Sunday, August 08, 2010

To Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin

Here is the companion review to On The Brink by Hank Paulson.

Andrew Ross Sorkin has a huge bestseller in Too Big To Fail. While Hank Paulson's On The Brink gives the Washington Insider view, Sorkin provides the details from inside the banks, and investment banks, as well as some tidbits from inside the various agencies trying to prevent a second Great Depression.
I know there are skeptics about the need for TARP, TALF, etc. If you are a doubter, read this book and see just how close we came to a financial market collapse. If you already understand how close we came, you'll still find this a great read.
The origins of the near-collapse center on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two government -sponsored entities that underwrite and purchase mortgages. Sorkin largely glosses over that as old news from the perspective of this book, choosing instead to give the reader a front-row seat on efforts to save Lehman, rescue Wachovia, stave off the collapse of AIG with its financial tendrils spread throughout the globe, and prevent further 1930's-style runs-on-the-bank, as IndyMac bank, Countrywide, Bear Stearns (and hundreds of small and medium-sized community banks) failed. Government officials, dozens of lawyers and hundreds of staff and executives of investment banks worked around the clock in a valiant, but ultimately doomed effort to save Lehman. After Lehman's collapse, the world's financial system was in real jeopardy. Sorkin captures the intensity play-by-play as Hank Paulson, Tim Geithner, Jamie Dimon, John Mack, Llyod Blankfein Sheila Blair, George Bush, Josh Bolton, Barney Frank, Vikram Pandit and others worked extraordinary hours to save their firms, and the world's markets.
The recounting of the amazing weekend when Paulson and Geithner tried to coordinate a last-chance rescue of Lehman Bros, reads like a action-thriller novel, rather than history. Developments surrounding Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman, were particularly enthralling. As Sorkin tells it, Fuld lost about $1 billion as his stock in Lehman became worthless. This challenges a lot of wide-spread belief that managers should own sizeable positions in their firms, thereby acting more in the interests of shareholders. Despite having most of his net worth in Lehman shares, Fuld still permitted - and encouraged - the firm to get too leveraged and to assume too much risk.
All financial institutions are built on trust. This trust has been stretched, atomized and digitized. Not only have we accepted fiat paper currency, we accept that a piece of plastic (debit card) is capable of producing and transferring digital rights to that paper currency and that someone will accept all that as payment. When concerns develop about the ability of a financial institution to survive arise, the prudent thing for an individual account holder, much less the manager of a hedge fund, to do is to withdraw their funds. But when all of us do that, a financial panic ensues. In 2008, we saw perhaps the greatest financial panic of all time.
So this book works on multiple levels: even though we know the outcome, it is a page-turner. Because of the seriousness of the issue, it is history. And because there are some idiots out there who think the rescues were unnecessary, it is educational for anyone who'll take the time to read it.
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