Keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
It’ll take you all your time and money
Honey you’ll survive
Keep Yourself Alive – Queen
Happy Friday from the Trader’s Desk! Are you ready for some Billions? Yeah, me too. Let’s get down to it, shall we?
Before we get into the Axe/Taylor storyline, I’d like to say that I truly enjoyed Chuck’s! It was fun, and so New York. Not just the different restaurants, but the type of horse-trading Chuck does is typical high-power moves New Yorkers do all the time!
Last season, I started many of my posts with lyrics from songs that I thought were appropriate for the episode. That tradition continues with a Queen song, “Keep Yourself Alive”. It seemed like everyone this episode was doing “whatever it takes” to keep themselves alive, whether it be their political career or being the big dog of the hedge fund world. And oh, what lengths they will go!
We open with a flash-forward of 27 hours: Wags doing what Wags does best – partying. The debauchery is Wagner level, until Wags gets drugged and thrown into a closet. How did we get here?
“Ace of Spades” blares in the background (yeah, I’m gonna brag here because, well, I called it!!) at Casa Axe. Axe is wearing a Motörhead t-shirt. This means “Battle Axe” will be heading into the office today, so watch out! (I dare you to drive listening to that song and not get a speeding ticket.)
The cold mausoleum we were introduced to in “Tie Goes To The Runner” is now something right out of the Oval Office. Same apartment, just chock full of secret service-type bodyguards (ear-pieces included!). Chef Ryan brings his boss breakfast, but Axe has no interest in fueling up: “Do I look like I need to fan the fire?”
As Axe emerges from the elevator at Axe Capital surrounded by bodyguards (Axe is seriously spooked!), Bach informs him the new ‘beefed up non-competes” are ready to be signed and they are as tight as “AC/DC in ‘78” (ah yes, the Bon Scott years!). Axe Cap employees will probably be signing their first born away!
It’s a busy day at Axe Cap: Teva (TEVA) is about to report and Dollar Bill’s on it. If America Movil (AMXA) has bad news, the Mexican peso goes down, but “Eveready” Everett’s got it covered. Axe asks Rudy where he is on Rio (RIO) an Australian mining company). Rudy sees weakness in Australian ore, but Bonnie disagrees. Bonnie told Rudy they were expanding their rail capacity (meaning they will be needing more rail line in order to move product) which Rudy interprets as RIO needing to increase their “cap-ex” (capital expenditure), and would be down for a quarter or two. (A company would be willing to spend money upfront, possibly take the near-term earnings hit, but reap the benefits down the line.)
The Boss does not like his employees in-fighting. He needs his soldiers in sync like “two incestuous ice dancers”. Bonnie doesn’t need Axe on her back, but that is just where he is going to be. The threat of Taylor and Taylor Mason Capital (TMC) has made what every analyst/trader loathes in a boss – a micromanager.
Axe needs Bonnie to share her info with everyone. They are one big, paranoid family now. Bonnie shares, and Rudy runs to his terminal. Oh Rudy, have you signed your non-compete? Yes Axe. Well, you’re fired. And just like that, Rudy is toast. Not just because Rudy may have gotten the RIO call wrong, but for the unforgivable sin of attending the TMC picnic, and posting photos on social media! (Lesson: keep your social media clean people!) Fraternizing with the “enemy” is a no-no. TMC are not just competitors; no they are enemies and must and will be destroyed. The public execution (good morning Spyros!) was done to let everyone know: you are either with Axe, or against him. Sides must be picked, and if you don’t pick Axe, you’re gone.
Wags is off to negotiate terms with the Royal Family of Qadir.. Axe Capital wants to manage their Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). SWFs can be very substantial. In 2017 the Saudi Arabian SWF had $514 Billion under management. Wags thinks it would a good idea for Axe to deal with the Royals, as the competition (TMC) may be sending their big dog, Taylor. Axe doubts that will happen; “they would never see someone like them”. Axe believes the culture of Qadir would exclude a meeting with a gender non-binary person. Also, the money has already been pledged to Axe Cap. All Wags is doing is to get the Royals to agree to the fee structure of 2 & 20. The problem with that is not Wags’ ability, but what people expect to pay to hedge funds in this day and age. “Nobody is paying full freight anymore.” This is true; most funds have had to reduce their fee structures, partly due to bad performance, partly due to the move of investor money into passive funds that charge a lot less in fees. Axe Cap’s returns had been so good that they had to go down to 2 & 20! Any less and they “might as well be running a mutual fund”.
