Michael Covel Meets Mikhail Gorbachev: The Digging Story

michael covel

An excerpt from my book The Complete TurtleTrader:

Taking very little at face value is my modus operandi. In fact, since childhood I’ve challenged the accepted norms regarding access to the truth. Along the way I’ve challenged a number of people who have wanted to keep the curtains closed. In this small world, one of the more unlikely people to have asked me, “How do you go about unearthing details?” was Mikhail Gorbachev.

The former president had been told in Russian that I write about men who trade big money, so when we were introduced he asked me in Russian, “What is it like to write about these men?” Realizing his time was limited, I kept it short: “Very interesting.” He waited for the translation. “It must be difficult to get behind the scenes; how do you do it?” I smiled, “Oh, I am very good at digging.” He laughed. No translation needed there. He understood my English perfectly.

Walking into the world of Turtles was not planned. It was an unconventional journey. Spring 1994 was the “get your act together, now is the time” year for me. I had just finished an MBA at Florida State, having spent my final semester in London studying international relations.

Back in the States, armed with the so-called prerequisite advanced degree and a deep desire to become rich, Wall Street called. Unfortunately, Virginia, my home state, was not the place to start looking for a mentor or an opportunity that would lead to big money. Most of my friends were products of government workers, not the types looking beyond security or “fitting in.”

So, I tracked down one of the few Florida State alums on Wall Street, recently retired James Massey. He had made millions at Salomon Brothers and was memorably portrayed in Michael Lewis’s classic Liar’s Poker:

[Jim] Massey…was John Gutfreund’s (the then CEO) hatchet man, an American corporate Odd Job. It didn’t require a triple jump of the imagination to picture him decapitating insolent trainees with a razor-edged bowler hat. He had what some people might consider an image problem: he never smiled…Trainees feared Massey. He seemed to prefer it that way.”

At lunch, Massey did not say a word. After a half hour the conversation was speeding downhill. Astute enough to see my sink or swim predicament, I said [bluntly]: “Have I said anything so far that makes you think I am full of shit?”

That got his attention. “Yes, you said you wanted to be the best. You don’t want to be the best; you just want to win.” Massey, like any good coach, was offering the reminder that winners play harder than anyone else.

As fate would have it, I didn’t get hired at Salomon Brothers, but right after meeting Massey, the word ‘Turtle’ crossed my desk for the first time. Shortly thereafter, in 1996, long before YouTube.com, Google, and millions of blogs, I was there at the start of TurtleTrader — a controversial website designed to teach trend following and Turtle trading. It ended up becoming one of the most popular financial websites in the world and was ultimately the start of this book.

One of my goals has always been to make people think twice. That attitude has made me a target, but I was a baseball catcher so I am used to taking the shots. I often face intense reactions because I represent the other side that’s never considered. Ten years of digging and reporting have produced my fair share of critics, some legit, some off the wall. I am a messenger and people love to shoot messengers.

At the end of the day, this was not the career direction I’d originally planned as a freshly minted graduate. However, sitting at the nexus of access and insight from some of the best trading minds on the planet has become my singular passion — for now.