He draws parallels between the irrational exuberance of the past few years and the insanity he described in the mid-eighties in his bestselling Liar’s Poker:
I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I assumed they’d be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn’t expect was that any future reader would look on my experience and say, “How quaint.”
But then Lewis goes in search of someone, anyone, who saw the economic collapse coming. And people keep pointing him to Steve Eisman, of FrontPoint Partners hedge fund. Back in 2004, Eisman started seeing that things were not well in the housing market, and by extension, the investment banks holding mortgage backed securities. As for collateralized debt obligations – those things were just weapons of financial destruction.
The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.
Were these investment banks run by idiots? Well, maybe. In a lot of cases the men on top had no idea what toxic waste their companies were dealing in. But a lot of companies seemed to know they were juggling hand grenades. They thought they could make a killing, and still get out in time.
But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. […] “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.”
He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.
It all came together for Eisman when he met a money manager in Vegas.
His dinner companion in Las Vegas ran a fund of about $15 billion and managed C.D.O.’s backed by the BBB tranche of a mortgage bond, or as Eisman puts it, “the equivalent of three levels of dog shit lower than the original bonds.”
After taking a fee, he passed them on to other investors. His job was to be the C.D.O. “expert,” but he actually didn’t spend any time at all thinking about what was in the C.D.O.’s. “He managed the C.D.O.’s,” says Eisman, “but managed what? I was just appalled. People would pay up to have someone manage their C.D.O.’s—as if this moron was helping you. I thought, You prick, you don’t give a fuck about the investors in this thing.”