On April 20, something occurred that was unprecedented in the history of financial markets: The price of oil went negative.
It wasn’t the case that the cost of a barrel had fallen to some scary-low number. It actually went below zero, meaning there were traders out there who would pay you to own oil. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, sending stocks sharply down, and by the time the exchanges closed at 4 p.m., many financial news outlets were still struggling to explain why.
“Commodity futures need to be standardized and tied to a physical delivery point, which in this case was overwhelmed,” wrote one publication. “The front part of the oil futures ‘curve,’ which is the May contract that expires on Tuesday, was hit the hardest since it applies to fuel that’s set to be delivered while most of the country remains on lockdown thanks to the coronavirus,” said another outlet.
One group of news consumers got a more comprehensible take. The approximately 150,000 people who subscribe to Money Stuff, a free newsletter written by Matt Levine, a columnist at Bloomberg, found an email in their inboxes with the subject line “There’s Nowhere to Put the Oil.”
Remarkably, Mr. Levine’s piece was written more than an hour before the market went haywire. It was a cleareyed, colorful distillation of something almost no one had contemplated. It read like a bedtime story about West Texas Intermediate Crude.
“Oil is voluminous and oozy and poisonous and flammable and smelly,” Mr. Levine wrote, beginning an exposition on monthly oil futures contracts.
“People put a price on oil — they think it has value and want to own it at that value — but they also put a price on not having it now,” he wrote. “Conceivably, in theory, the latter price (what you’d pay to not have oil now) could exceed the former (what you’d pay to have oil eventually), leading to negative spot prices.”
In financial news — a medium not known for cultivating eccentric or literary voices — there’s no other writer quite like Mr. Levine, a former Goldman Sachs banker whose deadpan style mixes technical elucidation and wit.
Each weekday, Mr. Levine, 42, wakes up at 5 in the morning. He looks at what’s going on in the markets, scrolls through emails from readers and plugs into the chatter of early-to-work traders. Then he starts to write. Roughly 5,000 words later on a long-winded day, he files Money Stuff to his editor, and it’s sent to subscribers around noon. (His column is currently on a parental leave hiatus, and will return this winter.)
Mr. Levine’s favorite subjects include insider trading statutes, bond-market liquidity and the ubiquity of securities fraud, but his columns are never boring. They may be the only entertaining words a financial markets professional reads all day.
Often, a significant chunk of the newsletter is devoted to a legal battle between sophisticated counterparties, or a complex financial product. Mr. Levine deconstructs the topics in a way that is less like a conventional business column and more like he is providing an introductory course on the subject.
If Mr. Levine’s column requires the use of a technical term, it is typically accompanied by not just a definition but a full-throated explanation, with practical examples, of how it works. There are footnotes — lots of footnotes. The tone, though, is anything but pedantic. Mr. Levine writes about Wall Street in a way that makes its denizens feel as if he is writing for them. Yet he gives the same impression of personalization to readers who know little about finance. He once took a term that appeared in a lawsuit — a “cash-settled forward purchase agreement for Citigroup shares with downside protection in the form of a put option at the same price as the forward” — and gave it the acronym CSFPAFCSWDPITFOAPOATSPATF. He makes readers feel in on the savage joke that is late capitalism.
Billionaires read Money Stuff. “Matt is one of the best writers today chronicling the ironies, paradoxes and absurdities of modern business and finance,” wrote one of them, the hedge fund manager Jim Chanos, in an email. “His work is some of the most sophisticated analysis of what is really happening on Wall Street,” said Bill Ackman, another billionaire fund manager.
“He’s the least offensive person in finance,” said Gary Shteyngart, the author of “Super Sad True Love Story.” When Mr. Shteyngart was working on his latest book, “Lake Success,” a darkly comic novel about a hedge funder spiraling out of control, he asked Mr. Levine to review a draft for accuracy. “He knows his stuff,” Mr. Shteyngart said, praising Money Stuff as “cogent, insightful, dryly funny at times — as in, ‘Can you believe this stuff is happening?’”
Mr. Levine wasn’t always a darling of business media and finance Twitter. (The best measure of his audience’s devotion may not be his 112,000 Twitter followers, but rather the 3,000 that follow @MattLevineBot, a fan account describing itself as a bot that mimics his writing style.) He began his post-collegiate career as a Latin teacher, then worked as a lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz before advancing to Goldman. Despite having made more money at white-shoe law and Wall Street firms than he does as a writer, Mr. Levine says he is happier now. He is doing exactly what he has long wanted to do. This is the story of his ascension. It begins with an escalator.
Late-night Etruscan decision-making processes
Mr. Levine was born in 1978 and grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. When he was in high school, he read a book by the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker called “The Mezzanine,” about a man who leaves a fancy Midtown Manhattan office building during his lunch hour on an errand to buy new shoelaces.
It is not a plot-driven novel. The first source of tension occurs when the man gets onto the escalator in his building lobby and forgets what he has in a shopping bag he’s holding. As he ascends, he reflects on the lives of his friends and his own life’s course. It’s neurotic, commenting on the nature of modernity itself. Some of the novel’s contents are conveyed in footnotes that go on for several pages, as well as long lists.
For Mr. Levine, one section of “The Mezzanine” stood out in particular — a two-page, two-column list of things the main character has thought about, organized by frequency. High up is “brushing tongue,” a thought that occurred 150.0 times per year, and “earplugs,” at 100.0 times per year. Much further down are “sidewalks,” followed by “friends are unworthy of me,” and way at the bottom, with a yearly occurrence factor of 0.5, “birds regurgitate food and feed young with it” and “Kant, Immanuel.”
