Here is the first must-read article of 2009: an analysis of the breakdown of the financial system, from subprime to Madoff, written by Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball) and David Einhorn (who runs a huge hedge fund called Greenlight Capital). It’s the first crisis-analysis I’ve seen that seems worthy of the task. It’s smart, opinionated, and convincing, and best of all, it includes solutions, which have been in rather short supply. Rope aside 30 minutes and read this long piece in its entirety. Here’s a random snippet:
Over the last 20 years American financial institutions have taken on more and more risk, with the blessing of regulators, with hardly a word from the rating agencies, which, incidentally, are paid by the issuers of the bonds they rate. Seldom if ever did Moody’s or Standard & Poor’s say, “If you put one more risky asset on your balance sheet, you will face a serious downgrade.”
The American International Group, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, General Electric and the municipal bond guarantors Ambac Financial and MBIA all had triple-A ratings. (G.E. still does!) Large investment banks like Lehman and Merrill Lynch all had solid investment grade ratings. It’s almost as if the higher the rating of a financial institution, the more likely it was to contribute to financial catastrophe. But of course all these big financial companies fueled the creation of the credit products that in turn fueled the revenues of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.
These oligopolies, which are actually sanctioned by the S.E.C., didn’t merely do their jobs badly. They didn’t simply miss a few calls here and there. In pursuit of their own short-term earnings, they did exactly the opposite of what they were meant to do: rather than expose financial risk they systematically disguised it.