The American TV drama series Billions premiered on Showtime, on January 17, 2016. It was created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and the financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin – author of “Too Big to Fail”, the definitive book about the 2008 financial crisis. Back in 2011, Sorkin’s book was adapted into a film of the same name and released by HBO. After that, the author decided to create a fictional television show about an area often ignored by Hollywood: Finance. “After the HBO version of ‘Too Big to Fail’, I thought we could try to explore the power structure that is the financial world in a nuanced and elevated way. The goal was to create something that I hadn’t seen on television before”, Sorkin told Modern Trader.
Starring Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, Billions is a complex drama about power and wealth in the world of New York High finance. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti) goes after the brilliant and ambitious hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod in an explosive battle between two powers, with each side using all of his intelligence, power and influence to defeat and manipulate the other.
The only survivor of his firm after the attacks on September 11, 2001, Axelrod has rebuilt his company into one of the industry’s most successful. How he achieved this success is the question Rhoades needs to answer. Here’s one of the greatest highlights of the show: the two sharply developed main characters.
Giamatti’s character Chuck Rhoades is a conflicted, moral man. While in his private life he is in service to his wife’s dominatrix tendencies, in his professional life he is serving public as a successful Wall Street sheriff. With 81 straight convictions under his belt, he picks his battles against financial titans carefully, but offers no leniency, even to those he has known his entire life. At a certain point, Rhoades is confronted by his father and asked to step in on behalf of a family friend who has been convicted of insider trading. His decision lead to serious consequences for the convicted as Rhoades needs to confront his influence and power on Wall Street. The character seems to be based on a number of different attorneys that creator Andrew Ross Sorkin witnessed over the years as a journalist covering white collar crimes.
Axelrod is also a complex character, the typical portrait of the “American dream”. A very interesting fact about him is that despite all his wealth, his marriage and two kids, Axelrod seems lonely. He is only able to discuss his personal issues and motivations with his psychologist, Wendy (played by Maggie Stiff), who happens to be Chuck Rhoade’s wife. Although Axelrod has been extremely careful about his trades, the decision to buy a $63 million mansion is the launching point of an investigation of his company’s activities.
But how does Billions reflect the Wall Street reality? Here’s what some of those financial people have to say. Robert Wolf, former president and chief operating officer of UBS who now serves as founder & CEO of 32 Advisors, is a “Billions” fan. “I love the show,” he says. “It takes all the big events and the ‘larger than life’ stereotypes of Wall Street from the 1980s to today and creates a fast-paced, high-impact historical fiction.” As to the authenticity of operations at Axelrod’s fictional hedge fund, Wolf says, “I can identify with many of the stories from my trading days at Salomon Brothers to my weekend at the Fed for the Lehman crisis and to having regulators around on a non-stop basis.” (In 1991, while Wolf was at Salomon Brothers, the investment bank was caught up in a bondauction-market manipulation scandal which partly inspired season two of “Billions.”)
“I think everyone in the industry is aware of ‘Billions,’ says Ben Axler, the founder and chief investment officer of Spruce Point Capital Management. He’s particularly impressed with the character of Bobby Axelrod. “He displays a lot of the traits of a successful hedge fund manager,” Axler says. “He’s calm, cool and calculated about how he’s approaching the investigation of his firm and how he’s going to try to prevail to save it and his passion, which is trading.”
Bruce Goldfarb, founder and CEO of Okapi Partners, says that while “Billions” exaggerates some scenes for entertainment value, “it really does capture the social milieu that some hedge fund players inhabit — the way people live, their wives, the social events they attend after-hours. There hasn’t been something fictional that has felt as real about the Wall Street world since [Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel] “The Bonfire of the Vanities.””
A line that particularly impressed him is when Axelrod observes, “Lots of guys watch Bruce Lee movies — doesn’t mean you can do karate.” “That sentiment covers the attitude that investors have when they think about the information they put out to the market that they’re willing to share,” says Goldfarb. “That’s a mindset that separates good hedge funds from bad hedge funds.”
Billions season 4 is set to premiere on March 17.