We’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
It’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
We’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
Welcome 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
We’re up to Part III of John’s breakdown of the books of the financial crisis. Click here for Part I, and here for Part II.
Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, And Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon
by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner, 2010
Reckless Endangerment is one of a specific subgenre of financial crisis literature, which might be called the “Blame X” genre. Human nature being what it is, there is a lot of demand for books that find someone or something to blame for the whole ordeal.
Reckless Endangerment’s targets are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored entities (GSEs hereafter) designed to aid the housing market, and specifically Jim A. Johnson, the CEO who brought Fannie Mae to new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective). Morgenson and Rosner lay almost all the blame for the financial crisis on Johnson’s reckless efforts to expand Fannie’s market share: “A Pied Piper of the financial sector, Johnson led both the private and public sectors down a path that led directly to the eventual crisis of 2008.”
The GSEs are frequent targets of this kind of criticism, and for good reason: The bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac created by far the biggest losses of all the government bailouts of 2008-09: The costs have already exceeded $180 billion and could reach $363 billion (conversely, Treasury claims to have actually profited on TARP*). And they were terribly run companies before that: In 2004, they were charged with massive accounting irregularities that led to the resignation of their CEO, and several executives were implicated in the “Friends of Angelo” bribery scandal.
*Though those claims should be taken with a grain of salt, as we’ll see later.
Morgenson’s book does a thorough job of portraying the extent and nature of corruption that was almost inherent to the GSEs. Particularly appalling is the incestuous relationship between the companies and the government. The entire concept of a “government-sponsored enterprise” sounds almost Orwellian: The institutions were created as government agencies* during the New Deal, but Lyndon Johnson partially privatized them, in what was essentially an accounting gimmick, when costs related to the Vietnam War made government expenditures look bad. Continue reading