Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Finally starting to understand what went wrong on Wall Street

If you comprehend that the crisis on Wall Street stems from decisions made decades ago, it's acceptable that it takes a couple months to start reading how it happened. In detail, I mean, with names of players and companies and officials, and dates when things happened, and narratives on the march of events.

So here are two freshly available links to aid in understanding this crisis:
Together they may be an hour or more of reading.

There's some summary available in today's NY Times, where the (former?) billionaire Tom Friedman features both long articles in his column. Thank you, Tom, for tipping us to two good things to read. But as usual, Friedman, who's not so rich nowadays, gets some of it wrong -- he starts off his catalog of blame with the poor people who "had no business" taking a mortgage for more house than they ought to have. You won't get that impression from reading the articles. Both put the blame on the highest levels of American finance.

The first article is by Michael Lewis, whose name rings from the 1980's as the author of "Liar's Poker," his book about his years as a Wall Street analyst. Who's to blame? "Wall Street had built a Doomsday machine," is one quote from Lewis that stood out to me.

The Sunday NY Times article blamed failure to police risk for the issues that have put Citigroup in the spotlight as the latest "too big to fail" company to be on the brink of collapse. One problem involved a senior trader and a senior risk manager who were great pals who spent much free time together. One example was said to be a fishing trip that ended with them "stuck on a lake after their boat ran out of gas."

Well, indulge me a moment. That reminded me of a little joke I heard 15 years ago in my previous life as an AP reporter, then based in Germany. I was attending a G-7 financial conference in Frankfurt along with George Soros and Larry Summers and many others, and Rudiger Dornbusch, economics prof at MIT, told this story to illustrate how hard it may be to get bankers to learn from mistakes:

Two bankers fly to Maine in a light bush plane to hunt moose. The pilot lands them in a remote place and says he'll be back in a week to get them, and they can bring out only one moose. They kill two moose, however, and when the plane returns, they convince the reluctant pilot to take off with both carcasses. The plane takes off, falters and crashes.

The bankers survive. Dazed, one asks, "Where are we?"

"Three hundred yards from where we crashed last year," the other banker replies.

We are being educated to believe that we can let Rubinomics creep back in to the highest rank of government supervision of the financial world. Have they learned, Summers, Rubin, etc.? Or will they take the chance of another moose and ...

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