The best books on financial trading and the global financial system

Donald Angus MacKenzie Author Of Trading at the Speed of Light: How Ultrafast Algorithms Are Transforming Financial Markets
By Donald Angus MacKenzie

The Books I Picked & Why

Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London

By Caitlin Zaloom

Book cover of Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London

Why this book?

Chicago’s famous ‘open-outcry’ trading pits were packed with hundreds of traders making deals with each other using eye contact and hand signals, or simply shouting out their bids and offers. Anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom did something quite extraordinary. She studied these pits ‘from the inside’ (as a trader’s clerk) and then went on to examine the electronic trading that was starting to replace them – herself becoming a trader. Her book represents anthropology at its most skilled and offers a fascinating glimpse of the lost world of face-to-face trading (nearly all of Chicago’s pits are now closed). 

I researched Chicago’s pits myself in the years in which they still flourished, but not in the depth that Zaloom achieved. I’m in awe of her fabulous fieldwork.


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Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe

By Tett Gillian

Book cover of Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe

Why this book?

The global financial crisis that erupted in 2008 was a shocking event. Britain’s cash machines came within a few hours of stopping working, and the global banking system would have collapsed were it not for unprecedented multi-billion-dollar government bail-outs. Gillian Tett, trained as an anthropologist, became a financial journalist but kept on applying her fieldwork skills. Almost alone in her new profession, she grasped the huge risks that were developing underneath the radar and wrote about them in the Financial Times. Her book, Fool’s Gold, was one of the first books written about 2008’s giant crisis and remains one of the best. 

To my mind, Tett is the world’s top financial journalist, and I’ve always learned a great deal from her pioneering in-depth reporting.


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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

By Michael Lewis

Book cover of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

Why this book?

It’s very hard to tell the story of complicated events, and the global financial crisis that broke out in 2008 was certainly very complicated. Michael Lewis, though, is a brilliant storyteller. The Big Short, which was made into a fine film, focuses on the savvy (but often eccentric, even obnoxious) traders who bet against the sophisticated financial instruments that were at the heart of the crisis. Their story, fascinating in itself, cuts through all the complications and reveals the scary dynamics that gave birth to the crisis. 

If you read The Big Short or watch the film, you may think that their portrayal of what went on in the run-up to the crisis is over-the-top. I’ve researched those events myself, and let me tell you: it’s not. Crazy things happened, and Michael Lewis is a great guide to them.


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Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street

By Karen Ho

Book cover of Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street

Why this book?

From the 1980s onwards, one of the best ways to get rich has been to land a job as an investment banker or other highly paid financial professional. You might have thought that this required an economics degree and advanced mathematics, but one of my students discovered that what a leading investment-management firm most liked about her was that she was a near-professional-level cellist! That’s an example of what the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’: skills, tastes, and so on that are highly regarded (even if not directly relevant to the job at hand).

Karen Ho landed a job at an investment bank but seized on it as an opportunity to gain insights into what it took to become successful at the pinnacle of the global financial system. She has also researched in-depth the processes by which students at elite Ivy League universities such as Princeton and Harvard went on to work in America’s top investment banks, and the high-paying but gruelling and surprisingly insecure jobs they went into. She offers us remarkable insights into an apparently rarefied world that affects the rest of us deeply.


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Taking the Floor: Models, Morals, and Management in a Wall Street Trading Room

By Daniel Beunza

Book cover of Taking the Floor: Models, Morals, and Management in a Wall Street Trading Room

Why this book?

Taking the Floor is the story of a 20-year intellectual odyssey, by Daniel Beunza, one of the world’s most insightful analysts of the financial system. He delves in-depth into the organization of a Wall Street trading room, beginning with him negotiating access to it when he was working on his PhD. He also reveals how later conversations with key people in the trading room made him rethink many of his first impressions, showing him that what he took to be a typical form of organization was actually very deliberately designed to be unusual. 

I particularly admire Beunza’s nuanced take (co-developed with the sociologist David Stark) on how traders use mathematical models. Traders are far from the naïve users of models that they are often portrayed as being, and instead often use models in a sophisticated way, not as guides to the truth of markets but as insights into what their competitors are thinking. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can relax because over the years Beunza has also become sharply aware of how easily the elite world of finance can succumb to misjudgments and amorality.


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