Friday, May 14, 2010

Too big to fail fail

After 40 years, the Vatican has forgiven The Beatles for claiming to be more “popular than Jesus Christ”. But will there ever be redemption for Llyod Blankfein who claimed he was doing “God’s work” when his investment bank Goldman Sachs came to exemplify Wall Street’s rapacious brilliance? New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big To Fail: Inside The Battle To Save Wall Street doesn’t offer any easy answers but it surely makes a case for Wall Street biggies, who have been branded anything from “fat cats” to “vampire squid”.

With their laser-like focus on making money, hook, line and sinker, the investment bankers could easily be mistaken as modern-day Meursault, who wouldn’t be out of place while mouthing, “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don’t know.” Sorkin’s hefty book is about the backroom dealings among the dramatis personae, which involves the Who’s Who of Wall Street, to avoid an, to quote the then US treasury secretary Henry Paulson, “economic 9/11”. After reading the book, most looked to me a bit like Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with their lumbering frame and slowness in grappling with reality.

Three-fourths of the book’s narrative runs on parallel tracks with Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, trying to save the company from an eventual bankruptcy and Paulson and his coterie battening down the hatches to stanch the bleeding during the financial tsunami. Sorkin’s minute-by-minute construction of the fateful week in 2008 when Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and Lehman Brothers went belly up, and the US government was branded socialist, is done in a typical NYT fashion — racy, unobtrusive, confident, well-informed.

Sorkin’s first story for NYT was a 400-word piece on the tinnitus-inducing sound emanating from dial-up modems. This eye (and ear) for detail is to be seen all over the book where he elevates a simple fact with the help of anecdotes, which shouldn’t be hard for him considering his notorious proximity to his “sources” as a mergers and acquisitions specialist. Here’s one: JPMorgan bought a beleaguered Bear Stearns’ shares at $2/share and “when Fuld first heard the $2 number from his staff in New York, he thought the airplane’s phone had cut out, clipping off part of the sum”. That’s when you understand the gravity of the situation that this is not a cycle but, to quote Paulson, “once-in-a-hundred-year flood”.

Too Big To Fail doesn’t tell you in detail about the financial alchemy that brought the biggest spending binge to a screeching halt. What’s more, the reader will start swimming in the alphabetical soup of CDO, CDS, the junk bonds, responsible for the meltdown, only from the 89th page. Reading Niall Ferguson’s Ascent Of Money should do a world of good on that subject. The book’s first half plays out like the Lost TV series with every chapter focusing on key players and how they made their way through pecking order. Half way through the book takes Dr Strangelove overtones — you know a bomb (bankruptcy and forced mergers) is going to explode but how is the moot question.

Sorkin remains faithful to the subtitle and how. Every tic of the smallest player involved has been captured in this compelling book. Jim Wilkinson, Paulson’s chief of staff, marvelled at the crisis, “This would be extremely interesting from an analytical perspective if it wasn’t happening to us.” Such a quote would breathe its last at the desk of a newspaper or magazine but it’s these quotes that become the book’s flesh and blood. I am a shining testimony. I lived with the book for nine days and got some puzzling looks from co-passengers in Mumbai’s local trains, considering a 90th minute winner’s kind of manic glee was forever pasted on my face.

The editor, however, was caught napping on more than one occasion. At certain chunks of the book Sorkin rambles without making any headway. Three chapters start on a similar note and the epochal Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy ends on a mawkishly predictable note. Dick Fuld could be seen throughout the book pleading with Paulson to ban short-sellers but Sorkin never shows anything more than a passing interest. Michael Lewis’ The Big Short should be enlightening on this subject. The much-talked-about bailout, the Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP) to be specific, comes unheralded. To state these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realise that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. Sorkin clearly doesn’t know the boiling techniques.

Sorkin’s obsession with the Long Term Capital Management disaster, a US hedge fund that lost $4.6 billion in the wake of the Russian financial crisis in 1998, is evident in the book when he harks back to the event at the drop of the hat. The book’s timelines would be a constant bugbear with some TARP beneficiaries already paying back the government money and the ongoing probe into allegations against Goldman Sachs that it deliberately pushed its shareholders into the financial abyss. But then that would be akin to not seeing the wood for the trees. Neither should an odd spelling mistake nor journalistic cliches (“none other than”) nor grammatical howler put you off. That’s the least you can do for this awesome fly-in-the-wall account of the financial crisis as observed through the eyes of the clashing Wall Street CEOs and the government regulators who watched powerless from the sidelines.


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