Since the financial crash of 2008, our fascination with the super-richest of the banking class — and their perceived crimes — has expanded like a trader’s algorithm. Fortunately, like the mobsters of The Sopranos or the advertising pioneers of Mad Men, they perfectly fit the male anti-hero model that has thrived in the prestige T.V. shows of the last two decades. The hedge-fund boys’ big moment is Billions, starring Damian Lewis as fund leader Bobby Axelrod, a man whose success is equal parts genius and criminality, and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, the ambitious U.S. attorney who is determined to take him down.
With a former New York Times financial journalist, Andrew Ross Sorkin, as one of its creators, Billions is strong on the insane details of hedge fund operations, from Axelrod’s depth of research (monitoring satellite imagery of deliveries from warehouses around the world to measure the true health of a company) to the office uniform (fleece jerkins, worn because the office is kept to the exact temperature deemed optimum for brain function). It also brilliantly exposes the obsession, the extravagant wealth and spending, and the desire to win at all costs, fair or foul, that characterises the most famous of the hedge-fund billionaires.
There’s ego, too. “What’s funny,” Sorkin remarked after the first season aired in 2016, “is that I’ve heard from a lot of people throughout the business who are convinced that Bobby is based on them.” The most successful hedge-fund managers see themselves as masters of the universe, heirs to the robber barons who built America’s global dominance, and, with the low level of regulation hedge funds have enjoyed, even above the law. If not actual criminals, they are rogues, pirates and cowboys. As one former hedge-funder, James Altucher, wrote, “I would estimate 90 per cent of hedge funds commit crimes along the way. And the huge ones are huge for a specific reason — they know how to avoid being caught.”