Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Some Ill-Informed, Unorganized Thoughts on Thomas Piketty

Capital in the 21st CenturyI just finished reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, the economics work du jour that has been called the most important book of the century. Rather than take the time to collect my thoughts and organize them into a coherent, sensible review, I decided I’d just dump my initial impressions in a scattered fashion and let you wade your way through. I’m not sure why anyone would even by interested in what I have to say about the issue (as opposed to people much more informed than I am), but this is the Internet and being unqualified never stopped anyone before!

 

—It seems to me that, in all the discussion of Piketty’s book, a lot of people are misconstruing the argument he’s really making. The summary you’ll see a lot is that Piketty is saying inequality has been getting worse for the last 30 years or so. And that is sort of what he’s saying, but that’s not the crux of his argument, and he’s very open about the lack the clarity on that issue. Indeed, he says, “It is by no means certain that inequalities of wealth are actually increasing at the global level.”

Still, inequality is the central theme of the book, and Piketty paints a harrowing portrait. But the full picture he creates is not just one of the present and recent past. He goes all the way back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century and illustrates a few key points. The first is that inequality decreased substantially throughout the twentieth century. This is kind of obvious, but his next point is crucial: This decrease was essentially a historical accident. It was the result of a global Depression and two world wars of unprecedented scale, which destroyed a ton of wealth* and, as Piketty puts it, “wiped the slate clean” for the generation after World War II.

*The way this happened was not as obvious as you might think. Some of it was just the physical destruction of the wars, sure, but it also came from nationalizations caused by the war, loss of European colonies, and the huge national debts and subsequent inflation that followed. Piketty explains it all better than I could.

In other words, the decrease in inequality wasn’t some natural result of the forces of capitalism, but the legacy of specific disasters we’re only now emerging from.

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Mere Anachrony: Atlas Shrugged

Looks OK....

W.B.O.A.T.

Ayn Rand is an odd figure in our political and cultural climate. She is one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century—her books have sold over 25 million copies—despite the fact that she wrote long, dense tomes about political philosophy. She’s beloved by many and hated by more. Yet many politicians tout the controversial Rand with a fervor usually reserved for Founding Fathers and Jesus.

Rand functions as a kind of ideological shibboleth, a password into the club of self-reliance and small government. But many readers also really love her. They cherish her books with a passionate intensity that’s impossible to ignore.

Although I’d read The Fountainhead—and liked it quite a bit more than I expected—I had never read Atlas Shrugged, which Rand herself considered her greatest work and which gets mentioned the most in discussions of her literature and philosophy. Given all the fuss about Rand and specifically this book, I felt like not reading it was a gap in my knowledge. What was it that Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Mark Cuban, and so many others found so exciting about this novel?

So I read it.

And at the risk of sounding intemperate, Atlas Shrugged is by far the worst book I’ve ever read. This is true on a purely aesthetic level, leaving aside Rand’s abhorrent philosophical views—though the philosophy embedded in the book only makes it much, much worse. The prose is tedious, the characters are absurd and the story is both repetitive and nonsensical. On virtually every page there is something to insult the reader’s intelligence. It is somehow both consistently infuriating AND incredibly boring. The English language is worse off for having been contorted into the shape of this misbegotten novel.

But allow me to elaborate… Continue reading

The Great Read-cession, Part XI

It’s the final post of The Great Read-cession! Just shut up and read!

The End...

The End…

What should the government have done differently?

 

This is a very loaded question. When I first started reading about the issue, while it was going on in 2008-09, I got the sense that this was really a rare case where the government was not at fault. This wasn’t like Watergate or Iraq, where people in power abused that power—it was just a case of private companies going wrong. But it becomes a lot trickier when you look closely at how intermeshed the government and the financial world actually are.

A lot of the conversation about the government’s role in the collapse has surrounded the issue of deregulation, specifically the issue of Glass-Steagall. On the other end of the political spectrum, Republicans have focused on the GSEs as responsible for the decline in lending standards. But both of these issues seem more like scapegoats than real sources of the problem.

As most of the data makes clear, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1992, which directed Fannie and Freddie to purchase more mortgages from certain minority groups, had very little to do with the subprime boom and decreased lending standards. Fannie and Freddie bonds defaulted at a lower rate than those sold to wholly private firms, and there was clear market demand for housing securities absent any government pressure.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall, on the other hand, at least bears some of the blame for allowing companies like Citigroup and Bank of America to get so big. While the law had, since 1933, separated the activities of commercial and investment banks, its repeal allowed the biggest commercial banks in the country to expand their proprietary trading.

