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With content to devour avidly without putting down too often, Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail reads much like Tolstoy's War and Peace, with as many pages, and as colourful a casting of (real) characters, each engaging with changing friendships and rivalries, across many interconnected social, political and business arenas. This is a truly remarkable achievement for a work of non-fiction, concerned as it is with current politics, banking and international finance. Many readers will already be familiar with the headline stories concerning the fall of the Lehman Brothers in 2008, and its knock-on effect upon America's 'Big 5' standing financial institutions, but in this book we find a most excellent reportage using the first-person accounts of the key players (those companies CEOs, financial advisors, and political regulators), culminating in the 'saving' of the 9 largest financial institutions through then President Bush's signing of the TARP legislation (more commonly referred to as the USA Government's 'company/bank bailout bill'). Quoting verbatim from telephone/cell-phone dialogues, TXT messages, and fast and furious email traffic as sent between the key players and decision makers at the heart of the situation (an interesting technical and historical observation in itself !), the book's 600 pages delivers to the discerning reader much more than an 'insider' factual account of the events occurring during the crucial initial 7 months of the 'financial crisis', which began early 2008.
Although not explicit in his analysis (and certainly not guilty of any unnecessary opinion raising), the author's narrative text may be used to reveal many an object lesson for anyone to learn from, but especially so for those embarking upon entrepreneurial business development, whether or not they be operating in the banking or financial sectors. For example, the first 6 chapters (or 20) deal with the Lehman Brothers' demise by way of introduction, with the current reviewer distilling the presence of several (by now familiar) tell-tell signs of unfortunately all too common problematic business developments, including: 1. Capital raising problems -- the temptation to engage in creative (if not outright fraudulent) accounting and investor misleadings; withholding critical financial information from directoral boards, or otherwise obfuscating accounting procedures for the purpose of optimizing non-approved short-term expenditure decision making; having the wrong people, in the wrong posts, for reasons of management comfort/convenience; lack of awareness of inter-investor communications (professional gossip) and short-seller betting on stock falls. 2. Poor forecast realism -- making powerbase predictions based on volume expectations, not real profits (thus exposing oneself to high costs and thin margins); being unprepared for market down-turns (having little/no risk management in place). 3. Business model monitoring flexibility -- inability/unwillingness of CEOs to answer questions such as "how big is the book right now ?", "what assumptions underlay the current operational model ?", or "how much do you need right now to fill the capital hole ?" (especially when ignoring extant debts and payments outstanding, whilst attempting to attract investors/buyers).
Additional to the case of the Lehman Brothers, the subsequent chapters next introduce other major players soon to be also involved in the wider developing 'debt crisis' (carelessly driven by the 1990s deregulation of US banks, the push to increase home ownership which encouraged lax mortgages, historically low interest rates, and a system of bonus compensation which rewarded short-term risk-taking). It was also interesting (tho' somewhat hard for th current reviewer to believe), that, at the time of their generation, neither the CEOs involved, nor the mogul head of the Federal Reserve (Greenspan) claimed to be capable of understanding the real nature of the CDOs, CDs or other derivative offerings that their companies were selling (and which were largely responsible in contributing to their company's failures !). Indeed, as we learn from the Merrill Lynch story (and subsidiary partners Blackrock and Bloomberg) in Ch.7, and again in the subsequent chapters concerning JP Morgan, AIG, and Goldman Sacks, most of the metrics commonly used by most relevant sales and marketing divisions had little/no grounding in reality -- with even the AAA ratings they received often resulting from their de facto government-backing (e.g., Fannie Mae, or Freddie Mac), and NOT otherwise derived from any real holdings/wealth generation achieved (as their CEOs apparently believed to be the case).
This latter observation (i.e., the significance of obtaining a national Government's validation of one's operations), becomes increasingly apparent from Ch. 14 onwards, as we learn about the coming together of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve (USA & NY), in the characters of Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner respectively, in contributing their advice, recommendations, even 'orders' to the various CEOs of the ever-shrinking and nervous Big 5 Wall Street financial institutions. Seemingly as farcical as could have been written by Woody Allen at times, the latter half of the book sees the author recounting a single month's back and forth TXT, voice and email communications as they occurred between all the major players (as they really happened), as the various CEOs and their attaches flew about the country, to attend various meetings, and sought so desperately to resolve their respective company's perceived imminent demise. For example, it was quite extraordinary (at least to the current reviewer), that often within a single 24 hr period, a company such as Morgan Stanley was able to 'secretly' evaluate the entire assets of as big a company as Lehman Brothers, conduct full due diligence (both of its parent and international subsidiaries), and then make a serious buyout offer proposal or them to consider ! .... and to then retract it as quickly,... ditto CITI, then likewise Goldman, then Barclays (UK).... each brokered one way or another by Paulson (Secretary of the US Treasury, himself a former CEO of Goldman Sachs), with additional US Government department support as and when needed. The details of the story concerning Paulson's involvement in the Bank of America's approach to 'bail out', and then buy Merrill is also gripping (if not comical) reading; as is the JP Morgan and Goldman 'buy out' negotiations with AIG (later resolved by the Fed once more), and the machinations of the various other rescue purchases of Lehman US ops by Barclays, the Wachovia partnerings with Morgan Stanley (which Paulson then reversed, for reasons of PR, not financial stability !), ... but then instead with Goldman Sacks, with JP Morgan extending credit to Morgan Stanley, ... CITI group eventually buying out Wachovia at $1 per share ?... one has to wonder whether, if not for its seriousness in affecting the lives of many millions of individual investors and mortgage holders across the world, could the Marx Brothers have conceived an any more surreal set of 24-hr emergency meeting event storylines, with their 'party of the first part,...' MOUs ?
The final story told before concluding the last chapter, relates Paulson's seemingly bizarre difficulty in encouraging each and all of the 'Big 9' strongest financial institutions in the USA to accept the public money to be given them (between $10 billion-$25 billion each), on equal terms, in order to "provide cover to the weaker banks that would follow suit"... with Geithner (President of the NY Fed Reserve) then adding, "We need to make clear that this is not optional". Culminating in the eventual TARP 'bailout' initially rejected by the US Congress, but later accepted at its 2nd presentation within the same month, it will be left to the historians to resolve whether it was a wise move to 'rescue' the major private sector financial institutions with government money (the TARP will for now likely continue to be debated as representing an acronym for either George W. Bush's 'Troubled Asset Relief Program' or his 'Total Abdication of Responsibility to the Public'). So much for the free market economy, Adam Smith might ask,... but this is a great story, really well written, and not worth waiting to break a leg or otherwise be in hospital before beginning to read !
© 2010 Anthony R. Dickinson
Dr. Anthony R. Dickinson, Academic Research Laboratory, Global Choice Psychometrics, People Impact International Inc.