The small ski resort town, nestled in the mountains outside the city of Karuizawa, was a popular destination for day trips for Japanese families. Bustling during the day, it was mostly quiet this Saturday night. Clouds cloaked the moon.
A chartered bus pulled up outside a bar, its windows aglow. A light snow was falling. Out into the peaceful evening stumbled dozens of rowdy bankers, some toting tall cans of Asahi and Kirin. Most of them were drunk. They quickly took over the small bar.
The drinkers were employees of the American bank Citigroup, one of the world’s largest and most troubled financial institutions. A year earlier, at the beginning of 2009, American taxpayers had finished pumping a staggering $45 billion into Citigroup to bail out the collapsing behemoth. Now the transfused recipient was treating dozens of its investment banking employees to a weekend getaway. The bankers were housed nearby in a sprawling luxury hotel, each employee’s room designed in Japan’s typical spare style.
These festivities weren’t so spartan. The point was to foster camaraderie, and that was happening in spades. The party had begun on the hundred-mile ride on the bullet train out from Tokyo. After a day of hitting the slopes, Citigroup ferried the bankers to a bowling alley, where they drank and bowled and drank some more. Their bus had then deposited the intoxicated crew at this bar, before leaving the partiers behind to fend for themselves.
One of the fiesta’s ringleaders was a wiry, curly-haired American named Chris Cecere. You wouldn’t know it from his behavior now, but he was one of the sharpest people in Tokyo’s cutthroat financial markets. A foul-mouthed veteran of the doomed Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, Cecere had only worked in Japan for a year or so, but he had quickly assembled a team of rock-star traders. His mandate was to push the already risk-hungry Citigroup into brave new financial frontiers.
That wasn’t all Cecere was pushing. This snowy night, he was practically pouring shots down the throat of his subordinate, a disheveled British thirty-year-old named Tom Hayes. Slim and nearly six feet tall, Hayes was a brilliant mathematician, one of the most prolific, aggressive traders in Tokyo, if not the world. As with Cecere, he didn’t look or act the part. Bespoke suits and expensive shoes were found nowhere in his wardrobe. Specks of dandruff dusted his shoulders. He was far happier with a glass of orange juice or a mug of hot chocolate than a pint of beer, a preference that once earned him the nickname “Tommy Chocolate.”
Hayes found social situations uncomfortable to the point of painful—this one included. Before departing for the ski weekend, he had grumbled to his fiancée that he didn’t want to go. She told him he didn’t have a choice. Hayes’s life revolved around work, and Citigroup was his new family. He had only started there a couple of months earlier, and it was important that he make a good impression on his colleagues. So far, he was off to a promising start in that regard. His new bosses bathed him in praise, introducing him around Citigroup’s global organization as their newest trophy asset. Only hours before they showed up at the bar, a top Citigroup executive, Brian Mccappin, had described Hayes as “a star” who represented the future of the firm’s enormous business in Tokyo. Mccappin proclaimed that their division would further shift its trading approach to take advantage of their new hire’s extraordinary talent. Hayes was certainly being paid like a star. After years of feeling like he was getting stiffed by six-figure payouts at his former employer, the Swiss bank UBS, he had pocketed a roughly $3 million cash signing bonus when he joined Citigroup.
Mccappin, the CEO of Citigroup’s investment bank in Japan, came along to the bar that night, along with Cecere and Hayes. A native of the gritty English city of Birmingham, Mccappin was tall, with a chubby, dimpled face. A talented singer at thirteen, he and a friend had formed a band called Deadline that sometimes performed at a pub frequented by workers, including Mccappin’s father, emptying out of a nearby Rolls-Royce plant. After Deadline split, some of its members went on, years later, to form Ocean Colour Scene, which briefly rose to fame touring with Oasis. By then Mccappin had moved on to other things, but that didn’t stop him from occasionally claiming that he’d been a founding member of the infinitely more familiar band.
At the time Hayes arrived at Citigroup, the main outlet for Mccappin’s stymied musical ambitions was karaoke, and he was a frequent and enthusiastic practitioner. As Mccappin belted out tunes this night, Hayes grudgingly accepted shot after shot of Jägermeister from Cecere. He struggled to swallow the sweet herbal concoction, fighting an increasingly powerful gag reflex. But he kept throwing the shots back, unwilling or unable to withstand Cecere’s schoolboy pressure. Hayes didn’t want to disappoint his boss. The earlier part of the day had been easier: Hayes was an expert skier, who embraced risk as eagerly on a black-diamond trail as he did on a frenzied trading floor, and he thrived in the deep powder of the Karuizawa resort. Now, though, beads of sweat started tingling on his scalp. The room began to spin. Hayes staggered to the bathroom and vomited. Then he rejoined the party.
Three years later, in January 2013, I was sitting on a sofa in my cramped apartment in London’s Clerkenwell neighborhood. Centuries earlier, the area had been the stomping ground of knights who were about to embark on crusades to the Holy Land. In a nod to that history, the narrow alleyway that my wife and I shared with a Belgian beer hall was named Jerusalem Passage. The neighborhood had been repopulated by trendy design studios, sushi bars, and art galleries.
It was just after 8 p.m. when my iPhone buzzed with a text message from a number I didn’t recognize. “I’ll meet you tomorrow but I need to be certain I can trust you,” the text read. “This goes much much higher than me and a lot of what I know even the DOJ is in the dark.”
The message was from a terrified, and very sober, Tom Hayes.
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This piece was excerpted from David Enrich’s new book, “The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and One of the Greatest Scams in Financial History.”