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Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street

Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street

3.6 6
by Karen Ho

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Financial collapses—whether of the junk bond market, the Internet bubble, or the highly leveraged housing market—are often explained as the inevitable result of market cycles: What goes up must come down. In Liquidated, Karen Ho punctures the aura of the abstract, all-powerful market to show how financial markets, and particularly booms and busts,


Financial collapses—whether of the junk bond market, the Internet bubble, or the highly leveraged housing market—are often explained as the inevitable result of market cycles: What goes up must come down. In Liquidated, Karen Ho punctures the aura of the abstract, all-powerful market to show how financial markets, and particularly booms and busts, are constructed. Through an in-depth investigation into the everyday experiences and ideologies of Wall Street investment bankers, Ho describes how a financially dominant but highly unstable market system is understood, justified, and produced through the restructuring of corporations and the larger economy.

Ho, who worked at an investment bank herself, argues that bankers’ approaches to financial markets and corporate America are inseparable from the structures and strategies of their workplaces. Her ethnographic analysis of those workplaces is filled with the voices of stressed first-year associates, overworked and alienated analysts, undergraduates eager to be hired, and seasoned managing directors. Recruited from elite universities as “the best and the brightest,” investment bankers are socialized into a world of high risk and high reward. They are paid handsomely, with the understanding that they may be let go at any time. Their workplace culture and networks of privilege create the perception that job insecurity builds character, and employee liquidity results in smart, efficient business. Based on this culture of liquidity and compensation practices tied to profligate deal-making, Wall Street investment bankers reshape corporate America in their own image. Their mission is the creation of shareholder value, but Ho demonstrates that their practices and assumptions often produce crises instead. By connecting the values and actions of investment bankers to the construction of markets and the restructuring of U.S. corporations, Liquidated reveals the particular culture of Wall Street often obscured by triumphalist readings of capitalist globalization.

