I double-check the name the notorious “finmeme-lord” known as Litquidity has reserved our table under.
“I’m here for Hank Paulson,” I tell the maître d’ at Le Bernardin.
He doesn’t bat an eye. I wonder if Paulson, the former US Treasury secretary responsible for bank bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis, dines at the three-Michelin-star New York restaurant all the time.
Paulson is a joke, a pseudonym for a pseudonym. Litquidity, the anonymous Wall Street insider who built a cult following with caustic jokes on social media, has not arrived yet.
Litquidity’s viral posts are comedic cocaine to banking executives and trading floor interns, hoovered up by those who love Wall Street and those who love to hate it. His humour bites at everything from monetary policy to bad loafers. This year, he reposted a picture of Kim Kardashian posing beside Harvard Business School (where she delivered a guest lecture) captioned: “When you stayed in cash in 2022 so you outperformed 80% of hedge fund managers.” The meme collected tens of thousands of likes within hours.
Analysts and hedge fundies sometimes seem to communicate almost exclusively in a ping pong of his latest Instagram posts (usually memes, images overlaid with pithy text). Litquidity’s contagious popularity makes sense: social-media-savvy millennials are an increasingly significant demographic in finance, an eminently lampoonable industry.
When Litquidity arrives at Le Bernardin, we cross the dining room that hums with power lunchers. A sprawling painting on the back wall evokes a crashing wave in the otherwise beige-feeling restaurant.
“Lit”, as he introduces himself, agrees to the lunch under the condition he will remain anonymous. I can say he’s not tall (but not short), athletic (but not a rail), has brown hair and dark eyes. He laughs easily and is kind to waiters.
His rise has been fuelled by the mystery of his identity. Litquidity could be, and he was, the analyst toiling in the next cubicle, or the associate doling out tedious work about to blow up your Friday-night plans.
His memes have become a de facto language for young financiers in part because of their “shared trauma”. Many start out in low-ranking roles at top firms infamous for brutal work cultures and hierarchies, he says. “Obviously it’s not real trauma, but they are unique working conditions. Comedy is a coping mechanism.”
Lit is an astute commentator, yet in recent years, finance has needed little help satirising itself. We have had meme stocks, cryptocurrency, Goldman Sachs chief David Solomon moonlighting as a DJ, the Miami boom, Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of FTX, Dogecoin (an actual joke currency), Elon Musk and Twitter, a Twitter-fuelled bank run as well as Jeff Bezos’s bizarre turn as a cowboy-boot-wearing bodybuilder. “There’s no shortage of content,” Litquidity says. “The market going to shit made everything much easier for me.”
Within days of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March, Lit had T-shirts branded with “Silicon Valley Broke” for sale on his website. “You can’t make it up,” he says. That is, incompetence is a gift to comedy, and profitable. Litquidity’s satire feels especially timely in an era where Wall Street’s culture of free-form risk taking, self-importance and excess is increasingly offensive to anyone living pay cheque to pay cheque.
A brutal year for the economy has extended the “shared trauma” of the markets beyond the trading floor. When US Federal Reserve meetings became a preoccupation for the masses, Litquidity’s jokes found a broader audience. “Inflation is the lowest-hanging fruit because everyone understands, it transcends a niche audience on Wall Street,” he says.
Even so, much of his commentary is still focused on the biggest banks. “RIP,” Litquidity posted on his stories last week following the announcement that Citigroup — a regular target — would be laying off 5,000 staff, bringing this year’s job losses on Wall Street to over 11,000.
Although he shakes his head at the rationale of meme-stock traders, Lit’s style of memes are an anthropological link to those that helped fuel the so-called meme stock frenzy in 2021. Anti-establishment Reddit traders (and Wall Street opportunists), sharing memes encouraging bold bets, drove up the price of heavily shorted stocks such as GameStop by more than 1,700 per cent in days, causing billions in losses to Wall Street hedge funds.
Is it possible, I suggest, that in 2023 (and for that matter 2022, 2021 and 2020), absurdist memes may actually be the most acute language to understand our collective bafflement with the financial system? The market has become its own best gag man. “I’m leaning into it,” Litquidity says. “It’s like, this is beyond satire, this is real life.”
