An Adaptation From ‘Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,’ by Michael Lewis
Before arriving there as part of the big push, Katsuyama had never laid eyes on Wall Street or New York City. It was his first immersive course in the American way of life, and he was instantly struck by how different it was from the Canadian version. “Everything was to excess,” he says. “I met more offensive people in a year than I had in my entire life. People lived beyond their means, and the way they did it was by going into debt. That’s what shocked me the most. Debt was a foreign concept in Canada. Debt was evil.”
For his first few years on Wall Street, Katsuyama traded U.S. energy stocks and then tech stocks. Eventually he was promoted to run one of RBC’s equity-trading groups, consisting of 20 or so traders. The RBC trading floor had a no-jerk rule (though the staff had a more colorful term for it): If someone came in the door looking for a job and sounding like a typical Wall Street jerk, he wouldn’t be hired, no matter how much money he said he could make the firm. There was even an expression used to describe the culture: “RBC nice.” Although Katsuyama found the expression embarrassingly Canadian, he, too, was RBC nice. The best way to manage people, he thought, was to persuade them that you were good for their careers. He further believed that the only way to get people to believe that you were good for their careers was actually to be good for their careers.
His troubles began at the end of 2006, after RBC paid $100 million for a U.S. electronic-trading firm called Carlin Financial. In what appeared to Katsuyama to be undue haste, his bosses back in Canada bought Carlin without knowing much about the company or even electronic trading. Now they would receive a crash course. Katsuyama found himself working side by side with a group of American traders who could not have been less suited to RBC’s culture. The first day after the merger, Katsuyama got a call from a worried female employee, who whispered, “There is a guy in here with suspenders walking around with a baseball bat in his hands.” That turned out to be Carlin’s chief executive, Jeremy Frommer, who was, whatever else he was, not RBC nice. Returning to his alma mater, the University at Albany, years later to speak about the secret of his success, Frommer told a group of business students: “It’s not just enough to fly in first class; I have to know my friends are flying in coach.”
Installed in Carlin’s offices, RBC’s people in New York were soon gathered to hear a state-of-the-financial-markets address given by Frommer. He stood in front of a flat-panel computer monitor that hung on his wall. “He gets up and says the markets are now all about speed,” Katsuyama says. “And then he says, ‘I’m going to show you how fast our system is.’ He had this guy next to him with a computer keyboard. He said to him, ‘Enter an order!’ And the guy hit Enter. And the order appeared on the screen so everyone could see it. And Frommer goes: ‘See! See how fast that was!!!’ ” All the guy did was type the name of a stock on a keyboard, and the name was displayed on the screen, the way a letter, once typed, appears on a computer screen. “Then he goes, ‘Do it again!’ And the guy hits the Enter button on the keyboard again. And everyone nods. It was 5 in the afternoon. The market wasn’t open; nothing was happening. But he was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s happening in real time!’ ”
Katsuyama couldn’t believe it. He thought: The guy who just sold us our new electronic-trading platform either does not know that his display of technical virtuosity is absurd or, worse, he thinks we don’t know.