December 13, 2017

Book Review: “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

Michael Lewis can tell a story like no other.  In fact, even before I finished reading his “The Big Short,” I wanted to work the book into every conversation I had. The story was that interesting and compelling.  Anyone who can take the financial crisis of the last few years, find a story in it that centers around subprime mortgages and shorting the market (if you understand what that means and how to do it, you’re more than a step ahead of me and about anyone else I’ve mentioned it to over the last couple weeks), and then make it interesting to the lay reader deserves to be read.

In many ways (if not all ways), the stock market is a giant enigma to me, which suggests how Winston Churchill once described Russia: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” If there is a key to the enigma, with that riddle wrapped in a mystery inside it, that is the stock market, perhaps the key is found in the self-interest of the individuals participating in the market. Not just the stock and bond traders that made up the named characters of “The Big Short,” but even the home buyers and owners that took out second, third, and fourth mortgages, bought two, three, and four “investment” properties, the loan originators who sought them out and offered no interest loans, and the banks that sliced up the loans to fill tranches (there’s another cryptic word for you) for trading as bonds to and between the financial houses on Wall Street.

In other words, as Gordon Gecko might say: greed. Greed of bonds traders, floor traders, home buyers, loan originators, strawberry pickers, and house cleaners. Greed by just about everyone involved, from the top all the way down to the bottom.

Lewis, known for his writing in “The Blind Side” and in “Money Ball,” with “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” returns to his original stomping ground covered in “Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street.” Finding the few who saw the crash coming, he pulls together a narrative about those who anticipated the crash and saw it coming. While so many were getting rich off trading subprime mortgage based bonds, a few individuals realized that the underlying assets to the housing bubble were not stable and predicted that as interest rates on adjustable rate mortgages became due, defaults would sky-rocket and the bonds’ values would crash.

And then they bet against it, cashing in lucratively when the predicted defaults began.

, author of the best-sellers Moneyball, The Ne...

Michael Lewis, author of the best-sellers Moneyball, The New, New Thing, Liar's Poker, and others at a Hudson Union Society event in 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes the story fascinating, of course, is the attention to the often colorful and more than slightly eccentric personalities that comprised the handful of individuals in the story. The stock market is difficult to understand for a simple reason–its workings are data driven and few pay the price to understand the numbers and analysis behind the market. In contrast, those who did, and those who got lucky, were often driven by a narrow-minded focus the data. From a neurologist turned hedge fund manager diagnosed with Aspergers in the midst of the story to a couple of young college grads who all but lucked into it, to a loud mouthed malcontent who made a habit of sticking it to the big wigs on Wall Street who lost investors money to the crisis, the “The Big Short” is replete with Lewis’s deft story telling.

Whether you are interested in finance or just looking for a great story, “The Big Short” is worth the time to read. I listened to it in the car, and often found myself sitting in the driveway waiting for the end of a section. More, it introduced me to concepts and interests that I’m exploring further in other books. Read in conjunction with “Too Big to Fail,” which I read last year, it provides an up close look at what was going on and why our economy is dragging through the longest recession in a generation.

One last observation: one aspect that this book noted that continues to shock me no matter how many times I hear it over the last four years is how people with little or no credit history or ability managed to get so much financing. From immigrant strawberry pickers in California with $750,000 mortgages to house cleaners in Brooklyn with four and five town homes, obtuse financial incentives to originators and investors alike distorted the market in ways that were dangerous to all of us. While I look forward to other financial histories for other perspectives, Lewis seems to make clear that it wasn’t so much the free market that failed, but the financial incentives that were built into it. In the end, the old adages “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” and “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” seem even more relevant today than ever. Be careful when the snake oil salesman comes calling. He may not have your best interests at heart, and he may not even know it himself.

View all my reviews

About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter. You can reach him directly at dan.burton@gmail.com

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