With that said, the repeal of Glass-Steagall was mostly symbolic—banking regulators had been allowing more trading at commercial banks for decades before its official repeal in 1999. And the most notable failures of the financial crisis—Lehman, Bear, AIG, Fannie, Freddie—would not have been affected at all by the law. Continue reading

The Great Read-cession, Part X

We’re done with the book reviews, but John S isn’t done breaking down the books of the financial crisis. We still have a few things left to cover, most importantly….

The Whole Truth...

The Whole Truth…

Rankings!

Obviously I wasn’t going to read 16 books and NOT rank them.

It was a little hard to determine the criteria. Some of the books were well-written, but not especially good at delving into the causes; others were thorough but boring; some were great but a little off-topic. If someone asked me to recommend one of these books, I wouldn’t answer until I got more information about what exactly she was looking for. If, however, she were somehow unable to clarify, I would recommend them in this order:

16) A Colossal Failure of Common Sense

15) Reckless Endangerment

14) The Quants

13) The Greatest Trade Ever

12) Crash of the Titans

11) On the Brink

10) Bailout Nation

9) Financial Crisis Inquiry Report

8) Confidence Men           

7) House of Cards

6) Griftopia

5) More Money Than God

4) Too Big To Fail

3) The Big Short

2) Bailout

1) All the Devils Are Here

Some Questions, Answered

 So, um, whose fault was it? 

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The Great Read-cession, Part IX

Confidence MenWe’re wrapping up the financial crisis book reviews with today’s look at two books on the reform efforts that followed the crash of 2008.

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

by Ron Suskind, 2011

 

The last two books I read focused mainly on the government’s response to the crisis, as opposed to the crisis itself. Confidence Men, which got a lot of attention when it came out for its revelations of in-fighting in the Obama Administration, showcases Obama’s response to the financial crisis, both as a candidate and as a new president.

As a candidate, of course, the financial crisis and the housing bubble were a boon to Obama. The sluggish economy of President Bush’s last few years helped Obama’s message of change resonate with the electorate, and John McCain’s incoherent response to the crisis—including his assertion that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” on the day Lehman failed—helped doom his campaign.

But once Obama was elected, the crisis became a tremendous albatross. One problem was that while many within the campaign anticipated a crisis of some kind, nobody really expected it to come so fast and be so severe. Suskind details a scene from early in Obama’s campaign—August of 2007—in which Obama’s economic advisers warn him that, as president, he will need to respond to a housing crisis. But they estimated that the crisis would hit in “year two” of an Obama presidency, and it would cost about two million jobs. In reality, of course, it came before Election Day, and ultimately cost about eight million jobs. Continue reading

The Great Read-cession, Part VIII

Crash of the TitansOn the eighth day, John S reviewed two more books of the financial crisis, including the final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report.

Crash of the Titans: Greed, Hubris, The Fall of Merrill Lynch, and the Near-Collapse of Bank of America

by Greg Farrell 2010

 

Having read accounts of the failures of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, it seemed appropriate to read a book about the third investment bank claimed by the financial crisis: Merrill Lynch. Of course, Merrill Lynch didn’t fail outright—it was sold to Bank of America, making the story slightly more complex. Greg Farrell’s book, Crash of the Titans, is really a soap opera about how two banks ended up in a reluctant and unhappy marriage.

The first step towards this malignant matrimony was the downfall of Merrill Lynch. Merrill Lynch occupied an odd position on Wall Street. On the one hand, it’s probably the investment bank normal people are the most familiar with, thanks to its “thundering herd” of brokers. On the other hand, it suffered from a clear inferiority complex for not being as profitable or as elite as Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley.

In its quest to catch Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch became one of the leaders in the CDO market, holding more CDO assets than any other bank. As the housing bubble inflated, this led a streak of immense profitability, but the lust for profits blinded many Merrill executives to the risks they were exposed to. Continue reading

The Great Read-cession, Part VII

The QuantsIt’s Part VII! (Remember, if you’re having trouble keeping up, check here for a complete list of all posts in the series.) Today John S looks at the magical world of hedge funds.

The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It

by Scott Patterson 2010

 

“Quant” is a word that pops up over and over again in descriptions of the financial crisis, but it never really gets defined. It tends to be used on Wall Street the way “sabermetrician” gets used in baseball or “Nate Silver” is used in politics: It just means someone who uses math in a slightly unconventional way while doing his job.

Nevertheless, these “quants” were blamed for much of the financial crisis, as those industry “experts” who concocted elaborate formulas showing that housing prices would never fall and homeowners would never default. I turned to Patterson’s book to find out who, exactly, these “quants” were and why their formulas—unlike Nate Silver’s and Billy Beane’s—went so awry.

