The Big Short
Inside the Doomsday MachineLarge Print - 2010
From the critics
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'Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I'll have my wife's brother arrested.
Long Beach Savings was the first existing bank to adopt what was called the “originate and sell” model. This proved such a hit—Wall Street would buy your loans, even if you would not!—that a new company, called B&C mortgage, was founded to do nothing but originate and sell.
Because the lenders sold many—though not all—of the loans they made to other investors, in the form of mortgage bonds, the industry was also fraught with moral hazard. “It was a fast-buck business,” says Jacobs. “Any business where you can sell a product and make money without having to worry how the product performs is going to attract sleazy people
Up to that point, Hubler’s bet had been “stress tested” for scenarios in which subprime pools experienced losses of 6 percent, the highest losses from recent history. Now Hubler’s traders were asked to imagine what would become of their bet if losses reached 10 percent. The demand came directly from Morgan Stanley’s chief risk officer, Tom Daula, and Hubler and his traders were angered and disturbed that he would issue it. “It was more than a little weird,” says one of them. “There was a lot of angst about it. It was sort of viewed as, These folks don’t know what they’re talking about. If losses go to ten percent there will be, like, a million homeless people.” (Losses in the pools Hubler’s group had bet on would eventually reach 40 percent.) As a senior Morgan Stanley executive outside Hubler’s group put it, “They didn’t want to show you the results. They kept saying, That state of the world can’t happen.”
Institutional investors didn’t know what to make of him, at least not at first. “I think he has some kind of narcissistic personality disorder,” said one money manager who heard Lippmann’s pitch but did not do his trade. “He scared the shit out of us,” said another. “He comes in and describes this brilliant trade. It makes total sense. To us the risk was, we do it, it works, then what? How do we get out? He controls the market; he may be the only one we can sell to. And he says, ‘You have no way out of this swimming pool but through me, and when you ask for the towel I’m going to rip your eyeballs out.’ He actually said that, that he was going to rip our eyeballs out. The guy was totally transparent.”
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As author of books like *The Blind Side* and *Moneyball*, Michael Lewis is no stranger to success as a nonfiction writer. He has a talent for covering stories in ways that play up their humanity, giving niche topics like economics and sports a universal appeal. But despite his knack for reading and reflecting public sentiment, even he couldn't have foreseen the push his latest effort, *The Big Short*, would receive from the zeitgeist. *The Big Short* takes readers on a thrilling, fast-paced and sometimes baffling ride through the swell and burst of the subprime mortgage bubble. He's already written one book exposing the inner workings of Wall Street – *Liar's Poker* covered the greed, incompetence and corruption that ran rampant in the big firms of the 1980s - so when he tackled his second Wall Street opus, he was uniquely positioned to understand the complicated market machinery and labyrinthine logic driving the subprime mortgage crisis and triggering The Great Recession.<br />
Sure, it's a bit of dense information and economic terminology, but he delivers it quickly; and given that some of the brightest minds on Wall Street couldn't make sense of the complicated mess surrounding subprime mortgages, readers should forgive themselves if they get a little lost in the details. At any rate, he works these technicalities into the story well enough that they don't break the narrative’s momentum.<br />
Lewis also introduces readers to the real people making the trades, swaps and bets that left nations teetering. He takes us into the lives of those who inflated the value of investment portfolios containing subprime mortgages and disguised their risk, as well as those who discovered the risk and bet against them. Spoiler alert: the ratings agencies (like Moody's and S&P) *do not* come off at all well. Moving chronologically from the early 2000s, his prose builds a mix of disbelief, dread and outrage as events race toward the conclusions with which we're all now too familiar. Characters in the real-life drama range from iconoclastic to downright devious and smarmy, and the tale of how they manufactured investments that looked to be made of gold from groups of losing loans is riveting and angering to say the least. Even more interesting are the stories of those who identified the problem, bet against the subprime mortgages, and tried to warn others. For readers itching to know more about the events feeding the rage driving the Occupy protests, there is probably no more absorbing, enraging crash course available than Lewis' *The Big Short*.
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