After 15 years, Carolyn Jackson, executive director of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, is retiring from the world of high finance to write what she hopes will be "the Great American High-Trash Novel."
Her experiences in the volatile and murky world of derivatives should provide ample material, she said recently.
By Tuesday, her final day at the office, Ms. Jackson had already gone to work on the novel, which chronicles the travails of a group of young people who move to New York in the early 1980s and "belong to a group that might look like a derivatives team."
Exchanging derivatives trading for writing titillating novels might sound like an odd swap, but Ms. Jackson says it's how she had planned to do things since she was 8 years old. "I wanted to be published before I was 40," she said, adding, "I have eight months."
Derivatives are a $60 trillion business now, but they were nearly unknown when Ms. Jackson, a former history, English, and economics student at the University of Virginia, landed by chance in the derivatives division of Chase Manhattan Corp. in the early '80s.
Ms. Jackson was slated to join a corporate finance consulting group, but the group was disbanded two days after she arrived in 1982.
Fortunately, Chase had just hired someone from Bankers Trust to start a swaps group. Unschooled in derivatives, as almost everyone else was at the time, but needing a job, she volunteered.
"In six months, I was an expert," she recalls.
Being among the first prospectors to tap this mother lode, Ms. Jackson's team found the profits were immense. The early traders didn't strike many deals, but those they made were golden.
"You'd do only one trade a month," she recalls, "but you'd make $5 million in profit doing it."
Quickly, banks learned that a lot of money could be made "not betting on the market," she insists, "but making intuitive judgments." The judgments traders made were smart enough often enough for derivatives to become a huge business, one that continues to grow.
Of course, the growth hasn't been pain-free. The industry suffered damaging publicity in 1994 when clients sued Bankers Trust for failing to explain that derivatives investments could cause huge losses.
But big stakes are part of the romance of the business, Ms. Jackson reasons, making it ripe for the full potboiler treatment.
Ms. Jackson left Chase in 1987 for Banque Indosuez, and by 1995, she had become the swaps group's executive director, heading day-to-day operations.
Her biggest effort was to repair derivatives' tarnished image. Her group stepped up efforts to educate clients on how to use these powerful instruments.
For now, Ms. Jackson says, she plans to focus on her writing career and take stock of things in a year. She doesn't plan to return to derivatives. Law school is a possibility. Or, she says, she might move to Hawaii.
In the meantime, people wanting to read about the trials and tribulations of the bright, ambitious, highly charged people who helped make derivatives a multitrillion-dollar business can look forward to reading all about it in Ms. Jackson's novel.
Already, she says, she's more than half done. "Only 50 more pages to go," she says.
"If I could, I'd write like Theodore Dreiser or F. Scott Fitzgerald," she says. "But really, I think Irwin Shaw is more likely."