Patterson’s title bills the book as a story of these “new… math whizzes,” and the cover even contains a quote from Warren Buffett: “Beware of geeks bearing formulas.”* Unfortunately, Patterson’s book focuses primarily on the world of quantitative hedge funds. In other words, instead of focusing on those within the banks themselves and how these whizzes were used to justify massive trading strategies, Patterson’s book is about some of the most successful outsiders. Continue reading

The Great Read-cession, Part VI

All the Devils are HereWe’re up to Part VI, which means we’re over halfway through the breakdown of financial crisis literature. Today John S looks at what might be the best book about the crisis, and what might be the most fun.

All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis

by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, 2010

 

If I had to recommend just one book about the financial crisis, it would probably be All the Devils Are Here. It’s not necessarily the best-written or most thrilling book on the subject, but it’s the most comprehensive, and perhaps the only book that captures just how nuanced the causes of the crisis were. Instead of focusing on one bank or one cause or one period of time, McLean and Nocera trace the origins of the crisis back decades, and examine precisely how things evolved.

One thing they illustrate well is how Wall Street tends to create something useful, and then, in the course of trying to find new ways to make money off it, turns it into a weapon of wealth destruction. In the 1980s, for example, mortgage-backed securities seemed like a great idea. Grouping mortgages together into one security allowed investors to introduce capital to the industry without being subjected to the inefficiencies or risks inherent in one mortgage or even one region. They also helped the GSEs’ bottom lines, of course.

But as time went on, these securities changed the mortgage market itself. Wall Street’s demand for mortgages to securitize lowered lending standards and increased shady lending practices, like ARMs and NINJAs. Continue reading

The Great Read-cession, Part V

House of CardsThe Great Read-cession is back! Today John S looks at two books that focus on banks that are no longer with us. Pour one out for Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, then read this…

House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street

by William D. Cohan, 2010

 

William D. Cohan* is a banker-turned-writer who has by now written three histories of different Wall Street firms: His first book was about Lazard Freres, his former employer, and his latest is about Goldman Sachs. House of Cards, though, is the tale of Bear Stearns, the first investment bank that was taken down by the crisis.

*Duke alum!

Bears Stearns’s collapse occupies an odd place in the narrative of the 2008 crash, having occurred in March, six months before the fall of Lehman Brothers, the subsequent panic, and the passage of TARP. At that time, nobody quite knew the enormity of the problem facing Wall Street, and there was hope that Bear Stearns’s collapse would be the nadir of the problem. The firm was the smallest of the major Wall Street investment banks—if there was going to be a casualty, it would make sense for it to be Bear Stearns.

So how does a Wall Street bank go bankrupt? Well, the same way Mike Campbell did: Gradually, then suddenly. The seeds of Bear Stearns’s collapse go back several years—and possibly, Cohan implies, several decades—but the proximate cause was the sudden grip of panic that seized the firm in March of 2008.

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The Great Read-cession, Part IV

On the BrinkWelcome to Part IV of our eleven-part breakdown of the books of the financial crisis. Having trouble keeping up? Then check out this page for all previous and future posts in the series.

On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System

by Henry Paulson 2010

 

The unifying element of the first four books was pessimism: Whether it was Ritholtz’s scorn for those in power, Morgenson’s search for someone to blame, Lewis’s tragic tale, or Sorkin’s narrative of disaster, all four books had decidedly bleak outlooks on the events. Since there is only so much despair one person can read about, I wanted to read the account of someone who would be sympathetic to the policy-makers and CEOs who everyone else blamed.

Henry Paulson was perfect. If the financial panic of 2008 has a face, it’s Paulson’s. As Treasury Secretary during the collapse, he was the one who told Congress of the dangers of Fannie and Freddie (in his infamous squirt gun analogy), who proposed TARP, and who ultimately dispensed the bailouts. And unlike the other figures prominently involved—Geithner, Bernanke—he faded from public view almost immediately after the disaster passed.

Reading Paulson’s book, though, it is hard to dislike him. His prose is straightforward and he comes across as an upstanding, diligent worker with integrity. He’s honest, but polite and gracious to a fault—despite presiding over what many would describe as a complete disaster, he has nothing but kind words for almost everyone involved.* He worked for Presidents Nixon and Bush—two of the least popular Presidents of the last 50 years, if not ever—but says nothing negative about either. He clashed with another prominent public figure, Jon Corzine, for the top spot at Goldman Sachs, but all he says about that is “frankly, the pairing was never right.” Continue reading