Book review: ‘The Big Short’

I wrote this one in 2010 when the book by Michael Lewis was released about the economic collapse of 2008 — later the book was made into a movie I have yet to see. I can’t imagine it’s better than the book, which I still highly recommend.

The standard advice for an investigative journalist to “follow the money” has been bandied about so often on movies and TV it’s almost become a cliché.

That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, simply old school. And in a world overwhelmed by information — much of it highly suspect — some old-fashioned digging has never been needed more.

That’s what makes Michael Lewis so invaluable. Perhaps no one in the non-fiction market today can pursue a money trail as well as Lewis who seems to have an antenna for what makes something unique or valuable and writing about the people who turned that knowledge into success.

Along the way he seems to find the most surprising things. In his best-selling book “Moneyball,” Lewis uncovered a new way of evaluating baseball talent — a system now used by most Major League teams. His most recent book, “The Blind Side,” revealed a subtle change in strategy employed by professional football coaches to protect their quarterbacks. It revolutionized one position, which led to huge paydays for athletes previously underpaid in relation to their more flashy counterparts.

Now Lewis takes on Wall Street — again — in “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.”

It’s hard to believe a subject could be timelier. “The Big Short” follows a calamitous two-years on the U.S. stock market, an economic downturn that plunged the nation into a depression and a multi-billion-dollar federal bailout of banks and other financial institutions. Just this month a financial reform package was approved by Congress to try and ensure the misdeeds and wayward calculations leading to the implosion of 2008 won’t be replicated.

Lewis is perhaps the reporter and writer best equipped to tackle this subject. He did, after all, began his career working on the stock market, a job that led him to write his first book, “Liar’s Poker.” It was a tough expose on the often hapless and shoddy practices used and hidden amid the greed, confusion and foolishness at the highest levels of American finance.

In “The Big Short” Lewis goes back to his roots and finds that frighteningly little has changed in a world where people bet billions of dollars with seemingly little clue about how their own machinations actually work or what the ramifications of guessing wrong might be.

In fascinating detail Lewis finds the people who were the big winners when the financial world was rocked to near demise because of a shaky foundation loosely constructed on bad mortgages — something that had become the latest get-rich-quick scheme for investors and their advisers who gleefully and stupidly bankrolled their own demise.

The losers were easy to spot in the wreckage following the collapse of September 2008. It was a who’s who of traditionally powerful Wall Street firms that today either no longer exist or are hopelessly crippled: Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch to name but a few.

The winners were a lot of little guys who spent the previous two years trying to warn everyone of the carnage ahead. And when nothing appeared to change — they bet the other way.

Lewis, who has the ability to make complex subjects easily understood, tells a compelling story not only about high finance, hubris, ignorance and greed but also of the individual people who actually understood what was happening and their combination of excitement and alarm that no one else seemed to be catching on.

The characters on all sides are fascinating in their own ways and Lewis does a stellar job of intermingling them all with a narrative that’s just technical enough but not overwhelming. Readers don’t have to know much about money, hedge funds or investments to enjoy it.

As a result, “The Big Short” provides a clear picture of the events leading up to what will be recalled as one of the significant historical events of this century. Historians will note that the institutions that suffered most had only themselves to blame.

And Lewis provides another reminder of something all should remember. Never assume the person in charge is smart.


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