Michael Lewis’s highly readable account of the collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage market and the worldwide financial crisis it triggered focuses on a small number of characters. People with iconoclastic views determined not to be constrained by the old conventional rules. People who created new financial investments. People who put money into places their investors did not really understand on a good day and did not even know what had been done with their money on a bad day. People who made huge profits as others suffered.
But these people are not the villains – they are the heroes of Lewis’ book. These are the people who saw the problems in the sub-prime market and what really lay behind the supposed AAA ratings. They are the ones who understood what was really going on and who, if the rest of the world has listened to them sooner, would have been the saviours who had rescued the financial markets before they inflicted calamities on us all.
Although Michael Lewis does not say so himself, the similarity in behaviours and characters between those who got the sub-prime market horribly wrong and those who called it just right is striking. How to learn from all this when those who were right and those who were wrong turned up to be largely indistinguishable, save that hindsight justifies only one of those groups?
That could make for a rather depressing read amongst all the entertaining narrative. However, in his interview to go with the book (and included in some versions of it), Michael Lewis draws one main regulatory lesson and it is one that is being applied in the UK. It is to split off speculative investments from retail banking, or casino banking from boring banking if you will.
The book itself is a self-consciously narrow take on the financial disaster, looking at the traders involve in the sub-prime markets with the range of other markets and institutions, not to mention other countries, getting only limited walk-on parts.
It is therefore probably not the only book you might want to read about the financial crash, but it should certainly be one of them – especially as Lewis not only dishes out criticism widely but also makes an effort to explain why so many people turned out to have acted in ways that seemed so dumb.