Speculative Fictions: Finance, Excess, and HBO's Industry

February 2, 2021   •   By Jorge Cotte

Industry is set in a bustling London office, on a floor level strewn with rows of monitors stacked on each other — each monitor is brimming with information, both shield and window for the trader looking to turn a deal. A mezzanine level overlooks the trading floor where Pierpoint & Co.’s top brass can survey their colleagues and employees. The sound is constant, a hive buzzing with activity, forming the backdrop of every interaction the camera lands on. What sounds like white noise is a dissembling chorus. The wall of noise is a pointillist tableau of a thousand atomic interactions: hazing, ringing, gossip, endless news, calls, puts, bets, alarms, and pitches, all the spikes of capital’s circulation in sonic form. 

The show’s trick is to pick out a node of this process, a single transaction and a single salesperson. We meet Harper Stern, a recent graduate in an entry role at a bank that she imagines is free from the status-obsessed politicking that plagues the rest of the world; she imagines a meritocracy. She comes from nothing — or SUNY Binghamton, kind of, since she didn’t actually graduate — and she sits at a desk next to Eric Tao, the renegade Managing Director of CPS (“cross product services”). Despite lacking the pedigree of most other recruits — no Oxford or Ivy League degree, no posh accent, not white nor as good at approximating whiteness — Harper sits at her desk with a job in sales having sold herself in an interview. 

In the second episode, Eric brandishes bright pineapple boxer shorts as he dresses during morning pitch. He matches that exhibitionist braggadocio with a baseball bat that he carries around, swinging it like the last bastion of an old school masculinity. Later, Eric will tell Harper that he recognizes something of himself in her, a hunger that can flourish only in those that come from nothing. It’s not something that can be approximated in silver spooners; they can only fear losing what they already have and that makes them risk averse. The hunger and drive to reach out and seize what has been kept out of your reach is what makes salespeople innovative and bold. Eric sees himself in Harper, precisely as her ambition dangerously outpaces her job description.

Later, Harper will wonder whether she is safe with Eric. She will stare at the closed blinds and locked door trapping her in the boardroom as Eric explodes. His anger comes from fear over his own well-being, over his reputation and position in the firm, all of which trace back to an error he made. When Eric said the wrong thing at a dinner party, he doomed his relationship with one of his most valuable clients. His anger at her is, at root, an impossible anger at himself. Eric rages, and spittle shouts from his lips. Harper, trembling, barely ekes out the words, “C-can I go?”

A broader, dispassionate view would say this is all about money. Relationships with clients matter because money. Relationships between managers and young grads, if they go badly, interrupt money. Sales, deals, investments, packages, and coverage are all about actual and (more importantly) potential money. Pierpoint is an apparatus capturing money and selling the potential for more money. The array of monitors, stacked on top of each other in precise grids, show money and a continuum of findings and judgments that have been converted to data points because they affect money. 

The effect of money on the brain is devastating and clear. As summarized by social psychologist Kathleen D. Vohs, people primed with the idea of money are less likely to ask for help, to volunteer help to others. They donate less and physically isolate themselves to a greater degree. When asked whether they want to complete a task by themselves or collaborate with another student, those primed with money are more likely to approach the task alone. Students who are primed by images of money, when faced with a klutzy exam proctor who drops a bin of pencils, literally pick up fewer pencils. When asked to sit across from another student, they placed their seat at a further distance. In all, people with money on the brain become less collaborative, more individualistic.

Industry tracks the effects of monetizing logics on a group of young “grads,”or recent graduates hired by Pierpoint on a provisional basis with six months to prove their worth before the dreaded reduction in force (or “RIF”). Besides Harper, the show follows the party boy Rob, stumbling to make a place among the upper classes, the cultured Yasmin, still living off her artist mother, and the posh Oxford gay Gus, who in the wake of losing a coworker serves as the show’s recurring totem of the tragic costs of making money. Through the grads’ naivete the show introduces us to the stakes of business and socializing both, and where exactly respectability lies waiting to claim Gen Z. In their youth and invincibility, the 20-somethings are sucked into the whirlwind of finance’s carnal and psychotropic pleasures.

Excess, the mechanistic drive of capitalism, comes alive through these inductees into the world of finance and the climate of financialization. These traders put their fingers to the wind and bet with their guts. They hold insecurity in one hand for their prospective clients and trade it for the confidence they hold in the other. Yet, as avatars of the markets — real life people who their clients can interface with, being much too important to spend their money on computer screens — the grads are both inside and outside the market. 

Pierpoint is not a bank where money sits but a hub in a wider network of money’s movements. Money flows through the firm at incomprehensible rates, like currents crisscrossing an ocean. The grads, their labor, but more, their whole futures, are just another deal for Pierpoint — a price, a bet. At orientation they are told: “Young people are our capital. Graduates are our capital.” And at RIF the firm’s managing directors read the indicators and decide whether to invest. To be capital is to have a future that is measured and priced. To be capital is to have a future folded into present consumption. 

What to do when your future, what you might make of yourself, who you might become, is scrutinized and quantified as potential profit? If your future is getting “all used up,” you might spend it while you still can. The grads live large as a way of justifying what they are losing. Just as the party bleeds into the bathroom, the grads’ movements blur the distance between the excess of the trading floor and that of the club or bedroom. We’re watching the financialization of these young people’s lives. 

