Sunday, April 21, 2013

Book Review: A Colossal Failure of Common Sense

If you are looking for a good, comprehensive history of the financial crisis, check out Sorkin's "Too Big to Fail." If you would like a good trader-level history of derivatives or the crash, check out Lewis's "Liar's Poker" or "The Big Short," respectively.

"Colossal Failure" is somewhat interesting as an exploration of the mind of a typical Wall Street trader, but it certainly fails to provide the sort of analysis or history that is promised in the title and the marketing.

This book claims that the whole problem was caused by Roberta Achtenberg, the assistant secretary of HUD who pressured banks to explain why they were failing to lend to qualified minorities. The authors breathlessly inform us that no less a luminary than Jesse Helms had fought against her confirmation and referred to her as "that damn lesbian."

The insertion of that sentence into a brief 7-page explainer of the causes of the crash is a good example of the complete lack of depth shown in this book. The problem was those darned poor people who borrowed money, not the mortgage processors who failed to check backgrounds, the lenders who wrote predatory mortgages that were designed to fail, the investment banks who bought and securitized those mortgages and sold them under false pretenses, and certainly not the fault of people like the author who overleveraged the entire tottering enterprise by writing insurance policies (in the form of CDSs) against the default of mortgages that were always doomed to fail.

That's right, the authors believe that the fault for the crash belongs to minorities and their lesbian champion. No wonder Fox News spent so much time drumming up sales for the book.

In case I'm being too subtle here, let me try being just a bit more clear. This book is a self-serving paean to the career of a Wall Street trader who failed to take his seat before the music stopped.