Hard to say enough about Michael Lewis’s article in Portfolio. It is pure pleasure from start to finish. It can’t be adequately summarized or bulleted. So make sure you get to it this weekend.
In the meantime, here are three excerpts:
On The Rating Agencies
[Steve Eisman, a former Oppenheimer analyst turned money-manager who is the hero of the story] couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.
On Merrill Lynch:
FrontPoint [Steve Eisman’s firm] had a visit from Sanford C. Bernstein’s Brad Hintz, a prominent analyst who covered Wall Street firms. Hintz wanted to know what Eisman was up to. “We just shorted Merrill Lynch,” Eisman told him.
“Why?” asked Hintz.
“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 neighbourhood. 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.
On Lunch With Former Salomon CEO (And Liar’s Poker Star) John Gutfreund
When I emailed him to invite him to lunch, he could not have been more polite or more gracious. That attitude persisted as he was escorted to the table, made chitchat with the owner, and ordered his food. He’d lost a half-step and was more deliberate in his movements, but otherwise he was completely recognisable. The same veneer of denatured courtliness masked the same animal need to see the world as it was, rather than as it should be.
We spent 20 minutes or so determining that our presence at the same lunch table was not going to cause the earth to explode. We discovered we had a mutual acquaintance in New Orleans. We agreed that the Wall Street C.E.O. had no real ability to keep track of the frantic innovation occurring inside his firm. (“I didn’t understand all the product lines, and they don’t either,” he said.) We agreed, further, that the chief of the Wall Street investment bank had little control over his subordinates. (“They’re buttering you up and then doing whatever the fuck they want to do.”) He thought the cause of the financial crisis was “simple. Greed on both sides—greed of investors and the greed of the bankers.” I thought it was more complicated. Greed on Wall Street was a given—almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed.
But I didn’t argue with him. For just as you revert to being about nine years old when you visit your parents, you revert to total subordination when you are in the presence of your former C.E.O. John Gutfreund was still the King of Wall Street, and I was still a geek. He spoke in declarative statements; I spoke in questions.
But as he spoke, my eyes kept drifting to his hands. His alarmingly thick and meaty hands. They weren’t the hands of a soft Wall Street banker but of a boxer. I looked up. The boxer was smiling—though it was less a smile than a placeholder expression. And he was saying, very deliberately, “Your…fucking…book.”
I smiled back, though it wasn’t quite a smile.
“Your fucking book destroyed my career, and it made yours,” he said.
I didn’t think of it that way and said so, sort of.
“Why did you ask me to lunch?” he asked, though pleasantly. He was genuinely curious.
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. He ignored the outrage of Salomon’s retired partners. (“I was disgusted by his materialism,” William Salomon, the son of the firm’s founder, who had made Gutfreund C.E.O. only after he’d promised never to sell the firm, had told me.) He lifted a giant middle finger at the moral disapproval of his fellow Wall Street C.E.O.’s. And he seized the day. He and the other partners not only made a quick killing; they transferred the ultimate financial risk from themselves to their shareholders. It didn’t, in the end, make a great deal of sense for the shareholders. (A share of Salomon Brothers purchased when I arrived on the trading floor, in 1986, at a then market price of $42, would be worth 2.26 shares of Citigroup today—market value: $27.) But it made fantastic sense for the investment bankers.
From that moment, though, 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.
No investment bank owned by its employees would have levered itself 35 to 1 or bought and held $50 billion in mezzanine C.D.O.’s. I doubt any partnership would have sought to game the rating agencies or leap into bed with loan sharks or even allow mezzanine C.D.O.’s to be sold to its customers. The hoped-for short-term gain would not have justified the long-term hit.
No partnership, for that matter, would have hired me or anyone remotely like me. Was there ever any correlation between the ability to get in and out of Princeton and a talent for taking financial risk?
Now I asked Gutfreund about his biggest decision. “Yes,” he said. “They—the heads of the other Wall Street firms—all said what an awful thing it was to go public and how could you do such a thing. But when the temptation arose, they all gave in to it.” He agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. “When things go wrong, it’s their problem,” he said—and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. “It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit,” he said, with a half chuckle. He was out of the game.
It was now all someone else’s fault.
Read the whole thing >
Graphic: Ji Lee, Portfolio
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