NEW YORK – The hedge fund industry is a secretive world led by tight-lipped titans who make more than $1 billion a year. It shouldn’t enjoy having its quirky habits probed on television.
But that appears to be what is happening. On Showtime’s “Billions,” two larger-than-life adversaries, U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades and billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, battle for supremacy. Wall Street insiders say they are watching, closely.
Hire a psychiatrist to pump up traders suffering through a slump? Check. Wager millions of dollars based on satellite images of a manufacturing plant in China? Check. Rewarded with multimillion-dollar bonuses for a good year? Check.
“They are really trying to get it right, whether it’s running dialogue by me or other people,” said James Chanos, one of the veteran Wall Street insiders on whom the show’s creators have come to depend. Chanos has made billions betting on when a company, most famously Enron, would see its stock price plummet, a practice known in the industry as short selling. After decades in the business, he has seen nearly everything.
“That being said, the show is fiction,” he said. “It is Wall Street porn, OK, soft porn … which makes it fun.
“I joke that the writers should come by my offices. There aren’t Abercrombie models in the latest fashions” walking around, Chanos said. “They would see schlubs with half-eaten Chinese food on their desks. Sadly, the reality is not as romantic as portrayed.”
The creators of “Billions,” Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who also co-wrote 1998’s “Rounders,” have made friends across the hedge-fund industry and among the federal prosecutors keeping an eye on them. (Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, has met with Koppelman and Levien and stopped by when the show was taping near his offices. )
“What we’re trying to get right is the spirit and mood” of the industry, Koppelman said. “We absolutely hear back that we get that part right and that part wrong.”
One pivotal scene this season comes as Axelrod assembles his team to consider whether to force a small New York town into bankruptcy to recoup a $500 million investment. To help plan out the debate, Koppelman and Levien tapped Barbara Morgan, a veteran of New York politics. Morgan leaned on her experience working with Puerto Rico, which has been facing off against Wall Street titans over its debts in recent years, to help keep the fictional debate realistic.
“They developed the story arc,” Morgan said. “Then I came in to help on the granular level. How would a fund do this? What would austerity look like? What would be the impact of those measures?”
Koppelman and Levien are following the footsteps of Hollywood greats who have attempted to capture Wall Street’s underbelly. In Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko schemed to take over a company and raid its pension plan. “The Big Short” explained how a few people spotted the housing disaster and made billions from it.
In “Billions,” the worst assumptions about the hedge-fund industry are brought to the screen. Axelrod, played by Damien Lewis, once delayed medical treatment for one of his employees to gain an advantage against Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti. Rhoades repeatedly crossed the line in his pursuit of Axelrod. Yet, the show’s fans cheer for them both.
“David and I are in search of these answers,” Koppelman said. “Why do we as a culture celebrate these flawed people in the way we do?”
One comparison Koppelman and Levien are struggling to kill is that the show is based on a showdown between two real-world figures: Bharara and hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen. Bharara (like Rhoades) was an ambitious and aggressive prosecutor who brought headline-grabbing cases against hedge-fund giants. Cohen, like Axelrod, has spent years being investigated by federal prosecutors on accusations of insider trading. Cohen has never been charged.
The comparison rankles Levien and Koppelman.
“The character is not based on Preet. Preet is a very good man. We really don’t think the character is Preet,” Koppelman said. “It’s a fictional show.”
Not everyone is convinced. When Bharara was fired by President Trump this year, some of the shows fans were unnerved. One said on Twitter that watching the show was “weird now.”
Bharara responded, “Well, for some people, it’s always been weird.”
Bharara has a standing offer to join the show as a consultant, Koppelman and Levien say. “We haven’t heard from him,” Levien said.
As for Cohen, he is not talking.
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