Desk, Firm, God, Country: Proprietary Trading and the Speculative Ethos of Financialism

Robert Wosnitzer

In 2009, in the wake of the global financial crisis, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Paul Volcker proposed a ban on capital markets proprietary trading by the nation’s largest banks and financial institutions. Yet, the term proprietary trading is ambiguous, as it can refer to a variety of competing trading activities, financial instruments, and agents operating in the financial field. The ambiguity arises from the complexity by which financial action and value are mediated in the global capital markets, as well as from a lack of historical context. This dissertation uses the figure of the credit trader to examine the complex history and organization, as well as the technical tools and devices used in the contemporary practice of proprietary trading in the global credit markets, in order to show how an orientation to risk and speculation has emerged as a productive means, or ethos, by which different forms of value are mediated. Relying upon a deeply social and agentive practice, the day-to-day practice of proprietary trading and the circulation of credit instruments constructs a picture of finance that resembles a ritual form, one that ediates social relationships and value, operating to secure and enclose claims on wealth generated in the market. The attempt to ban such practices emerges not so much as meaningful reform, but rather as redefining the spaces of circulation calling attention to how governance simultaneously invokes and denies different publics. The practice of proprietary trading and its history reveals much more than how value is produced and disproportionately claimed by financial actors, but demonstrates how the act of risking together can make wealth more expansive.