The Big Short: a Review
By Steve Gillman
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,
by Michael Lewis - W. W. Norton & Company 2010
I loved this book. The Big Short is seen by others as a history
of the real estate meltdown and the financial crisis that culminated
in near-panic in the fall of 2008. But it is more than that.
It is also the history and psychology of collective delusional
In fact, it is similar to a book that was first published
almost 150 years ago (in 1841). That classic, Extraordinary Popular
Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, detailed
financial follies from over the centuries, including the South
Sea Bubble and the infamous Tulip Bulb Mania. In 1624 some tulip
bulbs were trading at a higher price than gold.
At first glance it would seem that the key question is how
people so easily buy into a collective delusion. For example,
it seems painfully clear after the fact that an average salary
of perhaps $60,000 in California couldn't sustain home prices
that were averaging over $500,000. It seems insane on the face
of it. But the willingness of people to play along is not really
difficult to understand. In fact, if everyone is getting wealthier
with real estate year after year, as insane as the prices are,
it is perhaps harder to imagine people refusing to jump on the
bandwagon and join in the profits.
When we look at it this way, the conclusion seems to be that
the process itself is insane, but the players are acting rationally--a
strange conclusion indeed. Is it rational to take advantage of
irrationality, and can we apply these terms to collective action
apart from individual actions? And at what point do people stop
realizing they are playing a dangerous game (and did they ever
know), and start really deluding themselves with justifications
for the general insanity around them?
Well, back to Michael Lewis' book. Subtitled "Inside
the Doomsday Machine," that's exactly where we are taken.
The big short looks at how the big banks and big investors created
a system that was sure to explode in their faces, and came to
believe in it as something safe and useful. Loans that were clearly
risky were packaged together and suddenly rated much higher based
on the delusion that a bunch of risky bets are safer than one--a
strange application of the theory of investment diversification.
Apart from the bizarre sense everyone seemed to have that
all real estate transactions made sense at any price and with
any borrowers, there is another interesting aspect to the whole
mess that Lewis covers. It is the fact that a handful of players
not only saw the delusional nature of it all (myself and million
of others saw that), but also found ways to bet against the market.
They bet big, and they won big.
Perhaps my only complaint about the book is that Lewis did
not report on the role that Government policy played in inflating
the real estate bubble. He seemed to believe that it was all
a matter of the key players distorting the market, with no acknowledgement
of the easy-money policies of the Federal Reserve, the special
tax treatment that real estate gets, the forced lowering of standards
for loans that were legislated, and other policies that contributed
to the boom and subsequent bust.
In any case, it presents a great historical lesson we can
learn from. Like his first book, Liar's Poker, The Big Short
is written in an easy-to-read style and with a storyline that
makes it hard to put down.
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