NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with Mary Childs, one of the hosts of NPR’s Planet Money, about her new book The Bond King, which tells the story of a notorious financial investor.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Before he got into finance, Bill Gross learned that he had a gift for numbers in Vegas. While he was recovering from a car crash as a young man, he read a book on how to win at blackjack by counting cards, and then he put his newfound skills to use in the casinos.
MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: Card counting builds intuition. Gross was learning to feel risk, when to lean in harder and bet more when the odds were in his favor and when to lie low and wait for the deck to heat up. Bet small; hold off, hold off. Bet big; double down. It was like driving stick shift or dancing.
SHAPIRO: That’s Mary Childs, one of the hosts of NPR’s Planet Money podcast, reading from her new book “The Bond King: How One Man Made A Market, Built An Empire And Lost It All.” Mary, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
CHILDS: Thank you so much for having me.
SHAPIRO: So through the story of this man, Bill Gross, you tell a larger story of how American financial markets work, how people game them, what happens when they implode. But I want to start with the man himself. You offer an anecdote that stuck in my head about a question Bill Gross would ask every job applicant. What was the question?
CHILDS: It was do you prefer money, fame or power?
SHAPIRO: You’ve got to choose one.
CHILDS: You’ve got to pick one. Which do you want?
SHAPIRO: How did he answer the question?
CHILDS: His answer from the get-go was he wanted fame. He just wanted to be famous.
SHAPIRO: That is not what I would have expected. What does that say about this guy?
CHILDS: I think he knew that he had this kind of yearning for acceptance and for love. He says that he always was searching for this kind of way to pour public attention into his heart and somehow fill it. Right? And you see this kind of as a common thing among celebrities, I feel like. But it’s interesting in the context of bond management, which is not a super-sexy industry.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right. And yet he does become famous and rich…
SHAPIRO: …And powerful. How did he do it?
CHILDS: He ended up being extremely good at trading bonds. And this was – when he started out, this was not really a thing. Bonds were just pieces of paper that were kept in vaults. Then you kind of clipped a coupon and got your interest payment. But Bill Gross helped to kind of bring about this revolution, where you would buy and sell those bonds and say – you know what? – this is not as good of a bond anymore. I don’t want this. I want that one. And you’re in search of capital appreciation.
SHAPIRO: Before I read this book, I didn’t fully understand the difference between stocks and bonds. Give us the CliffsNotes version for people who are not financially literate on that level.
CHILDS: A way to think about it – a hyper-simplified way to think about it is – you know, you and I can play in the stock market. We can go buy a little slice of GameStop or whatever and ride it to the moon. We can have fun. But there are enormous institutional investors that invest money on behalf of, you know, pensions, endowments, things like that. And they just have so much money to invest. And the bond market is an even bigger and more influential, I would argue, playing field. They get to invest, you know, $5, $10, $25, $50 million at a time, whereas, you know, you and I, I’m assuming, are not going to be able to do that.
SHAPIRO: You assume correctly.
CHILDS: Don’t short us.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that the American financial system has become more like a Vegas gambling table during the decades that Bill Gross was helping to shape it? And is it a result of his approach to investing? I mean, how much credit, responsibility or blame does he get for this?
CHILDS: I think he more than anyone called it that. Like, it’s actually kind of unusual, I think, for investment managers to be like, I am gambling. You know, (laughter) they generally try to say, I’m doing fundamental analysis. I’m doing this and doing that and make it very serious-sounding and very professional. And, of course, it is. But there is this very big element of you are making bets – you’re betting. And I do think that Bill’s attitude and kind of his success in it did kind of create a model that other people found really admirable. And I do think that that was super-influential in helping to grow a lot of these markets.
SHAPIRO: I often hear conversations about what sets apart the world’s greatest athletes or actors, but I haven’t often heard conversations about what sets apart that same kind of top sliver of financial investors. How are people like Bill Gross different from all the other humans of the world?
