The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis goes in search of the winners in the 2008 financial crisis, the traders who had bet on the market collapsing, and had done well from it. He finds a handful of oddballs, outside the big Wall Street businesses, and tells the story of their sometimes shaky confidence in the common sense view that property prices couldn't keep rising and that people with no money couldn't make large mortgage payments.
In explaining how his heroes made their bets - with Credit Default Swaps - Lewis takes on the challenge of educating the general reader in the complexities of a system which, as he explains, only worked because it was complicated and wasn't an open and elastic market like the now well-regulated and transparent equities market.
Although he is reporting on what caused the global financial crisis, he is shining a light in an area which hasn't received much attention. Indeed, he explains in his Epilogue that since first publication he had to fob off various official commissions of enquiry looking into the crisis which wanted him to appear as an expert witness. He didn't see himself as that, but the fact that they couldn't come up with other candidates for the role confirmed his thesis that this was unexplored territory.
Lewis paints a rounded picture of his subjects, telling us about their families, their childhood and their anxieties. That makes the book genuinely original: there were real people behind the bank failures, people with ordinary domestic worries, whose work lives were just part of their lives.
The range of the book, from personal details to the big economic picture, is ambitious and on the whole successful. It is less than 300 pages long in paperback. Perhaps at double the length, not War and Peace, but a little more fleshed out, it could have been a classic, a defining picture of some key players who personified an era, and an explanation of the strange work they did - a kind of factual Bonfire of the Vanities for the Noughties. As it is, I found I was patchily gripped, sometimes lost by the concision of the financial explanations, sometimes muddled - my fault probably - between the various characters. Taken slower, and written longer, I think it might have worked better, but perhaps Penguin wanted it short, or Lewis needed to get on with his next project.
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