Monday, September 6, 2010

The Big Short

I finished Michael Lewis' latest best-seller, The Big Short, yesterday. Most people can think of a thousand other things they'd rather do than read a book about the subprime mortgage crisis. On most days, I would fall into that category. However, Lewis crafts a masterful narrative; this book reads less like a financial recap and more like a novel, with twist and turns and controversy and conspiracy. It was fascinating to watch the crash of the housing market unfold and to see how a select group of individuals positioned themselves to make millions in spite of the economic crisis. While I would highly recommend this book, it did leave me with three questions/critiques:

1. Isn't hindsight always 20/20? Pardon the cliche, but Lewis writes from a convenient perspective. It is much easier to anticipate the collapse of the the U.S. housing market in retrospect than to actually predict the impending doom. He criticizes Wall Street's ignorance and writes as if the collapse was obvious. Yet, those who placed bets against the continued health of the housing market constituted approximately .01% of the investment population. To say that something 99.9% of investors did not anticipate should have been obvious seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.

2. Lewis paints his protagonists, those who foresaw the collapse and made millions by betting against the market, as heroes. Throughout the entire book, one question nagged me: why didn't these guys tell anybody? Lewis mentions repeatedly how afraid these men were that other people would find out what they already knew. They knew the cracked economy would eventually crumble leaving thousands of Americans in dire financial straights. Yet, they kept quiet, doing nothing to alert the public or inspire change, because they stood to make millions in the event of a collapse. How can one view as heroes men who, foreseeing the imminent economic danger, did nothing to help others but instead positioned themselves to profit off of the downfall of others?

3. Is this just a Wall Street problem, as Lewis implies? It seems to me that we live in an age where individuals need no longer bear the responsibility for their actions. Lewis places blame on both Wall Street and lending agencies for this economic collapse. However, in the midst of this blame game, Lewis makes the strong implication that the average homeowner, who by defaulting on his/her mortgage sparked this collapse, bears no responsibility for the crisis. I agree with Lewis that both Wall Street and the lending agencies bear a large responsibility for the economic collapse. However, I do not agree with Lewis' conclusion about American home owners. I have the sneaky suspicion that if, instead of taking out mortgages on exorbitant homes, Americans (myself included) simply learned to live within their means, then this crisis could have been widely avoided.

Alright, I'll get off my soap box. Don't let my critique dissuade you from reading this book. It offers a compelling narrative, is a quick read, and deserves your attention.

- Joel


starnes family said...

Good questions......I'll be looking for that book. I host a book club on my blog if you're interested. My readers are mostly mommy bloggers, so my choices geared towards them. Current read is Water for Elephants. (not so mommyish...a good one)

Have you read Stieg Larsson's series? Only 3 of them, as he died in '04 before finishing his goal of 10. Absolutely riveting. The Granada in downtown Overland Park is currently showing the second movie made overseas.....with subtitles, of course......but it was dead on with the book. Same with the first. You can rent that one now.

If you haven't read and are interested, start with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

And, now I will close my longest comment ever!

Joel said...

I'm always looking for a good book. How do I get involved in the blogger book club? What should I start with, Water for Elephants or Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

starnes family said...

I won't add Stieg Larsson to the book club b/c it's not for everyone. Quite shocking at times and the "mommies" might be shaken.

I post the book we're reading on my side panel......Water for Elephants is next......discussion (per comments section until I can figure out a better way) is at the end of October, so you have plenty of time. It's a fabulous read.....about a vet who fell into circus life......very interesting.

Email me if you want more info:

Casey at

Glad you're interested!