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Book review: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

  • Monday, February 03 2014 @ 09:15 AM EST
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Other The financial market crash of 2008 may have had its roots in the United States but was felt all across the globe. It was a culmination of years of living high on the hog where a lot of money was made before it all came crashing down and a lot of money was lost, not to mention lives that were ruined - many permanently. The Big Short is a nice bookend to Michael Lewis' first work - Liar's Poker - which we reviewed some weeks ago. It provided an insider's view on how Wall Street operated in the 1980s. With The Big Short, Lewis takes us through the building, sustaining and eventual pricking of the subprime mortgage and related housing and derivative bubble through the eyes of (mostly unknown) hedge fund managers who bet against the tide.

The Big Short is written as short stories from the perspectives of mutiple hedge fund managers, analysts and other characters; intertwined throughout the book. There are many story lines and sub-plots but the book does an excellent job of providing the reader an inside view of how the sub-prime mortgage bubble grew and even burst. The main characters in the book are unknown hedge fund managers, analysts and investors that both helped perpetuate the bubble and also bet against the tide and (eventually) won. They aren't the most well known names of Wall Street and actually many were not even from New York/Wall Street. Michael Burry, Vincent Daniel, Gregg Lippmann, Steve Eisman, Eugene Xu, Wing Chau, Howie Hubler, Charles Ledley, James Mai, Meredith Whitney and others.

Lewis not only tells a compelling story that will keep a reader engrossed, but also provides a quick education on the financial engineering that was developed for monetizing the (American) housing market. Everything from Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) to Credit Default Swaps (CDS), collateralized debt obligation (CDO), synthetic CDOs, mezzanine CDOs, subprime mortgages and more. At the end we are left with a banking and investment culture that assumed risk was "cheap" because one particular asset class - real estate - would never, could never because in the long run it never went down. Throw in enough greed, illegal activities, and the Americans public who flipped homes, bought bigger homes and used their home equity as an ATM to purchase cars, vacations and other luxuries; and you have a recipe for the 2008 financial crisis.

The Big Short is an excellent look at how the 2008 financial crisis came about. Many believe that we have not really fixed the underlying reasons that caused this crisis and have merely "papered it over" creating another bubble which will also burst, and so on. This may be true, though the times required drastic measures and the direction taken may eventually lead to future (even bigger) disasters. For this reason alone, The Big Short is a must read as you would want to know how these bubbles grow and hopefully be a little better prepared for what may be coming down the pipe. History may not repeat itself but it (often) does rhyme.
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