A financial thriller


  • Business
  • Saturday, 30 Jan 2010

Too Big to Fail: Inside the battle to save Wall Street Author: Andrew Ross Sorkin Publisher: Allen Lane

IN the 2008 recession, millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs. While banks developed a sudden aversion to lending, businesses suffered as a result of tight financing. Negative sentiments shrouded the financial markets, confidence evaporated, and stock prices nose dived at unprecedented rates.

Soon, what began as an American credit crisis became global, affecting businesses around the globe and causing millions to lose their jobs. But this is not the way things are supposed to be; at least not what modern economics wants them to be.

Notwithstanding the cyclical nature of business, modern economics and its faith in free markets and globalisation have promised growth and prosperity. Furthermore, in the modern economy, financial innovations ranging from conventional options and futures to the more exotic mortgage-backed securities are supposed to hedge away risks, enabling predictability and safeguarding value of investments.

Or, at least that was what we were told, what Alan Greenspan believed, and what his optimism led us into believing. But theory crashed with reality in 2007. Not only were financial derivatives one of the causes of the crash, markets were not as efficient as it was said to be because prices of assets did not reflect the looming danger behind subprime mortgages.

More importantly, globalisation made the world so interconnected that a plague in the American financial system quickly became a contagion, wiping out jobs, wealth and savings and sending millions of people from less developed countries into poverty.

For those affected by the crisis and wish to gain insights into the circle of culprits and the events that unfolded behind closed doors months prior to the melt down, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail enlightens as much as it piques.

It is a narrative masterpiece that reads like a novel. From one emergency to another, it takes us to stories, rumours, events, meetings and conversations between regulators and a cadre of investment brokers and bankers guilty of mismanaging their institutions.

Together they scrambled to rescue beleaguered, cash-strapped financial institutions in attempts to avoid a financial tsunami that was fast unravelling in early 2008 and which peaked in September 2008 with Lehman Brothers’s bankruptcy.

Though it spans over 550 pages, the book is highly readable as it focuses on people and their emotions, rather than on the technicalities related to the crisis. One may think of Warren Buffett as callous only to find him gentle and mild when approached as a potential saviour for the troubled Lehman Brothers.

The Wall Street crowd, however, is a different story. A glimpse into this small circle of elite who sit atop of the world of finance reveals that greed was not the only driving force behind the meltdown. These people, CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan, Bear Sterns and Merrill Lynch, in their own endeavour to outshine each other, had driven their firms into engaging in increasingly riskier transactions.

In the end, it was jealousy, ego, greed and their relentless pursuits of short term profit that ruined them as well as their century-old financial institutions, once the epitome of high finance.

However, Sorkin did not so much criticise these CEOs as mock them. If they are, in real life, boastful and vainglorious as any billionaire would be, then their dialogues documented in this book made them look more like a bunch of rollicking teenagers railing about the enormity of a problem presented in front of them.

Much to my surprise, however, the job of rescuing the financial sector was saddled on the shoulders of a few, namely Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary under the Bush Administration, Tim Geithner, who succeeded Paulson as Treasury Secretary, and Ben Bernanke, the present Chairman of Federal Reserve.

While each of them was impressive in their own way as pragmatic regulators who displayed their feat of strength and leadership in the face of adversity, their former president, George W. Bush, may struck one as senile. On one occasion when Paulson and Bernanke explained to him the negative impact a failed AIG would have on savings and retirement of millions of Americans, the former president asked innocently: “AIG does all that?”

For all its exhaustive reporting, Too Big to Fail is a wonderful human drama but some may find it offers insufficient analysis as to why the crisis happened, what it means, how and where we go from here, and what next.

Furthermore, Sorkin, in his haste to go from one bad firm to another, often explains the financial concepts at play in just a few words. Hence, anybody interested in understanding mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps and how they were responsible for the collapse will not find much help in this book.

That said, any criticism that the book has failed as an analytic source undermines Sorkin’s objective. As a financial reporter for New York Times and a columnist for Vanity Fair, Sorkin is there for the story, not the analysis. And the story, were it not all so frighteningly true, would have made a wondrous financial thriller.

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