Financialization is capitalism's advance, following the lure of endless growth, into the purely speculative. Though it seems almost divorced from the mundane trappings of traditional business — manufacturing goods, managing labor, distributing goods at a markup —  its embeddedness is the catch. Gains in the markets seem to benefit banks and hedge funds; losses are real lost jobs. The rise of retail trading has turned these once-obscure machinations into viral games, powered by communities of decentralized information and idiosyncratic advice. Last month’s movement to buy and keep GameStop stock from the hedge funds who shorted it contains a real impulse to reclaim what has been ceded to financialization, to make it work for people who aren’t billion dollar hedge funds. But betting on markets moving one way or another, as Harper does waiting on the release of nonfarm payrolls, is a claim on pleasure by the transaction itself. 

It is perhaps telling that the world of Industry is the world of salespeople. Sure the grads make hierarchy possible — Harper can’t look at her bonus check without gawking, Rob can’t imagine paying for the suit his mentor Clement gifts him without second thought — but their managers too are in the business of serving, fostering relationships with clients who have the real money, the ones with the weight to move the market. (Another way of saying this is they play with other people's money.) Their task is to keep the wealthy happy, to keep their confidence and engagement in the financial sphere. They serve finance itself, a beast that feasts on transactions and activity. It’s not about any one position or deal but about the movement of dealing itself. 

Finance sells the future, or a future. As Timo Walter and Leon Wansleben have argued, though financial markets fluctuate, they hold up a vision of the future that is stable and understood in terms of the past. While we don’t know what exactly will happen, we can never know how the dollar will move in relation to sterling, says finance, we know that there will be a dollar and a pound sterling. Walter and Wansleben identify this as a continuity of past-present-future that uses the past as the “stable backdrop” from which the present absorbs the future. Priced into the present, the future disappears; it is merely a “horizon of possibilities that provides inputs for arbitrage.” 

This continuous wave “translating present futures into numeric prices… depends on the continuous operative denial of the openness of this very future.” If Pierpoint’s salespeople buy and trade against a backdrop of a stable future, what they are selling to their clients and to each other is dependent and constitutive of a closing off of futurity itself. Each transaction is an investment in shutting down a future that is radically different, one that is unimaginable by capitalist logic. 

The dependence of markets on stability is evident in the agitation accompanying moments of true uncertainty, whether it's a pandemic or thousands of retail traders who take a liking to a stock with the mundane nostalgia of the shopping mall. The Wall Street establishment has taken the recent GameStop fracas as a personal attack. On January 28th, the retail investing app, Robinhood, shut down trading on $GME and other stocks because it didn’t have the collateral infrastructure to handle the unprecedented fluctuations in value. As Matt Levin wrote, the “volatility of those stocks is approaching infinity as their trading volume increases.” While the financial stakes of millions of stocks being traded because they became a meme might seem frivolous (if you don’t run a hedge fund), the rush to diagnose and discourage r/wallstreetbets and investors who followed was notable for what they exposed about these markets. Though many stocks share a name with a company that employs people and sells goods and services, these names are signifiers operating in a different plane. They magnetize their own opinions, projections, and gut feelings. 

This is speculation taken to its natural conclusion: divorced from revenues and expenses, abandoned by market principles, runaway value. What r/wallstreetbets brought to the surface is what Industry understands as its central, stinging insight.

A disregard for the specifics of each sale is established in Industry’s agnosticism toward its own jargonic cacophony. The traders’ circulating acronyms map a wider topography, but the show avoids decoding. If you were expecting to understand what Harper means by “half a yard, done, four cents,” you are better off turning to recaps and interviews. There is a sense that Pierpoint’s salespeople have to give good advice, but that kind of long-term thinking is relegated to the research department, exemplified by Theo, a research analyst who, professionally at least, exists to be disrespected. 

In the season finale, Harpers boasts of all the “bespoke macro trading strategies” she developed, but the show never lingers on the success of any individual forecast. The deal that gets the most discussion in Industry is a simple purchase of sterling that Harper mistakes for a purchase of dollars. She buys too much and loses her desk money. And while that episode, one of the tensest of the year, tracks the swirl of Harper’s desperation and megalomania, it’s not the client who is at risk. 

Ultimately, each individual’s place is precarious, but the system itself is held up by the innumerable interactions registering daily, each a pixel on a graph — each a bet on a future that is more similar than different. This system, the ambient background of Pierpoint’s trading floor, is why the insurgent energy of $GME will end up a mirage. Unprecedented volatility rattled the markets and summoned anti-Wall Street sentiment. The lack of certainty in $GME's future exposed Robinhood and other retail trading apps.  But the market will adjust to activist retail traders, to new uses and spaces of conflict on ticker tape, and most likely the decentralization of trading cedes more ground to financialization not less. Quantitative analysts are already working on “generating sentiment measures” from Reddit’s forums. $GME, then, is a pivot, not a break.  All the transactions and spikes of data still bleed into a mirage that collapses what’s ahead into immediacy. 

Is it too facile to read into Industry’s pleasure-seeking excess a suspended present trading on a future that has nothing novel to offer? For characters like Rob and Greg, or the washed-up “dinosaur” Clement, a hangover is a night out that persists and attaches, the past dragging itself into the present, refusing to let the future be a new day. The nihilistic enclosure of all their predictions and packaged derivatives is built into the characters’ drive to experience a shock of feeling. An immediacy pushed to the limit at the expense of what cannot yet be imagined. 

Pierpoint’s employees are nodes where actual and potential money meet. At their best, they are sponges soaking up the excess that escapes every time something unquantifiable is reduced to a dollar sign. After Harper completes her first sale she is enraptured. Eric wants to hold onto that feeling for her: “Do not forget how this feels right now!” But it’s already folding into the backdrop. They are betting on a future by spending on it now. It might not be a good one, but it can be a good time.