“Are we doing it?” Lit asks.
Let the record reflect that Litquidity was game to order the tasting menu at Le Bernardin, but I panicked. It costs almost $300 per person, before tax and tip. With wine, the price shoots to $445. Suddenly, I was overcome with anxiety that the Financial Times expenses system would not appreciate my receipt for a $1,250 lunch. He is understanding, I stop hyperventilating. We settle for the three-course prix-fixe, a paltry $120 per person. We are both well up for wine. Rosé champagne for me, still rosé for Lit.
Le Bernardin, helmed by star chef Eric Ripert for 29 years, serves fish. Lit orders the tuna tartare and the Dover sole, while I impulsively opt for octopus and red snapper with bisque.
We are talking about finance TV shows that have entered the zeitgeist, such as Industry, a tightly wound drama set on a London trading floor. “It’s reinforcing a stereotype,” he says. Sure, drugs are a thing, but “they don’t have to snort cocaine this obscenely”.
He believes comedy is a more natural medium for Wall Street and City stories. “How high-stakes can finance be?” he laughs. “Oh no, you closed a trade and lost a million dollars!”
Not everyone understands that his account is satire, or that he is playing a character. “People think that I’m one of them,” he says. “But that’s why I made the account — to make fun of those fucking annoying douchebag personalities.”
Litquidity grew up in Florida, “solidly middle class”. His parents were immigrants. “I wasn’t a country club guy,” he says. He attended an Ivy League university, where he studied business and economics, and graduated with large student loans. “I went to school to land a job on Wall Street,” he says. “I just wanted to make money.”
He began in investment banking, the quickest road he found to freedom from student debt. “That’s what got me through the first few years of work, paying that off.”
Our appetisers arrive, and Lit’s glossy tartare with a snowfall of chives looks painted on the plate. My octopus with chorizo emulsion tastes, somehow, elegant. I am briefly distracted by a dish being set on fire at a neighbouring table. Someone brave enough to order the tasting menu.
Litquidity was first inspired by a 2010 blog that millennial Americans of a certain background will cringe to remember: “Total Frat Move”. Litquidity “religiously” followed the humour page, which satirised fraternity culture with shareable one-liners, submitted by anonymous fraternity members. It was caricature, but frequently misconstrued as aspirational by those who didn’t clock that the misogynistic, white, affluent characters being pilloried were them.
When Instagram arrived and replaced blogs, it was the finance-focused joke accounts such as ebitdad, “the OG”, that resonated most with the young investment bank analyst.
He launched the Litquidity Instagram account in 2017 while working in private equity, a common trajectory after investment banking. “You either get promoted or you go to PE, because most people tend to burn out after two years,” he says.
The account took off. Followers began sending Lit screenshots to turn into jokes (my personal favourite was of the FT homepage, an image taken of two stories juxtaposed side by side on pay bumps announced at both Goldman and anti-Taliban Afghan forces). Other so-called finmeme accounts were also gaining ground, such as Arbitrage Andy, Levered Lloyd and Trades_and_Raids.
When Lit’s PE firm moved to Florida for tax advantages (“classic”), he thought about turning Litquidity into his full-time job, but “I wasn’t at the point where I felt like I could justify it to myself, or my family”.
He returned to banking, regaining a front-row seat to his core audience. Lit posted memes from the office bathroom. Often, by the time he returned to his desk, colleagues would be sharing them with each other. “I’d have to be discreet, hunching over making sure from the cubicle that no one could actually see what I was doing,” he says. “They would show me my own stuff, and I’d be like ‘Oh yeah — that’s funny’.”
Our mains arrive, and Litquidity takes a picture of his Dover sole. After lunch, he will post the meal to Twitter with the caption “Le Bernardin hits different on a corporate card”. The fish is melt-in-your-mouth, he reports. My snapper is silken. I wonder what tastes so much like a memory in the lobster-corn étouffée bisque, and realise I am thinking of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup.
Litquidity hated being a sellside banker again. “You lose your power of being the client,” he says. “You go back to being their bitch.”
He resented the “false sense of urgency, the middle-manager-imposed deadlines” and the culture where everyone is dispensable. “It pays well,” he says. “But at the same time, it takes a toll.”
