, it was when. Those factors caused many of those industries to lose upwards of 50%, and it took many over 10 years to recover. The amount you could make shorting those names before it was confirmed a terrorist attack is astronomical (which is seem is exactly what he did).

    I’m sorry if this was longer than you wanted, but I hope it answered your questions. If not, please let me know, and I’ll try again!! 🙂

  6. Thank you so much. Your response gives me greater insight into it. I found a simplistic explanation online that said: Your friend has a book worth $15. You borrow the book. You sell the book on eBay for $25. You have to return the book to your friend so you buy it online for $15 or less and give that back to your friend. You have the profit from having sold it for more while you had it.

    I get lost in the transactions.

    You pay to borrow shares from a broker. You hope the price goes down as your info tells you it will. You sell the shares at the high price before it goes down? Then once it goes down do you buy them back from whomever bought them or wherever they wound up – but you’re buying back at the low price? Then you just give the shares back to original broker after you made money off them?

    The risk is that the stock doesn’t go down or goes up a lot and then when you have to return the shares to the original broker you have to make nothing or pay the difference if it went up? I assume there is some time frame in which you have to use the shares before returning them? Or you just try to do it all as quickly as possible?

    Or are you making money off the broker who loaned the shares? You buy at one price and when you return the shares if the price is much lower that broker has to pay you the difference? You are both risking being the one to pay out?

    Do you not sell them to anyone? You just wait for the price to drop and then when you return them one of you has to pay the other? Or it’s a draw?

    1. I know it can be confusing! I try and explain it as simply as possible. It’s second nature to me, and the terminology traders use sometimes don’t make a lot of sense.

      Usually, you pay a commission on any trade (a buy, or a sell). Selling a stock short can cost more, since you are borrowing it, and if your broker doesn’t have an inventory, they have to find it for you. You try and sell (short) at a high price, and buy it back (cover) when it goes lower. Some people short a stock because they think bad news is coming down the road. Others because they think the stock has run up too much too fast.
      When you cover your trade. you buy the shares back from whom every wants to sell them to you. Once they are in your account, the broker knows you’ve covered the position. There is no time frame to cover your position from the brokers point of view. My strategies cover short positions once they have reached a certain profit or loss. It could be 10 minutes or 10 days. The broker makes money off of the trade through commissions. I make the profit when it shows the value of the account being up when I have closed the position.
      Shorting a stock is one of the most risky bets you can make. If you buy a stock for $10, you know that the most you can lose it that $10 (if the stock goes to $0). If you short a stock at $10, the stock has unlimited loss, since it could go to $100 or more!

  7. Thank you for sharing this with us!
    France all have been affected by this terrible attack!
    Now these terrorists attack the France and Belgium, how far will these murderers, these crazy evil!
    monique

  8. Yes, thank you for sharing about 9/11. It is such a different experience depending on where you were that day. To be right next to it is so intense. And then to continue working and living near it for months as they dealt with it. To smell it. To walk out of the city over the bridge. The silence and looking back.

    I think many people obviously were traumatized that day. There are still many walking wounded in the city. I became aware of a trauma healing modality that I sometimes mention when I get the chance. Somatic Experiencing. A book by Peter Levine is called “Waking the Tiger”. Trauma gets stuck in our body through the fight, flight or freeze reaction if we don’t release it.

    We can retraumatize ourselves by repeatedly telling a traumatic experience. Maybe that’s why many instinctively don’t talk about it. This technique, with a skilled therapist, helps you discharge it gradually. You examine parts of the experience in small doses and discharge it. Your body actually shakes and trembles or you vocalize. Animals in the wild are not traumatized because they allow their body to discharge the excess adrenaline and intense reaction by standing still and shaking and trembling.

    Humans often don’t do this and it gets stuck. I think a lot of people still need help dealing with what happened. I remember a friend who is a dancer and choreographer said she lived down there and when the plane hit she heard it and the shock and sound impacted her in her body. Just being near it and hearing it.

    It was surreal how war was going on downtown and uptown it was sunny and life was going on as usual, people sitting at cafes, going about their business, until they found out.

    1. I think one of the reasons why I never speak about it, is that I tend to get emotional when I recall those memories, and being a woman on Wall Street, you learn pretty early not to be too emotional. I have to be one of the guys, without actually acting like one!

      1. It’s extremely interesting that you say, as a woman on Wall Street, you learn pretty early not be too emotional and be one of the boys — not acting like one, but be one of them! Do you think it partially accounts for Axe’s auto pilot? That you need to be detached from all emotion to do the job and just see the opportunity?

  9. Exactly! Being too emotional when trading can be a killer. You can never get attached to a trade or a stock (we say never fall in love with stock and don’t yell at the Market, it doesn’t care). You have to see the opportunity, and if it goes against you, just get out. I have known traders and analysts who were wrong on a trade, but instead of just taking the loss and moving on, they get a personal attachment to the stock, and want to believe it will perform as they would like it to. I even know an analyst who got just too close to a company and it’s management, that he believed in the stock even though it was tanking. You can love a company and it’s business, but hate the stock (I know, sounds weird). Consequently, he lost his job. Nobody in this business in 100% correct, so being wrong is part of the business.

    For Axe it could be that growing up, showing emotions was equated with weakness. I know that growing up in Brooklyn, guys always have to act tough, so showing any kind of emotion is looked on as weak. That could be why he detaches himself from emotions.

    1. I never thought of that. Being unemotional about the stocks and not invested in them. Moving on. I can see someone wanting their strategy to work so badly they keep waiting for it to happen and hoping and then it goes bad. This is so interesting. They have to be very detached. I once had an insight about financial types. I briefly was seeing a young financial executive (around 1988-89). I noticed his face was not that expressive. I kind of got the intuition that especially in finance they have to create a poker face. And if you’re doing that day in, day out at work, it’s not so easy to switch off outside of work. I bet men are even more entrenched than women since guys in our culture are conditioned not to cry or show weakness.

      I was watching that HBO documentary “Manhunt” about the search for Bin Laden. The woman CIA analyst who first identified Al Qaeda and was one of the group of female analysts who focused on Bin Laden for years until he was found – she was talking about the culture in the CIA (which is male dominated). The men told the women they were too emotional and passionate. She said you had to be passionate to do the work. But then she said: “The women cry. The men throw chairs. I ask you, which is worse?”

      I’ve worked as an assistant for years in all types of business and law settings. It does pay to be unemotional. That has been my downfall. You really can’t show weakness – even just in NYC generally – and my Southern accent (some hear it, some don’t) doesn’t help. They hear the South they think dumb or worse. Emotion is not acceptable in NYC offices and I imagine it’s much less accepted on a trading floor.

      Of course, Bobby and Chuck can sure be emotional behind the scenes. I’m sorry but Chuck’s rages are starting to feel almost comical. It can’t all be about Axe. Papa, can you hear me?

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