Blind trader guided by currency moves in his ear

By Anto Antony

Vishal Agrawal walks through the Standard Chartered office in Mumbai, India. Photo / Bloomberg, Prashanth Vishwanathan
Vishal Agrawal walks through the Standard Chartered office in Mumbai, India. Photo / Bloomberg, Prashanth Vishwanathan

Feeling his way with a white cane, Vishal Agrawal, 29, reaches his foreign exchange trading desk on the fifth floor of Standard Chartered's office in Mumbai's business district each day by 8 a.m.

While his eight other colleagues watch blinking screens to make trades, Agrawal listens to price movements on the trading terminal via special speech-recognition software feeding into a device in his left ear.

"I hear the moves and make trades," Agrawal, who became blind nine years ago, said in an interview on the floor where he started as an emerging markets trader in September 2013. "With technology to help me I don't find it harder to trade, in spite of my visual impairment."

He's doing as well as many of his fellow traders and has potential to grow in the company, said Gopikrishnan MS, Agrawal's boss and the Mumbai-based head of foreign exchange, rates and credit for South Asia at Standard Chartered. Agrawal's trading limits have steadily increased since he started, Gopikrishnan said without providing more details, citing company policy.

But that's a sign that Agrawal is good at his job.

India has more blind people than any country in the world, with 5.4 million, and the visually impaired are often stigmatised by employers who fear the disability will impede their work and won't hire them, said Bhushan Punani, executive secretary at the Blind People's Association in India. Successes like Agrawal's "are few and far between," he said.

Vishal Agrawal listens to foreign exchange rates using his mobile phone on the waterfront at Nariman Point in Mumbai, India. Photo / Bloomberg, Prashanth Vishwanathan
Vishal Agrawal listens to foreign exchange rates using his mobile phone on the waterfront at Nariman Point in Mumbai, India. Photo / Bloomberg, Prashanth Vishwanathan

"Till the stigma that society attaches to the blind is done away with, it is a tough battle for them to do well in a career," said Punani.

Standard Chartered aims to be the employer of choice for banking professionals with disabilities, and has hired some visually impaired people in senior roles around the world, a Mumbai-based spokesman said, without specifying how many. Additionally, the bank has hired disabled people for entry-level sales jobs in nine countries, he said.

There are only a handful of known blind finance professionals in the world. Wall Street has at least two blind women: Laura Sloate, who co-founded Sloate Weisman Murray & Co. and manages the Strong Value fund; and Lauren Oplinger, who works in municipal bond sales at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. A blind money manager at BlueCrest Capital Management, Ashish Goyal, who had previously been a London-based portfolio manager at JPMorgan, left BlueCrest in May. He served as a mentor to Agrawal when he was looking for a job, he said by telephone from London.

"I told Vishal that all he needs to find is a person who is willing to take a chance on him," Goyal said. "Once you find that person who will give you a break, then knowledge is going to be the key and performance is the only thing that matters, whether you have an impairment or not."

Agrawal was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa in 2004 as he was preparing to leave for undergraduate study in the U.S. Constrained by the diagnosis, he settled for studying accounting close to his home in Mumbai.

Agrawal, who had been planning to follow his father into his diamond trading business, started to read voraciously using a Kindle after his diagnosis. With his Kindle's screen reader, which provides audio reading the text aloud, Agrawal spent hours a day learning about finance and technology. He also listened to business news channels.

Vishal Agrawal was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa in 2004. Photo / Bloomberg, Prashanth Vishwanathan
Vishal Agrawal was diagnosed with the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa in 2004. Photo / Bloomberg, Prashanth Vishwanathan

By the time he graduated in 2008, Agrawal was unable to see. Still, he had his mind made up about making a career in trading and investing in capital markets.

But he found that none of the local brokerages or trading firms where he applied wanted to hire a blind person. Agrawal, then 22, instead pooled together a couple hundred thousand dollars from friends and started equities trading on his own using a long-short strategy. Three years later, when he returned the money to investors because he planned to begin an MBA in finance, he had logged a 400 per cent return on the initial investment, he said.

He thought another degree from a respectable university would land him a job trading equities at a reputable firm. But after graduating from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, one of India's top management schools, he was the only one of 120 grads who didn't find a job.

For seven straight months he kept looking for work without success, starting with equities trading desks and then branching out from there, he said. Eventually, Standard Chartered decided to hire him for its forex trading.

"I mailed and cold-called everyone I knew who could give me a job. Headcounts at equities trading desks were being slashed at that time," Agrawal said. "So when the Standard Chartered offer for forex came my way, I grabbed it with both hands."

When he started at Standard Chartered, Agrawal, like other traders with no experience, was asked to record possible trades rather than actual ones, to see how he fared and to build up his confidence. Soon he moved to real-time trading. He continues to invest in stocks in his personal account with approval from the bank's compliance department, he said.

Vishal Agrawal, a foreign exchange trader at Standard Chartered, at the bank's office in Mumbai, India. Photo / Bloomberg photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan
Vishal Agrawal, a foreign exchange trader at Standard Chartered, at the bank's office in Mumbai, India. Photo / Bloomberg photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan

"I have asked him to focus on high-conviction trades rather than technical trades, which require constant tracking of charts," said Gopikrishnan. A conviction trade can be left for a longer period of time to show profits, and often involves taking a view on the wider trends in a particular economy or asset class.Job Access With Speech - a screen-reading software known as JAWS provided to him by Standard Chartered - reads out charts and messages to him at lightning-fast speed, cutting down the processing time of information for him, Agrawal said. His iPhone 5 also reads out text messages as he receives them.

Agrawal claims George Soros as a personal hero since 2004, as most of the friends he had while sighted left him as he slowly turned blind. The rejections and hardships that Soros had to face, as he rose as an investor after coming to London in 1947 as an immigrant from Hungary, were harsher than what he's had to deal with, Agrawal said.

Agrawal, who lives at home with family and never left Mumbai in his early years of blindness, is now comfortable traveling overseas alone. He visited Hong Kong in early June for a traders' conference and said that the facilities and infrastructure for the visually impaired is better in many developed countries than in India.

"But then Mumbai is home, and if I ask people for assistance they are always willing to help out," said Agrawal, who spends his free time reading and going to cricket matches and movies. "I may be visually impaired, but I can imagine it all in my head when I hear the dialogues and songs and the commentary at matches. I like doing that."

Having spent almost three years on the Standard Chartered trading floor, he knows each turn between the trading desks and can navigate the floor without the help of his cane or assistance. He still reads about three books a month and aspires to become a more successful investor.

"Now looking at my face at the end of a day, you cannot say whether I made money or lost money," Agrawal said with a smile. "My boss says that is a sign that I have become a professional trader."

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