Meanwhile at TMC, Taylor and their new COO Sara Hammon are interviewing former Axe Caper Mick Danzig. Taylor likes the fact Danzig can produce great returns without “beating up the defenseless”. Sara chimes in “it’s better than being the defenseless” (oh I think I like her!). Taylor loves that sentiment, but states that things that were OK at Axe Cap will not be OK at TMC. Danzig reminds Taylor that they were the leading force in the Sandicot play at Axe Cap. Taylor, instead of stating what they did was what was best for the firm and their clients, doesn’t own it, and tries to play victim. “That’s what Axe Cap does to a person.” The Sandicot play was what made me love Taylor; this back peddle might just lose me. Taylor uses some Starship Trooper reference (which I have no idea about) implying that Axe, Wags and Wendy made them do something they didn’t want to do. Sorry, everyone has free will. Taylor knew exactly what they were suggesting to Axe about that play. It was the best of the “worst” choice in that situation. I have said time and time again: emotions cannot play a role in trading/investing.
In trying to convince Danzig to join TMC, Mafee makes a critical error: “we’re desperate”. Why Mafee? Why? Even if that is the case, you never tell someone outside the “family” that!
Taylor wonders why they are not seeing better candidates than Danzig. (We come to find that Wendy and Axe have paid off the headhunter!!). The headhunter implies that Wall Street has lost is luster, and in some ways that is true. The time of large salaries and huge bonuses is long gone; but the reality is more and more funds are looking for people with PhD’s instead of MBAs, mathematics majors instead of business majors. Taylor wants people with no fear (like Sara). Sara has been labeled, by some as “Taylor’s Wendy”, but I disagree. Sara seems a combination of Wendy and Wags – a straight up bad-ass who isn’t going to pretend to be your friend and be touchy-feely. That being said, there is something about her I just don’t trust yet. Could she be a double agent working for Axe? Working for Grigor?
Taylor needs to “suit up” for the meeting at the Embassy. They don’t want to and believes it is wrong they have to. We know now that this suit is Taylor having to get into drag and present themselves as a woman. I totally agree it is so wrong that they have to compromise who they are just to have a meeting. If the conditions for me to have an investor meeting were to dress a certain way, I’d basically tell them to go fuck themselves (I’m from Brooklyn, that’s how we talk).Being a woman in this business I’ve come across so much sexism in many different situations. It’s disgusting, and I feel for Taylor here so much.
Sara reminds Taylor they hired her to remind them they will need to do “whatever it takes”. Taylor going this far, willing to compromise who they are may be a foreshadowing of how far they will be willing to go in the future. Taylor is such a contradiction: one minute they are saying TMC will be more ethical, the next they are willing to compromise everything they represent. I don’t like this path Taylor is going down. However, I will say that Asia Kate Dillon looked amazing. As an uber-fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I know a good Queen when I see one. AKD even tweeted how much fun they had:
As the saying goes: we’re all born naked and the rest is drag!
Back at Axe Cap, Wendy is updating Axe on the on-going plan to sabotage TMC. They’ve paid the headhunter, and now will over-pay for Danzig, just so Taylor has nothing. It’s an emotional decision that in the past Wendy may have talked Axe out of. But she’s all in now, and without his “grounder”, Will Axe be going down a very dark, very dangerous road? We know Wags will never be the voice of reason!. Without anyone to rein him in, the worst part of Axe – the emotional Yonkers kid with a chip on his shoulder- will be in control and unchecked. That is bad for anyone in his crosshairs, but bad for Axe as well.
At the Embassy, Wags is basically fucking up the meeting. The Sheik wants to meet with Axe, but full-on Wags is what they get! One thing you learn early on in this business is “Know Your Audience”, and boy does Wags screw the pooch here. He is vile, vulgar and crass. Yes, typical Wags, which would play well with the usual suspects, but not here. This was actually cringe worth to watch Wags keep digging his own hole. Needless to say, he gets nowhere in his negotiations.
On the way out of the meeting, Wags sees Taylor in full drag and realizes two things: 1. TMC did send the big dog and 2. They are willing to do “whatever it takes”. It seems Axe and Co. underestimated the lengths Taylor is willing to go.
Axe is shocked Taylor would be willing to compromise “their steely fucking principles to get the loot”. Axe has no principles, so he admires Taylor’s effort, but will still stop them. Taylor is in Axe’s head “all the time”. He missed the coup and missed how far Taylor is willing to go. For Axe this is extremely personal. Axe feels betrayed by Taylor. He does have good reason to feel that way, but playing the victim when he played a big role in why Taylor backstabbed him, just doesn’t cut it. Terms to the Sheik will now include “No Taylor”. Wags couldn’t get 2 & 20, how the hell is he going to get that? He’s going to do what he does best – party and try to close the deal. And just like that, 27 hours have passed and we are in real time!
