USA: Tour of a monetary inferno.

USA: Tour of a monetary inferno. - "The Money Culture" by Michael Lewis (Hodder and Stoughton, 188 pages, £14.99).

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

"The Money Culture" by Michael Lewis (Hodder and Stoughton, 188 pages, £14.99).

Review by Charles Darwent.

An odd word, "culture". To a merchant banker it means something pretty composed in Salzburg and seen at Glyndebourne; to a pathologist something nasty grown in a Petri dish and seen through a microscope. In the title of Michael Lewis's new book, "The Money Culture", it means both, and at the same time. Which is something of a feat in itself.

Devotees of Lewis's earlier book, "Liar's Poker", will be familiar with this literary double-act. Lewis's evocation of Salomon Brothers' Wall Street trading floor - a world born of Reaganism and weaned on a surfeit of guacamole and cheeseburgers - elided muck and brass in a way that left an entire generation unable to hear the words "junk bond" without retching. In this latest assemblage (of articles that previously appeared in The Spectator, New Republic and elsewhere) Lewis once again appoints himself Virgil for a guided tour of a monetary inferno. This time he has added a number of new circles for our delectation.

Here, for example, is Australian "culture" as described by Lewis: "They (the Antipodean rich) play polo, shoot small animals from private helicopters, trot the globe in search of ... Impressionists. And the funny thing is: THEY WANT EVERYONE TO KNOW." At one point our guide attends a reception for Kerry Packer's own, private Argentinian polo team, where Mrs Packer commits the ultimate Latin American betise, offering her guests tacos and enchiladas in the forlorn belief that they are Argentinian fare.

"The Argentinians, a half-dozen tall, blond men, stood poker-faced, swallowing their national pride. Then she offered guacamole dip. The Argentinians stared into the slimy green sludge and burst out laughing. They said they had never seen anything quite like it." Not since Lucrezia Borgia has food been used quite so devastatingly as a tool of assassination.

Rather more discomfitingly, Lewis also turns his stare on the alimentary workings of the Old World. In "Do You Have Fire In Your Belly?" - an advert not for antacid but for Oxbridge recruits to an American bank - the Yankee at the Court of Queen Margaret charts the evolution of the word "aggressive" in English from meaning "over-ambitious" to "go-getting" - a metamorphosis that should give any British manager a faint feeling of unease.

As might be expected, however, Lewis is at his most toxic when on his home territory, notably those American financial institutions of which he was once a part. Much of this toxicity lies in his curiously ambiguous tone: distantly moralising on the one hand, faintly tinged with relish (literally as well as figuratively) on the other. It is as though Dante had conceived a sneaking affection for hell. Take the case of Eddie Braverman, a con man and psychopath who is Lewis's "Chop House Boy". Eddie used his Lehman Brothers training to open a "chop house", the brokerage equivalent of a bucket shop. With this, he sold dud stock to a target clientele of doctors and for some of them lost all of their money.

On remand, Eddie converted to Christianity, courtesy of the vicar of St Mark's. "St Mark's, as it happens, has a kitty to help people back on their feet," writes Lewis. "While asking to be baptised out of one side of his mouth, Eddie asked for a loan out of the other. Over a couple of months (the vicar) lent him several thousand dollars."

What lends this tale its peculiar piquancy is the author's ill concealed admiration for his subject's ability to turn a dollar, dishonest or not. Lewis is American. It shows.

At the same time "The Money Culture" is a handy introduction to the workings of the American money markets. Anyone bemused by the savings and loans scam, for example, could do no better than turn to "How Wall Street Took the S and Ls for a Ride", in which Lewis unravels the arcana of mortgage bonding. Equally, "Leveraged Rip-Off" takes the reader through the RJR Nabisco and RH Macy leveraged buyouts more effectively than The Wall Street Journal.

Of the financial rapine of Macy's boss, Edward K Finkelstein, we read: "Finkelstein and his associates valued the malls at $250 million in the buyout. Three months later, Finkelstein sold them to an Australian company for $555 million. Why didn't Finkelstein get the bright idea to sell the malls six months earlier, when he was working for the public shareholders? You know why."

Indeed we do. What we do not ever quite know is Lewis's own judgement on all of this mendacity. It is what makes the book unputdownable.

(Charles Darwent is a freelance writer.)

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