Friday, October 16, 2009

Read: A Colossal Failure of Common Sense; The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers

Just put down Lawrence G. McDonald's post mortem on the once great investment firm. I had a bit of interest in the topic to begin with, having read an exhaustive New York Times article about firm years before when it got in major trouble. Like that pivotal moment in a Greek tragedy, it would seem that the seeds of the firm's destruction were sown in the years when trader Lewis Glucksman wrested control of the company from the patrician Peter G. Peterson. It was Glucksman's protege Richard Fuld who would later steer the firm into a rather large iceberg, a collision from which there could be no recovery.

McDonald's portrayal of "King Richard" is scathing. The book portrays him as arrogant, bullying, out of touch, and intellectually incapable of grasping the new math of securitization. In perhaps part of the strongest parts of the book, McDonald makes clear the various steps along the path to the nation's, the world's, economic breakdown in his attempt to chronicle the demise of Lehman. The success of this aspect of the book was readily apparent when my eyes only crossed two or three times during explanations of the alphabet soup of credit vehicles.

Ghost writer Patrick Robinson outdoes himself. The book is nicely written and fascinating, combining McDonald's early years, the Lehman debacle, and government policy. Overall, though, there is the faintest aroma of sour grapes here. Every trader is described as brilliant and sagacious. The equation seems to be "Traders good; head guys bad." Finally, although I've heard the theory before, McDonald's implied assertion that Paulson's letting Lehman die set off the financial collapse is not something that is axiomatic. The weight of all the bad paper only made it a question of when. And sorry, I can't feel too sorry for the losses of people who made in one year more than I will earn in a lifetime.

All that being said, it is an eminently readable book and an excellent primer on the currents which led to the maelstrom which almost sank us all.

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