Axe can’t get in touch with Wags, so he and Hall go straight to the Embassy, since that is the last place Wags’ phone pinged. Yes, Farhad says, here is Wags’ phone, but the man? Haven’t seen him. (Um, you have him drugged in a closet!) There is nothing Axe can do. He is starting to realize these are not the usual Wall Street types he is used to dealing with. These are people with diplomatic immunity, so even law enforcement can’t help. If Axe does go to the cops, he can kiss any SWF money goodbye forever. Axe knows that holding Wags is leverage against him, now Axe needs some leverage of his own, and Hall is just the man to get it!
Taylor is making their case with Farhad on the roof of the embassy. During a little falconry, Farhad is giving some sexist yarn about males doing the hunting and females defending the nest and tending to the young “as nature dictates” (oh, how I want to punch him here). Taylor has had to face this kind of backward thinking before, and unlike Wags, knows their audience. Yes, those “defined” roles make sense when you’re dealing with a single meal at a time, but long term, it’s best to go with whoever can get the “best kill”. And THAT gets them a meeting with the Sheik. Know Your Audience people!
Hall confirms Wags never left the embassy, and has the type of leverage Axe needs – “the kind of scandal that scares the shit out of the most powerful people in the Middle East.” I am so intrigued! If Axe can get a meeting with the Sheik, this info may get Wags released, and get Axe the SWF money he so desperately wants. In a sign of just how much Wags means to him, if he doesn’t get the meeting “fuck Axe Cap”! Axe will contact the State Dept. and blow up this whole thing! Wow! I didn’t see that coming. Axes gets the call – he’s got a meeting, but it’s certainly not what he expected.
At the embassy it’s not the Sheik behind door #1, it’s Grigor Andolov. Grigor’s reach is beyond Axe’s comprehension. Wags just mentioning TMC makes its way back to Grigor (his relationship with the Royal family means they look out for each other’s interests!). Grigor reminds Axe that if you mess with Taylor, you mess with him. Axe’s intentions are not to harm Grigor, but actions speak louder than words. Grigor rewards and punishes actions accordingly. Axe does the same in his “slightly smaller section of the world”. (Burn!) For old times’ sake, Grigor will release Wags, and you know it’s the last get out of jail free card he’ll be giving Axe. And oh, by the way, Axe “Please stop fucking with Taylor.” As a matter of fact, why don’t you just forget Taylor exists, but don’t forget Grigor! Not being the big dog in the fight shakes Axe to his core.
Wags is back! A little worse for wear but nothing a few days rest won’t cure. Axe knows Grigor used Wags to get to him (could that be the reason Axe is keeping his family away – to try and protect them?), and he is sorry. But, Wags is a loyal solider till the end “The Sheik never has to say sorry.”
After an 8 hour meeting with the Sheik, Taylor midnight Skypes Sara to tell her the money is coming to TMC. I do wonder if it is because Taylor had a good pitch, or Grigor’s influence? The point of Taylor leaving Axe was to do this on their own. Did they go from being under one shadow to another?
Sara assures Taylor they did the brave thing “suiting up” for the meeting. “Whatever it takes” an exhausted Taylor repeats. They are not used to having enemies – competitors, yes – enemies no. This is due to their new “stature” and Sara tells Taylor to get used to it. Sara gives Taylor the news about both the headhunter and Danzig. They will need their own Hall, and will hire a counter-intel specialist. Taylor has their own Wags/Wendy, why not get a Hall as well!
Axe is trying to figure out his next move, while Wags is getting some much needed nutrients (where is Chef Ryan when you need him?). Maybe Axe should do the grown-up thing: just run Axe Cap, forget Taylor, and move on. It would be so much less complicated, and would put rational Axe back in control. Just the idea of him thinking of doing this shows how rattled Grigor has got him! Axe is “over-matched” for the first time he can remember. Axe is now dealing with someone who has more wealth, more reach, and no red lines. Grigor’s “whatever it takes” is a whole different level. Will Axe try and match that or be content just being Bobby Fucking Axelrod?
Wags fans the flames and reminds Axe he is an “American Oligarch” who doesn’t walk away from a fight. Oh, and Taylor must pay! How to do that without incurring the wrath of Grigor? By sucking the oxygen out of the fire. Axe will somehow make sure TMC doesn’t make money, but doesn’t lose money either. I think Axe will do this by proposing a fake detente with Taylor, and maybe even suggest sharing ideas. If TMC doesn’t give Grigor the big bang return he is looking for, he’d pull his investment, and then Taylor is fair game.
I’m not going to lie, but THIS is what gets me excited! The plays Axe will have to make to do this is possibly going to include stock manipulation, shorts, long, options, currency plays – everything this Lady Trader lives for!
Huzzah! Billions is back bitches!