This piece first appeared in the July/August edition of Foreign Policy. The following opinions expressed are the author’s own.
The temptation is to see the 2008 Wall Street implosion that helped trigger the broader economic crisis as the consequence of individual idiocy and avarice. That thesis is emotionally appealing — nowadays everyone loves to hate and, better still, feel superior to wealthy Masters of the Universe. It is intellectually appealing, too. Blaming the crisis on human error is a lot easier than trying to work out the systemic problems it laid bare.
But just because something is easy doesn’t make it accurate. Call it the Michael Lewis fallacy. His book The Big Short deserves its place on the best-seller lists; it offers the best insight yet into the lunacy of subprime borrowing and the intricate world of structured financial products used to bet on those dreadful home loans. But the fabulous human stories of greed and stupidity Lewis tells are a seductively dangerous basis for understanding the global economic meltdown.
Start with the hedge-fund crowd Lewis introduces us to. It is easy to cheer for the smart outsiders who bet against those risky subprime mortgages, and to think that if only everyone else had been as sharp and as contrarian, the system wouldn’t have imploded. But both academic research and real-life market experience show that buying into a bubble — rather than betting against it — is often the wiser, safer, and more lucrative approach.
It is this perverse logic that Chuck Prince, then CEO of Citigroup, had in mind in July 2007, when he explained that “as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” That remark, made just a few weeks before the credit crunch really began to bite, is ritually cited as evidence of the blinkered Wall Street groupthink that nearly detonated the world financial system.