The hedge fund industry has long possessed the essential elements of good drama — compelling characters, intriguing plots, powerful language, glamorous settings and strong symbolism — so it was only a matter of time before someone created a TV series about it. That someone is financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who collaborated with producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien (co-writers of Oceans Thirteen) to create Billions, which premiered on Showtime in mid-January.
The series pits billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby (Axe) Axelrod against U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades. Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis, best known for his role as Sergeant Nicholas Brody on Homeland) is the ultimate alpha-generating male: His Westport, Connecticut–based Axe Capital has crushed the S&P 500 for seven straight years, justifying its lofty 3 percent management fee and 30 percent performance fee. Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti of Sideways fame) has been equally successful policing Wall Street, riding a streak of 81 consecutive insider trading convictions when he decides to go after Axelrod. To complicate matters, Rhoades’s wife, Wendy, a psychiatrist, works as a performance coach at Axe Capital.
The creators of Billions say Axelrod is not modeled on a specific manager. Still, for anyone who has ever worked in or around the hedge fund industry — or for a journalist like me who’s been covering it for more than 20 years — it’s fun to speculate about who inspired the fictional manager. Axelrod has obvious similarities to Steve Cohen: Both are brilliant traders with a reputation for pushing their analysts and portfolio managers to do whatever it takes to gain an information edge, as well as a seemingly uncontrollable urge to make expensive purchases. (Interestingly, one of Axelrod’s rivals settles with Rhoades, paying a multimillion-dollar fine and converting his hedge fund to a family office much like Cohen did two years ago.)
But Axelrod, who grew up in Yonkers and graduated from Long Island’s Hofstra University, also has traits in common with two other billionaire investors: David Tepper of Appaloosa Management and Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman. Like Tepper, he comes from a working-class neighborhood and has a sizable chip on his shoulder. Like Ackman, he’s a smooth-talking activist willing to take on anyone or anything to get what he wants.
Despite its title, Billions is ultimately about power, not money, and how far a person will go to achieve it.