This Is the Pits
LEG THE SPREAD
A Woman's Adventures Inside
the Trillion-Dollar Boys' Club of
By Cari Lynn
Broadway Books -- 310pp -- $24.95
Computers are fast making relics out of Chicago's raucous and colorful futures pits. If they someday disappear, many Chicagoans may mourn. But Cari Lynn, author of Leg the Spread: A Woman's Adventures Inside the Trillion-Dollar Boys' Club of Commodities Trading, likely won't be one of them. Vulgar, juvenile, and sexist are tame terms for the locker-room milieu she found on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange from 2000 to 2002. Her book's title refers to a risk-minimizing play on futures, but coarsely hints at women's choices in the trading community.
Much of that world, Lynn writes, left her feeling queasy. It was as if the trading floor were "rigged with volts of negative energy, frustration, and agony that zipped across the room like an electrical storm." But she couldn't deny that it had a certain appeal, chiefly because uninhibited greed brings out the basest instincts in people, guaranteeing excitement. Trading, she rhapsodizes, is like romance: "the chase, the rush, the infatuation, the incredible highs, the near-debilitating lows, and most of all, the jolt from the constant newness -- and from the occasional win."
For Lynn, a lot of the thrill comes from the odd characters, particularly women, who cope in different ways with the Animal House high jinks and the high risks. A pot-smoking University of Chicago grad makes $20,000 a day for a while but fears that she might lose her newfound fortune. She burns out, passing out 20 minutes after the opening bell on her last day. She's now a filmmaker. A 23-year-old financial trader in "sultry, skintight pants, and skimpy top" sports inch-long manicured fingernails and responds to a male clerk's remarks by punching him "full-out in the face." And a eurodollar trader has "the guts of a man and the brains of a woman." She has such big contracts that she is known as the "$100 Billion Woman."
Sound a bit hyped up? Well, Leg suffers from a bad case of breathlessness. Too many pits denizens are "legendary" -- there's requisite "genius" -- and the market almost always is "crazy." Had the author used her delete button on the superlatives once in a while, her book might be better. Lynn, who has written for Good Housekeeping and Health, also gives scant attention to truly vital changes, especially the growth of electronic trading and the global explosion of interest in futures. At its best, Leg is an entertaining primer on a world that may go the way of the dinosaurs -- but it could have been much more.
By Joseph Weber