The years leading up to the Great Recession in the United States were a time of great (and unfounded) optimism in the financial markets. Investors and regulators ignored warning signs of the impending financial crash, believing that the current boom would continue indefinitely. The people whom Michael Lewis (a former Wall Street trader) profiles in The Big Short are outliers: people who saw the warning signs, even when those around them were optimistic. Though they had different backgrounds and came from different parts of the industry, they were all, to some extent, pessimists—which is what enabled them to succeed. Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai are perhaps the epitome of this, turning their small money management firm into an extremely lucrative business, largely by betting on negative outcomes to real-world events that other people didn’t want to consider. In this way, Lewis illustrates the value of pessimism, although there’s a caveat: after the crash, many of the rebels profiled in his book returned to traditional investing. This suggests that while pessimism is often a prudent stance, there’s also value in knowing when to leave it behind.
Pessimism vs. Optimism ThemeTracker
Pessimism vs. Optimism Quotes in The Big Short
By the time Household’s CEO, Bill Aldinger, collected his $100 million, Eisman was on his way to becoming the financial market’s first socialist. “When you’re a conservative Republican, you never think people are making money by ripping other people off,” he said. His mind was now fully open to the possibility. “I now realized there was an entire industry, called consumer finance, that basically existed to rip people off.”
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 least controversial thing to be said about Lippmann was that he was controversial. He wasn’t just a good bond trader, he was a great bond trader. He wasn’t cruel. He wasn’t even rude, at least not intentionally He simply evoked extreme feelings in others. A trader who worked near him for years referred to him as “the asshole known as Greg Lippmann.” When asked why, he said, “He took everything too far.”
Oddly, Cassano was as likely to direct his anger at profitable traders as at unprofitable ones, for the anger was triggered not by financial loss but by the faintest whiff of insurrection. Even more oddly, his anger had no obvious effect on the recipient’s paycheck; a trader might find himself routinely abused by his boss and yet delighted by his year-end bonus, determined by that same boss.
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.
Every new business is inherently implausible, but Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley’s idea, in early 2003, for a money management firm bordered on the absurd: a pair of thirty-year-old men with a Schwab account containing $110,000 occupy a shed in the back of a friend’s house in Berkeley, California, and dub themselves Cornwall Capital Management. Neither of them had any reason to believe he had any talent for investing. Both had worked briefly for the New York private equity firm Golub Associates as grunts chained to their desks, but neither had made actual investment decisions.
The trouble, as ever, was finding Wall Street firms willing to deal with them. Their one source of supply, Bear Stearns, suddenly seemed more interested in shooting than in trading with them. Every other firm treated them as a joke. Cornhole Capital. But here, in Las Vegas, luck found them.
Charlie Ledley and Ben Hockett returned from Las Vegas on January 30, 2007, convinced that the entire financial system had lost its mind. “I said to my mother, ‘I think we might be facing something like the end of democratic capitalism,’ She just said, ‘Oh, Charlie,’ and seriously suggested I go on lithium.”
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.
Howie Hubler had grown up in New Jersey and played football at Montclair State College. Everyone who met him noticed his thick football neck and his great huge head and his overbearing manner, which was interpreted as both admirably direct and a mask. He was loud and headstrong and bullying.
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?
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.