The Single Best Pieces of Financial Journalism

In a review of Michael Lewis’s new book, The Big Short, Felix Salmon calls it the “single best piece of financial journalism ever written.” 

High praise indeed and certainly my dubious nature thinks this may be a bit of hyperbole. 

But then, consider it was written by Michael Lewis.  Vanity Fair has a lengthy excerpt and it’s quite good. 

The credit-default swap would solve the single biggest problem with Mike Burry’s big idea: timing. The subprime-mortgage loans being made in early 2005 were, he felt, almost certain to go bad. But, as their interest rates were set artificially low and didn’t reset for two years, it would be two years before that happened. Subprime mortgages almost always bore floating interest rates, but most of them came with a fixed, two-year “teaser” rate. A mortgage created in early 2005 might have a two-year “fixed” rate of 6 percent that, in 2007, would jump to 11 percent and provoke a wave of defaults. The faint ticking sound of these loans would grow louder with time, until eventually a lot of people would suspect, as he suspected, that they were bombs. Once that happened, no one would be willing to sell insurance on subprime-mortgage bonds. He needed to lay his chips on the table now and wait for the casino to wake up and change the odds of the game. A credit-default swap on a 30-year subprime-mortgage bond was a bet designed to last for 30 years, in theory. He figured that it would take only three to pay off.

The only problem was that there was no such thing as a credit-default swap on a subprime-mortgage bond, not that he could see. He’d need to prod the big Wall Street firms to create them. But which firms? If he was right and the housing market crashed, these firms in the middle of the market were sure to lose a lot of money. There was no point buying insurance from a bank that went out of business the minute the insurance became valuable. He didn’t even bother calling Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, as they were more exposed to the mortgage-bond market than the other firms. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, UBS, Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup were, to his mind, the most likely to survive a crash. He called them all. Five of them had no idea what he was talking about; two came back and said that, while the market didn’t exist, it might one day. Inside of three years, credit-default swaps on subprime-mortgage bonds would become a trillion-dollar market and precipitate hundreds of billions of losses inside big Wall Street firms. Yet, when Michael Burry pestered the firms in the beginning of 2005, only Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs had any real interest in continuing the conversation. No one on Wall Street, as far as he could tell, saw what he was seeing.


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