Billions exists in a universe far faster, far wittier, and far quippier than ours. The characters, especially staunch foes Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), spend their days playing five-dimensional chess. Despite its flair for drama, though, much of Billions is actually based on how the hedge fund world really spins — including the “idea dinner” featured in the season 3 premiere, out March 25.
At the start of season 3, Bobby Axelrod is under investigation, and the reputation of his hedge fund, Axe Capital, has taken a major hit. In order to reassure the market of Axe Capital’s legitimacy, Axelrod proposes attending an idea dinner, or an exclusive gathering of traders and hedge fund managers. The employees of Axe Capital (a.k.a. Taylor, because let’s be real — there are no other employees at Axe Capital) spend the episode scrambling for an amazing idea for Bobby to present at the dinner, where competitors share ideas and simultaneously assert their individual brilliance.
These idea dinners are an actual feature of a hedge-fund manager’s social schedule. In an interview with Market Watch, Bruce Goldfarb, founder and CEO of Okapi Partners, said that Billions’ idea dinner scene resonated with him. “The ‘idea dinner’ had a very real feel to me based on ones I’ve attended and descriptions from clients who have been at them,” Goldfarb said. “Billions captures the ‘friends and frenemies’ behavioral element of those dinners and it feels real how they look for everything to be particular in a private room.”
During idea dinners, traders and portfolio managers speak intimately about their trading strategies, discuss stocks they like and are betting against, and ruminate on broader phenomena. This exclusive idea flow isn’t confined to expensive restaurants — according to a 2005 New York Times article, hedge fund managers speak on instant messengers, email threads, private chats, and morning calls. “Being on the list of the hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, of SAC Capital, is the equivalent of hanging out with the coolest kid in the class,” the article reads. Coincidentally, Steven Cohen is the inspiration for Bobby Axelrod.
Sometimes, the task of organizing these idea dinners falls to brokerage firms, like Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co. In 2010, a party at a Park Avenue townhouse hosted by Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co came under scrutiny. At one point, the dinner attendees discussed how they might profit from a decline in the euro, which was then experiencing turmoil. After the dinner, the attendees bet against the euro. The Wall Street Journal reported the controversial discussion in a February 2010 article, prompting European leaders to speak out against the potential dangers of hedge funds tampering with the global economy.
So, idea dinners are real. And sometimes, idea dinners are borderline nefarious (see above). Of course Axe Capital belongs there.
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