The Big Short claims that the financial collapse occurred, in part, because the world of finance got so overcomplicated that not even those who were running it could really understand what was going on. Michael Lewis describes a series of financial innovations, such as credit default swaps, that were—by design—incredibly difficult to understand. Because of this, most traders and their bosses didn’t realize that there was something catastrophically wrong with the subprime mortgage bond market—something so wrong that it could threaten the stability of the entire global economy. While the banks must shoulder much of this blame, Lewis also points his finger at the ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. The ratings agencies’ job is to evaluate the risk of various kinds of debt—in other words, to determine whether a loan is likely to go into default or not. However, prior to the crash, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s were consistently giving high ratings to terrible bonds based on subprime mortgages, but because their ratings techniques are secret, nobody could check their work. This, too, led to profound market dysfunction, making it even harder to diagnose the problem with subprime mortgages. One of Lewis’s major goals in writing The Big Short is to demystify all of this complexity so that everyday readers can understand why the economy collapsed and what can be done to stabilize it for the future. In telling the story of the crash, he suggests that a culture of greater clarity and transparency would help stabilize the economy, because it would ensure that bankers and regulators alike have enough information to rigorously evaluate the markets. Furthermore, by writing his book in an aggressively accessible style that average people with no financial expertise could read, Lewis shows that it’s also important for lay people to be able to understand the economy—after all, as the crash showed, their lives and livelihoods can depend on it.
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Needless Complexity Quotes in The Big Short
Most people didn’t understand how what amounted to a two-decade boom in the bond market had overwhelmed everything else. Eisman certainly hadn’t. Now he did. He needed to learn everything he could about the fixed income world. He had plans for the bond market. What he didn’t know was that the bond market also had plans for him. It was about to create an Eisman-shaped hole.
The argument stopper was Lippmann’s one-man quantitative support team. His name was Eugene Xu, but to those who’d heard Lippmann’s pitch, he was generally spoken of as “Lippmann’s Chinese quant.” Xu was an analyst employed by Deutsche Bank, but Lippmann gave everyone the idea he kept him tied up to his Bloomberg terminal like a pet. A real Chinese guy—not even Chinese American—who apparently spoke no English, just numbers’ China had this national math competition, Lippmann told people, in which Eugene had finished second. In all of China. Eugene Xu was responsible for every piece of hard data in Lippmann’s presentation. Once Eugene was introduced into the equation, no one bothered Lippmann about his math or his data. As Lippmann put it, “How can a guy who can’t speak English lie?”
In his search for stock market investors he might terrify with his Doomsday scenario, Lippmann had made a lucky strike: He had stumbled onto a stock market investor who held an even darker view of the subprime mortgage market than he did. Eisman knew more about that market, its characters, and its depravities than anyone Lippmann had ever spoken with. If anyone would make a dramatic bet against subprime, he thought, it was Eisman—and so he was puzzled when Eisman didn’t do it. He was even more puzzled when, several months later, Eisman’s new head trader, Danny Moses, and his research guy, Vinny Daniels, asked him to come back in to explain it all over again.
Even as late as the summer of 2006, as home prices began to fall, 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.
He’d graduated from the University of Rhode Island, earned a business degree at Babson College, and spent most of his career working sleepy jobs at sleepy life insurance companies—but all that was in the past. He was newly, obviously rich. “He had this smirk, like, I know better,” said Danny. Danny didn’t know Wing Chau, but when he heard that he was the end buyer of subprime CDOs, he knew exactly who he was: the sucker. “The truth is that I didn’t really want to talk to him,” said Danny, “because I didn’t want to scare him.”
It made no sense: The subprime CDO market was ticking along as it had before, and yet the big Wall Street firms suddenly had no use for the investors who had been supplying the machine with raw material—the investors who wanted to buy credit default swaps. “Ostensibly other people were going long, but we were not allowed to go short,” said Charlie.
Now, in February 2007, subprime loans were defaulting in record numbers, financial institutions were less steady every day, and no one but him seemed to recall what he’d said and done. He had told his investors that they might need to be patient—that the bet might not pay off until the mortgages issued in 2005 reached the end of their teaser rate period. They had not been patient. Many of his investors mistrusted him, and he in turn felt betrayed by them.
In the murky and curious period from early February to June 2007, the subprime mortgage market resembled a giant helium balloon, bound to earth by a dozen or so big Wall Street firms. Each firm held its rope; one by one, they realized that no matter how strongly they pulled, the balloon would eventually lift them off their feet.
Now the metaphor was two men in a boat, tied together by a rope, fighting to the death. One man kills the other, hurls his inert body over the side-only to discover himself being yanked over the side. “Being short in 2007 and making money from it was fun, because we were short bad guys,” said Steve Eisman. “In 2008 it was the entire financial system that was at risk. We were still short. But you don’t want the system to crash. It’s sort of like the flood’s about to happen and you’re Noah. You’re on the ark. Yeah, you’re okay. But you are not happy looking out at the flood. That’s not a happy moment for Noah.”
It wasn’t Eisman who upset the tone in the room, but some kid in the back. He looked to be in his early twenties, and he was, like everyone else, punching on his BlackBerry the whole time Miller and Eisman spoke. “Mr. Miller,” he said. “From the time you started talking, Bear Stearns stock has fallen more than twenty points. Would you buy more now?”
Miller looked stunned. “He clearly had no idea what had happened,” said Vinny. “He just said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’d buy more here.’”
After that, the men in the room rushed for the exits, apparently to sell their shares in Bear Stearns. By the time Alan Greenspan arrived to speak, there was hardly anyone who cared to hear what he had to say. The audience was gone. By Monday, Bear Stearns was of course gone, too, sold to J.P. Morgan for $2 a share.”
But the biggest lag of all was right here, on the streets. How long would it take before the people walking back and forth in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral figured out what had just happened to them?
The changes were camouflage. They helped to distract outsiders from the truly profane event: the growing misalignment of interests between the people who trafficked in financial risk and the wider culture. The surface rippled, but down below, in the depths, the bonus pool remained undisturbed.
Until that moment I hadn’t paid much attention to what he’d been eating. Now I saw he’d ordered the best thing in the house, this gorgeous, frothy confection of an earlier age. Who ever dreamed up the deviled egg? Who knew that a simple egg could be made so complicated, and yet so appealing? I reached over and took one. Something for nothing. It never loses its charm.