A paradox at the heart of The Big Short is the role of overconfidence on Wall Street: while traders have to project confidence in order to make big deals and get people to trust them, Wall Street’s rampant overconfidence is part of what led to the financial collapse. This is to say that there’s a professional incentive for financiers to act like they know everything and they’re always right, but once traders actually believe this, it becomes overconfidence, which is a liability. After all, overconfidence disincentivizes rigorous research, contrarian thinking, and changing one’s mind, all of which are necessary to really understanding the markets. The traders who profited from the 2007 financial collapse had to be confident, because they faced significant headwinds: most of their peers found their investment decisions insane. But, crucially, none of them were overconfident—their strength was knowing what they didn’t know and being open to constantly learning. In this way, Lewis shows the mind and personality of an ideal trader—someone who is able to project confidence but humble enough to know their limits—while also revealing how Wall Street’s culture of overconfidence can lead to disaster, both for individual investors and the economy overall.
Wall Street’s Culture of Overconfidence ThemeTracker
Wall Street’s Culture of Overconfidence Quotes in The Big Short
The willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grown-ups remains a mystery to me to this day.
When I sat down to write my first book, I had no great agenda, apart from telling what I took to be a remarkable tale. If you’d gotten a few drinks in me and then asked what effect the book would have on the world, I might have said something like, “I hope that college students trying to decide what to do with their lives might read it and decide that it’s silly to phony it up, and abandon their passions or even their faint interests, to become financiers.” I hoped that some bright kid at Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Goldman Sachs, and set out to sea.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.