Editorial Reviews

American Studies - Kathryn Dudley
Liquidated is a must-read book for anyone interested in how legions of recruits from Ivy League colleges come to espouse and enact the twisted bundle of class interests and market ideology that constitutes neoliberal capitalism.”
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - James G. Carrier
Liquidated is an interesting description of many of the practices and orientations that exist in large investment banks, one that confirms what the reader may suspect: that these institutions are forcing-grounds for the sort of hubris and invulnerability that goes with the phrase ‘Masters of the Universe’, the incomprehensible money that sales staff receive, and the idea that they are ‘doing God’s work’. It also, however, indicates the reverse of the strength of the social studies of finance. Liquidated may help explain why those in investment banks think and operate in the ways that they do.”
Financial Analysts Journal - Janet J. Mangano
“[A] unique portrait of the industry that asks pertinent questions about constant change, job insecurity, and the banker’s identity. . . . Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street asks many questions that those who work in the investment field should ask themselves. . . . Although many in the financial industry will not agree with Ho’s hypotheses and conclusions, they will be challenged by the questions she raises and enthralled by the body of fieldwork she presents.”
Financial Times - Gillian Tett
“Karen Ho has picked an excellent time to publish her fascinating new study . . . of Wall Street banks. . . . As field-sites go, Wall Street is not classic anthropological territory: ethnographers typically work in remote, third-world societies. . . . Ho nevertheless embarked on her study in classic anthropological manner: by blending into the background, listening intently, in a non-judgmental way – and then trying to join up the dots to get a ‘holistic’ picture of how the culture works. That patient ethnographic analysis has produced a fascinating portrait that will be refreshingly novel to most bankers.”
The Huffington Post - James Franco
“Ho's study shows the intense competitiveness that is instilled in these primarily Ivy League recruits even before they are finished with their Bachelor's degrees. And she examines the myth that stockowners and companies are best served by maximizing shareholder profits. If anything, this book gives faces to the people who work in that abstract entity called Wall Street that seems to affect our world so much of late. I highly recommend it, especially if you have no idea how the world of high finance operates.”
Environment and Planning A - Brett Christophers
“The book contains many wonderful insights, and is a veritable mine of quotations from Wall Street participants. . . . The book is, moreover, extremely well written throughout . . . . [A]n informed and informative text.”
Word in Motion and author of Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection - Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Liquidated is what many of us have been waiting for: a serious ethnographic consideration of finance capital. Using the best kinds of cultural and social analysis, Karen Ho gets inside Wall Street assumptions, turning them around to upend each other.”
Wall Street: How It Works and For Whom - Doug Henwood
“We’re pretty familiar with the economic rationale for the regime of cost-cutting and downsizing throughout corporate America in recent decades. But Karen Ho’s research greatly enriches our understanding of how Wall Street’s own peculiar culture of transient relationships and relentless competition has contributed to the shareholder revolution. And, along the way, her interviews and fieldwork offer a very revealing picture of the mind of Wall Street. A fascinating and important book.”
Pious Property: Islamic Mortgages in the United States - Bill Maurer
“What could be more timely than this fascinating and highly readable investigation of the culture of Wall Street? With Liquidated, Karen Ho takes us into the workaday world of investment banking before the crisis, showing us the roots of the risk-taking that drew lavish compensation packages and brought the world financial system to the brink of collapse. A significant contribution both to the anthropological and wider social scientific literature on financial markets and globalization, as well as to the urgent public debate over the power of financial institutions in contemporary American society.”
Quant Network - Ben Lorica
“[E]ngaging and hard to put down. . . Karen Ho’s book is a must-read for anyone contemplating joining one of the major global banks. . . . Actually, even faculty of our elite schools are starting to question why so many of their graduates end up in finance. Karen Ho’s book should be required reading for students and faculty at these schools.”
American Ethnologist - Keith Hart
“After several decades when anthropologists at last overcame their inhibitions concerning the study of money, Karen Ho’s book . . . seems to mark a coming of age for the contemporary discipline. . . . The intelligence of its author shines through Liquidated. . . . I found it rewarding to read and reflect on, a landmark in the burgeoning anthropology of money.”
International Examiner - Linda Kee-Koa
“Although written for a mostly academic audience, the book becomes easily digestible because of the summaries Ho adds in each section. She connects well the main theme throughout any areas of the book. Ho’s views should not be considered ‘anti-Wall Street’ but viewed as an analysis of Wall Street’s effect on the American community and the financial markets. This book should be read by Wall Street investment bankers and corporate managers to better understand the social values and responsibilities of corporations and the role that they play in the American community.”
American Journal of Sociology - Mitchel Y. Abolafia
“Karen Ho is my hero. . . . Her ethnography of investment bankers in the late 1990s, Liquidated, depicts the bravado, callousness, and contradictions that are the hallmarks of investment banking culture.”
Times Literary Supplement - Keir Martin
“The book’s great strength lies in Ho’s careful observation of the means by which people succeed or fail on Wall Street, as she punctures many of the assumptions about how markets work.”

Product Details

Duke University Press
Publication date:
a John Hope Franklin Center Book
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Barnes & Noble
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File size:
870 KB

Meet the Author

Karen Ho is Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Minnesota.

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Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Karen Z. Ho is an anthropologist who did ethnography on Wall Street in the time leading up to the current financial crisis. She studied the "culture" of high finance in the largest Wall Street firms, while working in one of the largest. She documents in excruciating detail the fact that Wall Street is not just a neutral market place. It has a definite culture, and that culture led to the financial meltdown in 2008-2009. Among other points she makes is that American high finance placed an extreme priority on liquidity--that everything tangible had to be turned into liquid assets--sliced, diced and homogenized into negotiable commodities. It is thus that mortgages got turned into credit swap defaults and other esoteric commercial paper. Once that had been done, not only could the resulting products be bought and sold, they could be sold two and three times, and shorted. This book is penetrating, fascinating reading from a trained observer who understands both finance and the culture of those promulgating it. For anyone wanting to know the truth about the current financial crisis, this book is absolutely essential reading.
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