Mr. Levine says the book may have changed his life. “I wasn’t aware that novels were allowed to be like this, and also that footnotes were allowed to be funny,” he said.
In college, at Harvard, Mr. Levine began writing emails to his friends that were leavened by footnotes. One classmate, the journalist Elie Mystal, had a lot to say about Mr. Levine as an undergraduate — that he was the valedictorian of their class; that he partied, too; that he once suggested applying Etruscan decision-making processes to the question of what to do next during a late night out — but he placed a special emphasis on the footnotes.
“All of the knowledge that Matt has is available to him at all times,” Mr. Mystal said. The footnotes, he said, are the only way Mr. Levine can convey so much to his readers in a space as small as an email.
(Asked about the Etruscans, Mr. Levine said he thought Mr. Mystal might be referring to one of his favorite anecdotes from Herodotus. It was actually about the Persians, he said. He fetched his copy of “The Histories” and read it to me.)
After graduating from Harvard in 2000, with a major in classics, Mr. Levine taught Latin at a high school in a Boston suburb. Then he went to Yale Law. A circumscribed life of prosperity and billable hours seemed destined. He clerked for a federal appeals court judge, and put in time as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz.
In 2007, he took a position at Goldman Sachs, applying his knowledge of corporate law to the financial markets. He structured derivatives agreements that let companies and other Goldman clients buy and sell stocks using a variety of methods meant to help them reduce their taxes or get a better price. There was another bank employee who was also named Matt Levine, a lawyer who sometimes worked on the same deals.
“Once I did a client call with him,” Mr. Levine said. “Terrible. ‘This is Matt Levine at Goldman, and also Matt Levine at Goldman.’”
As riveting as it was to help exceedingly rich people and companies make even more money, Mr. Levine was not happy. “I felt both that the job was bad and that I was bad at it,” he said. Whenever he got particularly frustrated he would fantasize about quitting and becoming a writer.
Some of Mr. Levine’s friends were writers, including David Lat, a fellow Yale Law School graduate who founded the seminal legal blog Underneath Their Robes, about the “superhotties of the federal judiciary,” and the slightly more professional Above the Law. By 2011, Mr. Levine had decided to leave Goldman. Above the Law’s sister blog — Dealbreaker, focusing on Wall Street gossip — was hiring. Mr. Levine got the job, paying something north of $50,000.
The idea of leaving Wall Street for a precariously capitalized blog would probably strike a lot of financiers as romantic, quaint, even idiotic. But Mr. Levine was never a high roller. He never joined an elite social club or spent six figures on a Hamptons summer rental. And so, at 33, Mr. Levine sat down to write.
It took Mr. Levine exactly one week to find his voice.
Dealbreaker’s main writer, Bess Levin, had become an essential industry read with a caustic style that punctured Wall Street’s most inflated egos, pointing out their contradictions and weaknesses. Mr. Levine tried to write like that, with snarky punch lines, and failed. Part of the problem was that he couldn’t really access a contempt for Wall Street titans. He was of the place, and he found its workings genuinely interesting.
“I encouraged him to use his own voice,” Ms. Levin said. “I was writing more about the gossipy side of Wall Street and more the culture of it, and I thought it was a great opportunity for him to use his incredible knowledge of how the business works.” Mr. Levine regrouped. If Ms. Levin found an audience by tearing down the personalities of Wall Street, Mr. Levine set to work pulling apart its structures, to better explain the wiring in the walls.
He began by combing through the complex legal battles stemming from the 2008 financial crisis over who deserved to be paid and who deserved not to pay, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the combatants’ claims. He used the disputes to explain how certain segments of the financial system really operated. He seasoned his analyses with humor and a nerdy, confident tone. It was like a combination of everything Mr. Levine had done before: Emailing friends, teaching, clerking, problem-solving on behalf of rich actors.
Before long, Mr. Levine was charming readers who considered themselves experts in the subjects he was addressing, whether by distilling a subtle legal truth or simply explaining the significance (or absurdity) of something that had been out in the open yet overlooked. “Matt’s the perfect complement to Bess,” Felix Salmon, another financial blogger, wrote in October 2011. “I just hope he doesn’t get poached by some deep-pocketed mainstream news organization which will end up stifling the very thing he’s best at.”
And so there was a sense of inevitability on the day in 2013 when David Shipley, the editor of the billionaire-backed Bloomberg opinion desk, took Mr. Levine to lunch and offered him a job. “It was like this long, Matt-type silence, and then kind of a sigh, and then: ‘OK,’” Mr. Shipley recalled.
‘People want a lock of his hair’
Bloomberg offered Mr. Levine stability and a larger platform. His readership grew, and became more obsessive. A group of fans once made themselves T-shirts bearing the text of one of his tweets about cryptocurrencies. Some of Mr. Levine’s readers write to him and attempt to mimic his style, as if he were J.D. Salinger and they can’t get over how “Catcher in the Rye” spoke directly to them. I asked Mr. Levine for some examples, wanting to see exactly what shape this took, but he declined, because he considers these correspondents to be sources.
“He gets these letters from people, like: ‘My boyfriend loves you; can I get an autographed card for his birthday?’” said his friend, the journalist Mary Childs. “I joke that people want a lock of his hair.”
Mr. Levine, of course, is not a conventional writer. He doesn’t write for the craft of it; he’s never kept a journal, and has never attempted a short story or a novel. He said he thinks he might not exist as a writer if he didn’t have his audience, if he couldn’t sit down on weekday mornings and write his Wall Street exegeses directly for them.
When I asked him what he would do if the internet went away tomorrow, he responded quickly.
“A tax — I’d be an M&A lawyer,” he said.