Did Goldman Sachs Overstep in Criminally Charging Its Ex-Programmer?

Michael Lewis’s latest piece for Vanity Fair is an 11,000 examination of how Goldman Sachs acted after finding that one of its ex-programmers, Sergey Aleynikov, allegedly stole computer code. There was a federal trial, and the 41-year-old father of three was sentenced to eight years in federal prison. Investigating Aleynikov’s case, Michael Lewis holds a second trial. The entire piece is worth reading, especially the interviews with Aleynikov in which he presents his views on life (quoted at the bottom in this post).

First, this was an interesting anecdote on why Russians are the best programmers on Wall Street:

He’d been surprised to find that in at least one way he fit in: more than half the programmers at Goldman were Russians. Russians had a reputation for being the best programmers on Wall Street, and Serge thought he knew why: they had been forced to learn programming without the luxury of endless computer time. “In Russia, time on the computer was measured in minutes,” he says. “When you write a program, you are given a tiny time slot to make it work. Consequently we learned to write the code in a way that minimized the amount of debugging. And so you had to think about it a lot before you committed it to paper. . . . The ready availability of computer time creates this mode of working where you just have an idea and type it and maybe erase it 10 times. Good Russian programmers, they tend to have had that one experience at some time in the past: the experience of limited access to computer time.”

A new rule created by the SEC in 2007 called Regulation NMS led to the proliferation of high frequency trading (HFTs):

For reasons not entirely obvious (yet another question for another day), the new rule stimulated a huge amount of stock-market trading. Much of the new volume was generated not by old-fashioned investors but by extremely fast computers controlled by high-frequency-trading firms, like Getco and Citadel and D. E. Shaw and Renaissance Capital, and the high-frequency-trading divisions of big Wall Street firms, especially Goldman Sachs. Essentially, the more places there were to trade stocks, the greater the opportunity there was for high-frequency traders to interpose themselves between buyers on one exchange and sellers on another. This was perverse. The initial promise of computer technology was to remove the intermediary from the financial market, or at least reduce the amount he could scalp from that market. The reality has turned out to be a boom in financial intermediation and an estimated take for Wall Street of somewhere between $10 and $20 billion a year, depending on whose estimates you wish to believe.

Goldman decided to hire Serge Aleynikov to beef up their algorithms to compete with the likes of big hedge funds like Citadel:

A lot of the moneymaking strategies were of the winner-take-all variety. When every player is trying to buy Pepsi after Coke’s stock has popped, the player whose computers can take in data and spit out the obvious response to it first gets all the money. In the various races being run, Goldman was seldom first. That is why they had sought out Serge Aleynikov: to improve the speed of their system.

The article explains how Goldman is a money-making machine, but the appearance of black swan events led many Wall Street firms to lose millions of dollars at the height of the financial crisis, Goldman included:

Day after volatile day in September 2008, Goldman’s supposedly brilliant traders were losing tens of millions of dollars. “All of the expectations didn’t work,” recalls Serge. “They thought they controlled the market, but it was an illusion. Everyone would come into work and were blown away by the fact that they couldn’t control anything at all. . . . Finance is a gambling game for people who enjoy gambling.”

This was probably the most damning paragraph in the piece about Goldman’s relationship with open source software:

But most of his time was spent simply patching the old code. To do this he and the other Goldman programmers resorted, every day, to open-source software, available free to anyone for any purpose. The tools and components they used were not specifically designed for financial markets, but they could be adapted to repair Goldman’s plumbing.

Serge quickly discovered, to his surprise, that Goldman had a one-way relationship with open source. They took huge amounts of free software off the Web, but they did not return it after he had modified it, even when his modifications were very slight and of general rather than financial use. “Once I took some open-source components, repackaged them to come up with a component that was not even used at Goldman Sachs,” he says. “It was basically a way to make two computers look like one, so if one went down the other could jump in and perform the task.” 

On the individualistic (selfish) nature of competition at Goldman, even when efforts were collaborative in nature:

It made no sense to him the way people were paid individually for achievements that were essentially collective. “It was quite competitive. Everyone’s trying to show how good their individual contribution to the team is. Because the team doesn’t get the bonus, the individual does.”

And then we get to the meat of the piece, where Michael Lewis invites people in the HFT industry to come up with their own verdict of whether Serge Aleynikov did something nefarious and/or illegal:

Our system of justice was a poor tool for digging out a rich truth. What was really needed, it seemed to me, was for Serge Aleynikov to be forced to explain what he had done, and why, to people able to understand the explanation and judge it. Goldman Sachs had never asked him to explain himself, and the F.B.I. had not sought help from someone who actually knew anything at all about computers or the high-frequency-trading business. And so over two nights, in a private room of a Wall Street restaurant, I convened a kind of second trial. To serve as both jury and prosecution, I invited half a dozen people intimately familiar with Goldman Sachs, high-frequency trading, and computer programming.

You have to read the piece for the conclusion. As one of the jurors assembled by Michael Lewis says: it was nauseating how Sergey was treated.

One last bit in the informal jury process that caught my attention was Serge’s demeanor and approach to life. Take things as they come; negativity is pointless:

At one point one of the people at the table stopped the conversation about computer code and asked, “Why aren’t you angry?” Serge just smiled back at him. “No, really,” said the other. “How do you stay so calm? I’d be fucking going crazy.” Serge smiled again. “But what does craziness give you?” he said. “What does negative demeanor give you as a person? It doesn’t give you anything. You know that something happened. Your life happened to go in that particular route. If you know that you’re innocent, know it. But at the same time, you know you are in trouble and this is how it’s going to be.” To which he added, “To some extent I’m glad this happened to me. I think it strengthened my understanding of what living is all about.”

What are your thoughts?


There’s a very interesting addendum in Vanity Fair in which Michael Lewis is interviewed about his piece. Here, he shares his personal thoughts on Sergey’s time in prison:

Q: For the past 200, 250 years, prison has been an essential part of the Russian experience. Like Dostoyevsky and other Russian authors, and their heroes, Serge found some sense of purpose in his incarceration. Do you think an American could have come away from the experience with that same perspective?

[Michael Lewis]: In the 1950s, European filmmakers, when their films were going to be made for both a Russian and American audience, would change the ending. They would make a happy ending for the American audience and a tragic one for the Russian audience. There’s a photographer named Tacita Dean who has done a series of photographs called “Russian Endings” where she has played on this. I would say that in some ways, there’s something in the water in Russia that enables you to derive a kind of pleasure from a tragic experience. That is not in the water in America. A kind of richness from a tragic experience. And whatever chemical is in the water, Serge drank plenty of it. He is very persuasive on the subject that this was not an all-together bad experience for him. It woke him up to many aspects of life that he had previously been asleep to. I believe him. I don’t think it’s just superficial rationalizing.

When you’re with him, it’s shocking how without anger or bitterness he is. You would never guess, at the dinners I had, that he was one who spent time in jail. You would have picked every other person there.

Also worth highlighting is financial blogger Felix Salmon on his reaction to Lewis’s piece:

I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that America’s system of jurisprudence simply isn’t up to the task of holding banks and bankers accountable for their actions. The only people who ever get prosecuted are small fry and insider traders, rather than the people who really caused the biggest damage. And the lesson of Sergei Aleynikov is that if and when the laws get beefed up, the banks will simply end up taking advantage of those laws for their own vindictive purposes, rather than becoming victims of them. Given the ease with which Goldman got the FBI to do its bidding, one has to assume that, most of the time, the government will be working on the same side as the big banks, rather than working against them. Do we really want to give those banks ever more powerful weapons?

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