How the Wall Street Boom Went Kablooey

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Bright-Sided recently, I became aware of Michael Lewis’s November 2008 article for Portfolio, “The End of Wall Street’s Boom,” which offers a fascinating inside look at how bubbles develop, sustain themselves, and then collapse.

Lewis makes an interesting connection with the delusional “positive thinking” mode that seems to be an important component of economic bubbles. This is the source of Ehrenreich’s interest in what Lewis has to say.

The main character of Lewis’s story is Steve Eisman, who built a busines toward the end of the bubble short-selling mortgage originators and homebuilders riding the subprime boom, as well as Wall Street firms and even rating agencies that were complicit.

Lewis relates that Eisman said something both interesting and funny to Brad Hintz, a prominent financial analyst at a conference in spring of 2007. Eisman told Hintz that his group had just shorted Merrill Lynch. Hintz wanted to know why.

“We have a simple thesis,” Eisman explained. “There is going to be a calamity, and whenever there is a calamity, Merrill is there.” When it came time to bankrupt Orange County with bad advice, Merrill was there. When the internet went bust, Merrill was there. Way back in the 1980s, when the first bond trader was let off his leash and lost hundreds of millions of dollars, Merrill was there to take the hit. That was Eisman’s logic—the logic of Wall Street’s pecking order. Goldman Sachs was the big kid who ran the games in this neighborhood. Merrill Lynch was the little fat kid assigned the least pleasant roles, just happy to be a part of things. The game, as Eisman saw it, was Crack the Whip. He assumed Merrill Lynch had taken its assigned place at the end of the chain.

Lewis is a former Wall Street hack who wrote the 1989 expose Liar’s Poker about his experiences in the industry in the 1980s.

His 2008 article ends on a curiously touching note as he recounts his recent lunch meeting with John Gutfreund, the ex-CEO of Salomon Brothers who took the company public and then led it during its period of prominence in the 1980s.

In relating his meeting with Gutfreund, Lewis offers an interesting analysis of the shift that took place in the 1980s, led by figures such as Gutfreund:

You can’t really tell someone that you asked him to lunch to let him know that you don’t think of him as evil.

Nor can you tell him that you asked him to lunch because you thought that you could trace the biggest financial crisis in the history of the world back to a decision he had made. John Gutfreund did violence to the Wall Street social order—and got himself dubbed the King of Wall Street—when he turned Salomon Brothers from a private partnership into Wall Street’s first public corporation.

… From that moment … the Wall Street firm became a black box. The shareholders who financed the risks had no real understanding of what the risk takers were doing, and as the risk-taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished.

The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had by the investment bank as public corporation, the psychological foundations of Wall Street shifted from trust to blind faith.

AB — 15 January 2010

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Warren Buffet’s simple lifestyle

According to an article in Forbes yesterday, Warren Buffet, the world’s second richest man, prefers a relatively simple life, living in “the same five-bedroom, gray stucco house he bought in 1958 for $31,500.” (See “Homes of the Billionaires.”)

The article includes a series of photos of billionaire’s homes, with Buffet’s gray stucco home by far the most modest — I laughed out loud when I saw Donald Trump’s villa.

The important point to me is that the ambition to live an extravagant lifestyle is silly and selfish — a simple life is much better and more sustainable in the big picture and the long run.

AB — 12 March 2009