CHILDS: I think one of the ways that they characterize themselves in particular is that they’re emotionless, is that they can remove themselves from the kind of roller coaster of emotion that you and I might be on. You know, and that’s…
SHAPIRO: Right. Like, millions of dollars are on the line here.
CHILDS: Like, I would be sweating. Right? And they just don’t.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, right.
CHILDS: They just don’t – to whatever extent possible, they manage to contain those emotions. And, you know, they will tell you all day long that, oh, I’m very, you know, stoic. I’m very good at managing my emotions. Now, of course, there are very acute moments in the book where that clearly breaks down. But that’s a big part of the brand.
SHAPIRO: Right. Now, the title of your book reveals that he did not remain on top of the world.
CHILDS: Bit of a spoiler, I guess.
SHAPIRO: Right. Right. It’s there on the cover. And you lay out the specific reasons for that. But more broadly, do you see this as, like, a story of hubris? Is it this – the classic Greek myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun? Or is there something else going on here? Like, what’s the larger lesson?
CHILDS: I think there are a lot of different lessons. I personally have taken a lot of lessons from this with me. There’s a classic one that’s like, oh, you know, his company got too big. And I think there’s some validity to that argument. You know, they were buying stuff that he was like, what even is that? And how do you value it? Like, are we investing in real estate and just, like, whole buildings now? And yes, they were. So I think it’s, like, success is itself, you know, kind of a curse. There’s a point at which it becomes almost untenable and impossible to manage.
SHAPIRO: Do you mean that this downfall was almost inevitable?
CHILDS: I think there’s a way to manage through it or to delegate, but a lot of the people that reach these heights reach them because they’re control freaks. Right? They are…
CHILDS: …Very micromanagey (ph). They want to keep an eye on everything. And that can be an ingredient for success. And the flip side of that is you have to be able to let go. A lot of this book is about, you know, it was time for Bill Gross to figure out how to step back, and he could not. So that inability, more than anything else, I think, probably was the kind of seed of the downfall.
SHAPIRO: I also want to ask about your personal experience of working on this book because it describes a culture of so much entitlement, arrogance, bossiness, toxic masculinity – like, choose your word.
CHILDS: (Laughter) Yeah.
SHAPIRO: There are not a lot of characters who come across as especially likable. And these are people you devoted years of your life to understanding…
SHAPIRO: …And writing about.
SHAPIRO: So what was that like?
CHILDS: (Laughter) It was kind of painful. Like, at times, you know, you would have the Women’s March on – happening in the big world, and I would be over here on a golf course being introduced to a source’s friends as his girlfriend. Like, it was not ideal at times. And part of the job here is relating to all of the people in your book, in your – you know, the world that you’re trying to write about and meeting them where they are. And at a certain point, that becomes super-unhealthy. It was pretty gnarly. I’m glad that the project has ended.
SHAPIRO: So why did you keep at it for seven years? Why did you find it an important enough story to tell that it was worth enduring all of that grossness?
CHILDS: So to speak. Yeah, I think…
SHAPIRO: So to speak.
CHILDS: I think part of it was that, you know, I’d come too far, and I don’t understand the basics of sunk cost. I just couldn’t walk away. I’d already done so much. But on the flipside, I do think that PIMCO occupies such a central part in our economy, you know? And it shocked me when I started covering this company in 2014 that there wasn’t already a book about PIMCO and Bill Gross. There’s often this kind of canyon between what we in the financial press know and what the mainstream audiences are even aware of. And trying to bring things from our little island of finance into the big world – you know, that’s what I do at Planet Money. That’s what I wanted to do with this book. It’s, I think, critically important for us to understand what’s going on on that island.
SHAPIRO: Mary Childs is one of the hosts of NPR’s Planet Money. And her new book is The Bond King: How One Man Made A Market, Built An Empire And Lost It All.” Thanks, Mary.
CHILDS: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF ATMOSPHERE SONG, “AIN’T NOBODY”)
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