Saturday, June 25, 2011

Reading the Collapse

So, I've been focusing on reading fiction and non-fiction about the finance industry in New York City.  It is a topic that has been much-covered, of course, so there is no lack of books.


Melville's short story Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) was a major impetus here.  I laughed out loud.  "I would prefer not to" has become a fundamental part of my vocabulary.  Melville depicts the underbelly of the world of Wall Street in the 1850's that has much to do with Wall Street today.  The plodding, interminable back-office work.  An entertaining read with an unreliable narrator whose self-importance and inability to manage his office is hilarious.  Not to mention Bartleby himself!


Next, I picked up Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).  A great book in some ways, a real epic that covers the strivers and power-brokers as well as the people left behind.  But Wolfe is clearly more interested in the power-brokers, the manipulation, greed and influence-peddling that comprise both finance and politics in New York.  I can't help but feel that his viewpoint is tinged with misogyny and racism.  Disappointing.  The anti-hero is supposed to be the oppressed hero at the end.  I don't buy it.  And it was made into one of the worst movies ever put on celluloid.


After that, I thought I needed something with a firmer basis in reality.  Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker (1989).  Lewis was an analyst and trader at Salomon Brothers during the rise of bond trading to glamour status.  Lewis focuses on many scandalous "out-of-school" stories that give the reader a sense of the personalities of the players and the absurdities of the value system.  The best part of the read, however, was his series of brief summaries of the changes in regulation that led to the frenzy in the bond market and the structure of the new dealmaking those changes caused.  The take-away for me is how intricately related the excesses of the 1980's are to our recent financial crisis.  History seems to be repeating itself.  Whatever changes to monitoring and regulation that occurred in the wake of Black Monday in 1987 and the S&L crisis were undone or not effective.  Technology was ahead of regulation.  The same chicanery was at play in the 2000's and led to the crisis of 2008.  Mortgage bonds!  Lewis even explains the bond deal that was a component of Wolfe's narrative in Bonfire of the Vanities (and he does it better than Wolfe).  Fascinating.  Lewis is a great writer and years ago I enjoyed his book Moneyball (2003).  His style has definitely matured over time.


Then, it was on to the big ones.  Books that deal directly with the recent financial crisis.  Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail (2009) is long, but once you get deep into the crisis, the narrative picks up the pace with a clean-cut, journalistic style.  An impressive read.  The amount of detail is staggering.  And the motivations and negotiations that took place are staggering, too.  Yes, Sorkin says, this group of people in government, with incredibly intimate ties to Wall Street, did stave off the worst of the possible outcomes.  But you can't help but wonder:  Who were they really saving?  These (mostly) men were at the helms of the big firms who engaged in the excesses that led to the crisis.  They found themselves in powerful positions when catastrophe struck and fell back on deal-making to stabilize the markets without fundamental change to the system.  That story is still being told.


The most current book that I have just started is Diana B. Henriques' The Wizard of Lies:  Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust (2011).  Henriques is also a journalist who has covered the world of finance for many years.  The tension begins immediately with the big question of the book:  How could this one man have perpetrated the most monumental Ponzi scheme the world has ever seen--and perpetrated it upon Wall Streeters and regulators who presumably have the skills to see through just this sort of scam?  I am still reading, but the answer seems to be (and echoes the lessons of the other books I've read so far) that the system of American (or Western) capitalism is not just flawed, but has moments either through delusion or lack of enforcement that abet these sorts of fraud.  When the desire for wealth and status is powerful enough, there is no oversight or regulation that can stay it.

On the forward calendar:

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, 1922
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, 1943

Please give me your suggestions!

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