How could the world's most advanced and enlightened economy allow an irresponsible, greedy and self-deluded congregation of Wall Street bankers to accumulate such gargantuan financial losses that the whole country was imperiled? For, as Churchill might have put it, never in the realm of economic activity have so many suffered so much at the hands of so irresponsible a group of bankers.
Michael Lewis attempts to answer this question through the stories of the relatively few professional investors who took the time to dig into the subprime mortgage market and perform careful credit analysis of the loan quality underpinning the whole market. What they found was not surprising. It was a credit disaster waiting to happen. What is revealing is the reception they received from mainline Wall Street firms, their own investors, and the credit rating agencies. In nearly all cases their views were discounted ("it could never happen in the US housing market;" "subprime loan losses will not all happen at the same time") and they were dismissed as misfits. The Wall Street money machine, fueled by huge financial rewards, animal spirits and a "we know better" culture, simply moved on heedlessly to even greater risks and excess. Well worth the read, but I would start with David Faber's book ("Then the Roof Caved In") if you are new to the mortgage-backed security world of Wall Street.
Interesting and worthwhile story of the top executives at Merrill and BofA during the tumult of 2007 and 2008. It reads like a melodrama, with detailed descriptions of rivalries, bad feelings, insensitive and arrogant behavior, and corporate cliques???in short, a gossip???s delight as well as useful background on how critical high-level corporate decisions were made during that period.
One of the more interesting episodes discussed was Ken Lewis???s attempt in December 2008 to seek additional US government assistance to BofA for the Merrill transaction, using the threat of invoking the ???material adverse change??? clause in BofA???s merger agreement with Merrill. He ran into a Treasury Secretary and Fed Chairman who were ready and fully capable of calling his bluff. Lewis was sternly rebuffed with the admonition that such a step would call BofA???s judgment into such serious question that the banking authorities would likely remove its top management and Board.
With its focus on personalities, this book makes only cursory references to the underlying causes of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. As I have mentioned in other reviews, if you are looking for books that explain the underlying causes in detail I recommend David Faber's book (And Then the Roof Caved In) followed by Michael Lewis's book (The Big Short)..
Although often cited in the press as an “indictment” of Goldman Sachs, this book is not a mere diatribe against Goldman. It is just as much Greg Smith’s story of what he treasured about Goldman. He mentions many people he met at Goldman whom he greatly admired. He also notes with pride that Goldman was savvy enough to withstand the 2008 financial meltdown by being one of the few Wall Street firms with the good judgment to turn away from the alluring fool’s gold of subprime mortgage securities. He provides a very well written inside account of his 12-year career at Goldman, rising from intern through the ranks of the equities group as a well regarded trader and salesman.
What Greg Smith portrays is a firm that shifted priorities during his tenure from a place that went the extra mile for its clients (“advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm,” as he put it in his NY Times op ed piece) to one that focused primarily on an employee’s “GC’s”—his or her “gross credits” based on net profits realized by the firm on its trades with those clients. The conflict of interest in such cases is obvious. He cites examples from his final year in the GS London office in which the focus on “profits” led certain Goldman employees to take advantage of their clients when it was clear the client had made a mistake or did not understand the essentials of a complex securities trade. To be fair, he cites only a few such examples and emphasizes in an “afterword” that no one should doubt there are thousands of honest and hard-working people who populate the Wall Street firms.
To some degree, what I believe Greg Smith experienced at Goldman reflected a trend we have seen over the past 20 years in other institutions once highly regarded for their professional standards but who have become much more “bottom line” oriented as they have adapted to more competitive business conditions and focused their resources on the most productive sectors of their business. Consider, as an extreme example, Arthur Andersen, once the gold standard of accounting firms, since disgraced in the Enron scandal. I personally witnessed this trend myself over 20-some years practicing in a so-called “Big Law” firm.
I think Greg Smith is absolutely right that for the sake of a professional firm’s culture, reputation and long-time survival, it has to get the balance between professional standards and business priorities right. In his opinion, GS had fallen below an acceptable professional standard by the time he left the firm. Others within Goldman will no doubt disagree with him in good faith. In any case, the book provides a couple of apt warnings. First, for those considering a career in a top Wall Street firm, be prepared for constant pressure to produce profits in a way that may run counter to the best interests of your clients, even if perfectly legal. You should decide whether you are up to handling that pressure and maintaining your personal ethical standards. Second, if you are doing business with Goldman Sachs (or any Wall Street firm), be sure you know well the person you are dealing with before you place your trust in him or her. You cannot simply assume they will be looking out for your best interests.
I read this piece — which was written before 9/11, before Google and Facebook, before the iPad, before the cloud, and before the browser wars ended — as a historic document. And in general I was surprised on two levels. First, that most big companies, all having embraced the internet as the game-changing paradigm that it is, still haven't gotten a clue about how to treat or talk to their customers. And two, how much of what the authors suggest and envision has been proven correct. The bits they got wrong — like the importance of "zines" and the pervasiveness of "extranets" — are mildly risible. Perhaps its time to update this manifesto. I'd say it's a worthwhile endeavor.