Monday, January 5, 2009

Book Review: Liar's Poker

So what with working at the Federal Reserve and with the economy falling apart, I've been on a financial book reading kick lately. I thought I'd start reviewing the books I'm reading. I should note that nothing I do at the Fed really has to do with economic policy so these opinions are my own.

First up, is a book I found at our favorite used book store that they were about to toss: Liar's Poker by Michael Lewis. It chronicles his years in the mid-1980s working as a banker at Solomon Brothers. It's a fun, witty and probably accurate portrayal of people who are hyper-competitive, very rich, and, it seems, out of control. Not out of control personally--these aren't people going to Studio 54 and doing lines of coke. Instead, they seem out of control in the wizardry of their financial dealings, and the way they live with and profit from conflicts of interest. Lewis seems to be saying, "Look at the way these people operate and tell me how it can last much longer?" Stunningly, of course, it lasted another 20 years. (Wall Street's ways lasted that long, Solomon did not).

The book also contains a fascinating description of Lewis Ranieri and his invention (not too strong a word) of the mortgage-backed securities market. No one could conceive of any use for these things until Washington changed the rules for the Savings & Loan industry (leading eventually to insane overreaching by the S&Ls; a crash; and a huge bailout in the early 1990s -- sound familiar?). Although the products got more complex and the markets got bigger and bigger, all the things that ended up going wrong are right there in this book, written 20 years ago. The wonder is not that it all came crashing down, the wonder is that it lasted as long as it did.

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