Book review: The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

The Liar's Poker author tries to chart the banking crisis through outsiders. But what about the big players?

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

In the late 1980s, I worked at Business, a magazine that later folded. From time to time, editorial meetings would be enlivened by the presence of an impossibly preppy American, not long out of college.

Michael Lewis was the genuine article: black penny loafers, button-down shirts and woollen cardigans. There was an easy, boyish charm about him that we struggling London hacks lacked.

He had another job as a trainee bond salesman at Salomon Brothers. Remarkably, he took time out from that to chew the fat and sip beer with us in the King's Road.

What he was getting from our editor, the esteemed Stephen Fay, was advice - on how to write, how to construct a book, how to tell a story. Fay, a veteran of the Sunday Times, had a rare talent for collecting young, wannabe journalists and nurturing and tutoring them.

The result was a quite brilliant work, Liar's Poker (1989), the first account to lift the lid on the greed and hubris of London and Wall Street bankers. Readers felt as though they were on the trading floor, as the 'big swinging dicks' (as Lewis called them) did their deals. It was animal, raw and shocking.

What was different about Lewis was his decision to turn his back on banking. He'd sweated through college and joined Salomon - and could not believe what he was witnessing. But, having shared his experience, he rejected a coveted place in an industry that could have netted him many millions.

There was a purpose behind his move - to educate as well as to entertain; to shock, to wake us up to what was occurring daily in these supposed bastions of integrity and intellect. Yet, as he says at the beginning of his latest book, The Big Short: 'Somehow that message was mainly lost. Six months after Liar's Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State University who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They'd read my book as a how-to manual.'

Film-maker Oliver Stone and actor Michael Douglas have also expressed incredulity that Gordon Gekko, the shark of a financier that Douglas played to Oscar-winning effect in Stone's epic Wall Street, was seen in some quarters as a hero, as someone to be emulated. No matter how odious the character being portrayed, it seems, human nature dictates that many of us will be swept along by the money, glamour and power - venality rules and morality is for the little folk.

Lewis carved out a successful career as an author, producing a series of diverse and riveting tomes. They lacked the personal, from-the-heart strength of Liar's Poker, but they were compelling. It would have been easy for him to carve out financial non-fiction as his genre, but he went into Silicon Valley with The New New Thing, baseball with Moneyball, and American football with The Blind Side.

The last two transported Lewis into the mainstream - it was for the film of The Blind Side that Sandra Bullock won her Oscar this year. His device is tried and tested - to alight on one individual and base the narrative loosely around them. In Liar's Poker it was himself. In Moneyball it was Billy Beane, the coach for the Oakland A's, who developed a strategy for finding players and honing skills that consistently beat the richer squads. In The Blind Side it was football player Michael Oher, who grew up in poverty and became the arch-exponent of the offensive tackle.

In charting the financial crash, Lewis again chose maverick outsiders: Steve Eisman, who trained Meredith Whitney, the analyst who first highlighted the banks' exposure to sub-prime mortgage-lending and went on to bet clients' money against the market collapsing; Michael Burry, an obsessive, one-eyed physician turned investor who found face-to-face dealings difficult and engaged with Wall Street via e-mail; and Charlie Ledley, who played the markets professionally from his garage.

This is immensely entertaining and often highly amusing and enlightening - their knowledge and feel for what will happen in the unfolding drama far outshine the Wall Street giants' - but it leaves the reader short. We're all too aware of the bigger economic and political picture: one that entailed the demise of entire banks and frantic emergency work by institutions and governments.

By concentrating on the individual, Lewis offers a fine sketch. But I would rather be reading Lewis on Dick Fuld of Lehman, Hank Greenberg of AIG and Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase than this trio. Lewis is trying to use his merry band, of course, as a way into the big picture, but it just makes you want more - more Lewis on the people, the episodes and the meetings in London and Washington that really mattered.


The Big Short: Inside the doomsday machine

Michael Lewis
Allen Lane
£25.00

Chris Blackhurst is City editor of the London Evening Standard

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