Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street – Karen Ho

Financial collapses—whether of the junk bond market, the Internet bubble, or the highly leveraged housing market—are often explained as the inevitable result of market cycles: What goes up must come down. In Liquidated, Karen Ho punctures the aura of the abstract, all-powerful market to show how financial markets, and particularly booms and busts, are constructed. Through an in-depth investigation into the everyday experiences and ideologies of Wall Street investment bankers, Ho describes how a financially dominant but highly unstable market system is understood, justified, and produced through the restructuring of corporations and the larger economy.

Ho, who worked at an investment bank herself, argues that bankers’ approaches to financial markets and corporate America are inseparable from the structures and strategies of their workplaces. Her ethnographic analysis of those workplaces is filled with the voices of stressed first-year associates, overworked and alienated analysts, undergraduates eager to be hired, and seasoned managing directors.

Recruited from elite universities as “the best and the brightest,” investment bankers are socialized into a world of high risk and high reward. They are paid handsomely, with the understanding that they may be let go at any time. Their workplace culture and networks of privilege create the perception that job insecurity builds character, and employee liquidity results in smart, efficient business.

Based on this culture of liquidity and compensation practices tied to profligate deal-making, Wall Street investment bankers reshape corporate America in their own image. Their mission is the creation of shareholder value, but Ho demonstrates that their practices and assumptions often produce crises instead. By connecting the values and actions of investment bankers to the construction of markets and the restructuring of U.S. corporations, Liquidated reveals the particular culture of Wall Street often obscured by triumphalist readings of capitalist globalization.

About The Author(s)
Karen Ho is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota.

 

Reviews
“Ho’s refreshing ethnography of the daily lives of Wall Street investment bankers . . . outlines a web of practices, beliefs and structures that may be vital to understanding what keeps the market system in place despite built-in instabilities.”–Publishers Weekly

 

“Karen Ho has picked an excellent time to publish her fascinating new study . . . of Wall Street banks. . . . As field-sites go, Wall Street is not classic anthropological territory: ethnographers typically work in remote, third-world societies. . . . Ho nevertheless embarked on her study in classic anthropological manner: by blending into the background, listening intently, in a non-judgmental way – and then trying to join up the dots to get a ‘holistic’ picture of how the culture works. That patient ethnographic analysis has produced a fascinating portrait that will be refreshingly novel to most bankers.”–Gillian Tett, Financial Times

 
“Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street asks many questions that those who work in the investment field should ask themselves. Is constant change at investment banks wrong? Or is it an intelligent way of operating in a competitive, rapidly changing global business? Wall Street firms that succeed over the long run are adept at quickly shutting down business units that prove to be nonstrategic and starting new ones. As for job insecurity, it leads investment bankers to morph instantly into successful job hunters and mobile survivors. Although many in the financial industry will not agree with Ho’s hypotheses and conclusions, they will be challenged by the questions she raises and enthralled by the body of fieldwork she presents.”–Janet J. Mangano and Martin S. Fridson , CFA Institute

“The book’s great strength lies in Ho’s careful observation of the means by which people succeed or fail on Wall Street, as she punctures many of the assumptions about how markets work.”–Keir Martin, Times Literary Supplement


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