Henry Paulson didn’t see it coming. Nor did Timothy Geithner foresee the meltdown of the financial markets. According to Standard & Poor’s President Deven Sharma, testifying before Congress in the fall of 2008: “Virtually no one – be they homeowners, financial institutions, ratings agencies, regulators, or investors – anticipated what is occurring.”
Why? Perhaps “it took a certain kind of person to see the ugly facts and react to them – to discern, in the profile of the beautiful young lady, the face of an old witch,” says Michael Lewis, author of numerous best-sellers including 1980s Wall Street memoir Liar’s Poker and now The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (W.W. Norton, $27.95).
Lewis’ new volume is an entertaining and very edifying look at several such insightful people — the tiny handful of investors “for whom the trade became an obsession.” These were unusual, “almost by definition odd” folks, soon to make big money on the cataclysm: There is Steve Eisman, the former Oppenheimer analyst who regularly demonstrated a prodigious “talent for offending people,” notably in a tendency to trash subprime originators as early as 1997.
Next up is Michael Burry, a compulsive, “one-eyed money manager,” a man profoundly uncomfortable around other people who could only work alone in his office with the door closed and the shades drawn. Poring over obscure corporate documents, Burry saw the insanity in the financial markets and in 2005 began prodding big Wall Street firms to offer credit default swaps, or financial insurance policies, against the failure of mortgage-backed derivatives. Finally, there’s the “weirdly like-minded” threesome who made up the money-management outfit they called Cornwall Capital Management. They were “sweet-natured, disorganized, inquisitive” –”the kind of guys who might turn up at their fifteenth high school reunions with surprising facial hair and a complicated life story.”
This band-of-outsiders conceit is familiar — reminiscent of everything from Huckleberry Finn to The Dirty Dozen – and if The Big Short were no more than a collection of such profiles, it would satisfy many readers. But Lewis’ volume has lots more to offer thanks to its clear explication of exotic derivatives and meltdown events.