He struggled with crippling anxiety and would wake up in the morning with chest pain, worried he was having a heart attack. “I was trying to be the perfect banker, trying to perform well so I could get a good bonus. But I’m thinking . . . ‘I don’t want to do this forever’.”
Working from home during pandemic lockdowns changed everything. His audience exploded as people scrolled social media all day, every day, hungry for a laugh. It also gave him time away from prying eyes. After six months, he decided to be Litquidity full-time.
In the spring of 2021, Litquidity was responsible for disseminating a leaked slide deck by Goldman Sachs analysts, drawing attention to what junior employees described as punishing conditions. It was a tongue-in-cheek news story (Oh! Those poor overpaid recent university graduates!) but also moved Goldman to begin enforcing its notional “protected Saturday” policy.
Litquidity has become such a locus for Wallstreeters that he breaks news about lay-offs and pay cuts (and diminutive bonuses), because followers send him screenshots of internal memos when they land in their inboxes.
Discontented financiers are not a new concept. But as the social media generation becomes the dominant cohort within firms, the rules seem to be changing. A culture of bullying is ebbing, for a variety of reasons including public shaming. “[Senior employees] have had no choice but to become more self-aware,” Lit says. “Now, if they send an absurd email that is worded ridiculously or is too harsh, they know more than likely someone will send it to me or other pages, and then we’d post it.”
When our plates are cleared, Lit orders an espresso martini. My brain feels hollow but I order a dessert wine, and leave the selection up to the sommelier. For dessert, I choose the pistachio praline with Grand Marnier bavarois, while Lit orders the honey-roasted fig with a whipped yoghurt pavlova. We can hear his cocktail being shaken over the murmurs of the emptying dining room.
It can be jarring to reconcile Lit, the man behind the curtain, with “Litquidity”, the persona. Litquidity is Patrick Bateman meets James Bond — the smartest guy on the trading floor, a high-flying, hard-partying, slightly self aware Wall Street blue blood with a Hamptons summer share.
But the real Litquidity is soft-spoken, shy and painfully polite. “People would be surprised that I’m not, like, funny in the office,” he says. “I was just kind of . . . there. They just didn’t know how fucked up my mind was in terms of jokes.”
“I was the guy double and triple checking the work,” he says. His diligence gives him an anthropologist’s eye for detail in his satire. When newly minted Twitter chief Musk posted a slide deck of his planned turnround, Lit noticed he had forgotten to change the years on the repurposed presentation. “Pls fix,” he replied in a post.
Lit has been Litquidity, mostly alone, for six years. He briefly had an employee, Mark Moran, a former banker he thought could embody the brand publicly, and did. “I’d be standing next to him at a conference and people would be like, ‘Hey where’s Lit?’ and he’d say ‘Idk he’s in the bathroom’.” Lit could pass unnoticed as fans took photos with Moran. The partnership ended acrimoniously last summer.
The Litquidity brand has grown. He has a popular newsletter, a podcast and other Instagram accounts. He signed a deal in January with headhunting firm Whitney Partners, is an angel investor and works as a venture capital scout for Bain Capital Ventures.
He sells clothing, hats and bags bearing the names of defunct, disgraced Wall Street institutions such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, which are experiencing an ironic resurrection with millennial and Gen-Z shoppers eager to show they’re hip to the pre-crisis culture. His Lehman banker bags sold out, and “significantly outperformed Bear Stearns”. The colours are better, he says.
We get the bill and I say a silent prayer for the woman at the FT who approves expenses. Lit seems a bit struck by the place, too. While the Litquidity persona might be a regular at Le Bernardin, the man is not. We are the last diners left, talking about mental health.
Lit has no desire to be known, he says. Social media can be toxic, and cruel. “People will pick apart any imperfections,” he says.
He’s in a better place with his anxiety these days, and feels more settled. Now, a joke that doesn’t land won’t send him into a tailspin. The stakes felt so high when he first went full-time — he had left a successful career for . . . memes. But the Litquidity brand is, as the former bank analyst says matter-of-factly, diversified. It has strong revenue and a positive growth trajectory. He says: “Now I’ve derisked, so I don’t have to give a shit if the meme is not funny.”
Madison Darbyshire is the FT’s investment correspondent
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