Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"All the problems they saved themselves from, they created"*

In David Wessel's In Fed We Trust, Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner and the regulators are the central figures in the Great Panic. (Yesterday's post was about that one.) In Too Big to Fail, Wall Street moguls -- Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan, Richard Fuld of Lehman Brothers, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, and Robert Willumstad of AIG, etc. -- are The Men, along with Treasury Secretary (ex-Goldman CEO) Hank Paulson. Author Andrew Ross Sorkin is the New York Times's chief mergers and acquisitions reporter in the Business section. That is, these guys are his beat.

Sorkin makes it pretty clear that he thinks his topic amounted to a near fatal crisis of the financial system brought on by bankers competitively piling risk on top of risk while regulators might as well have been napping. But evaluating is much less important to Sorkin than telling a story -- this reads like a thriller: will the next meeting or the next call lead to bankruptcy or salvation? On this level it certainly works.

But like all "first draft of history" books (think Bob Woodward as an exemplar), it also leaves the reader wondering: did he really have sources for all these details and direct quotations? Sorkin says yes.

The conversations recounted are based on hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of participants, many of whom agreed to speak on the condition that they not be identified as sources.

Must we believe that at one point in the rapidly unfolding mess, Fuld of Lehman really did say "I feel like I'm playing Whack-a-Mole"? Or that as Geithner attempted to getting failing investment companies to merge, his aides began referring to him as "E-Harmony"? I guess we must. What world that is!

As I have from all these books presenting amusing, gossipy accounts of the 2008 financial crisis, I come away from Sorkin's effort feeling that we haven't got to the basic question. Can a country's economy long be so dominated by a casino-like financial sector without eventually being eclipsed by others that are producing good and services that have value for ordinary human life? The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are going to put the United States to that test. I am not sanguine about the outcome.

* Sorkin in an interview with Charlie Rose.

1 comment:

Kay Dennison said...

Thanks for reviewing this -- I doubt my blood pressure can take reading it. Sound like these arrogant jerks are just that! Playing fast and loose with people's lives in the name of greed isn't my cuppa and I have no patience with those who do. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins.

Related Posts with Thumbnails