The Big Short: How Wall Street Screwed Main Street

May 12, 2010 4:36 PM ET8 Comments
James Quinn profile picture
James Quinn

Day after day, bankers have been paraded before Congressional committees regarding their role in the financial crisis which brought the financial system to the edge of the abyss on September 18, 2008. Everyone has claimed that they were not responsible in any way for the disaster, blaming once in a lifetime circumstances that no one could have anticipated. It was a perfect storm and they had no way of knowing. These Harvard MBA Wall Street geniuses, who collected compensation in excess of $100 million each before the collapse, had no idea what was going on within their own firms. Ignorance and stupidity is no excuse for losing a trillion dollars.

The truth is that the CEO’s of all the Wall Street banks encouraged a casino culture of greed and gambling. The generation of fees became the sole driving incentive for every firm. It started with collateralizing subprime mortgages into packages of mortgage backed securities. Then they created Credit Default Swaps as insurance on these mortgages. When they ran out of chumps to put into houses, they created side bets with Credit Default Obligations that didn’t require actual homeowners.

The fees generated by creating this crap were incomprehensible. The Masters of the Universe were taking home pay packages of $25 million and weren’t satisfied. They only made one small mistake: They deluded themselves into thinking the crap they were selling to suckers wasn’t actually crap. They ended up buying their own toxic paper. Even though they knew that the ratings agencies were basically whoring out AAA ratings for fees, they believed that AAA rated securities they were buying and insuring weren’t actually worthless. They didn’t understand that they had created Frankenderivatives. Author Michael Lewis has done a fantastic job making this sordid tale of greed understandable to the common person in his latest book: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

Lewis wrote the classic Wall Street book about the greed of the 1980s with Liar’s Poker, published in 1989. He detailed the absurdity of Wall Street from his firsthand experiences working at Salomon Brothers fresh out of college, capturing the destructive culture of Wall Street in a very funny 290-page classic. For example, he immortalized the term "Big Swinging Dick" regarding Salomon (”If he could make millions of dollars come out of those phones, he became that most revered of all species: a Big Swinging Dick.”). He also described the act of Blowing up a customer -- successfully convincing a customer to purchase an investment product which ends up declining rapidly in value, forcing the client to withdraw from the market.

He described an old mortgage bond trader named Donnie Green who once stopped a callow young salesman on his way out the door to catch a flight from New York to Chicago. Green tossed the salesman a ten dollar bill. “Hey, take out some crash insurance for yourself in my name,” he said. “Why?” asked the salesman. “I feel lucky,” said Green. Some other memorable snippets included:

  • The larger the number of people involved, the easier it was for them to delude themselves that what they were doing must be smart. The first thing you learn on the trading floor is that when large numbers of people are after the same commodity, be it a stock, a bond, or a job, the commodity quickly becomes overvalued.
  • In any market, as in any poker game, there is a fool. The astute investor Warren Buffet is fond of saying that any player unaware of the fool in the market probably is the fool in the market.
  • The firm’s management created a training programme, filled it to the brim, then walked away. In the ensuing anarchy the bad drove out the good, the big drove out the small, and the brawn drove out the brains.
  • Whenever calculus is brought in, or higher algebra, you could take it as a warning signal that the operator was trying to substitute theory for experience.
  • The only thing that history teaches us, a wise man once said, is that history doesn’t teach us anything.
  • That was how a Salomon bond trader thought: he forgot whatever it was that he wanted to do for a minute and put his finger on the pulse of the market. If the market felt fidgety, if people were scared or desperate, he herded them like sheep into a corner, then made them pay for their uncertainty. He sat on the market until it puked gold coins. Then he worried about what he wanted to do.
  • Stupid customers (the fools in the market) were a wonderful asset, but at some level of ignorance they became a liability – they went broke.

Michael expected that his book would convince many smart college students to pass on Wall Street and pursue worthwhile careers. Instead he was bombarded with fan mail thanking him for making Wall Street seem so appealing. The unquenchable desire for millions in compensation and unfettered greed on Wall Street only grew during the two decades since his book.

He has now book-ended two decades of greed with his latest masterpiece. He was able to link the two books by interviewing John Gutfreund, his former boss at Salomon Brothers, at the end of his new book. Lewis is able to explain the most recent financial crisis caused by Wall Street through the eyes of a few oddball skeptics. It is a truly enlightening book and reveals the true nature of the Wall Street mega-banks. Lewis summarizes the big picture in the following sequence:

By early 2005, the sub-prime mortgage machine was up and running again. If the first act of sub-prime lending had been freaky, this second act was terrifying. $30bn was a big year for sub-prime lending in the mid-1990s. In 2005 there would be $625bn in sub-prime mortgage loans, $507bn of which found its way into mortgage bonds. Even more shocking was that the terms of the loans were changing in ways that increased the likelihood they would go bad. Back in 1996, 65% of sub-prime loans had been fixed-rate. By 2005, 75% were some form of floating rate, usually fixed for the first two years.

In the summer of 2006, house prices peaked and began to fall. For the entire year they would fall, nationally, by 2%. By that autumn, Lippmann had made his case to hundreds more investors. Yet only 100 or so dabbled in the new market for credit default swaps on sub-prime mortgage bonds. A smaller number of people still – more than 10, fewer than 20 – made a straightforward bet against the entire multi-trillion-dollar sub-prime mortgage market and, by extension, the global financial system. The catastrophe was foreseeable, yet only a handful noticed.

It was in Vegas that Eisman finally understood the madness of the machine. He’d been making these side bets with major investment banks on the fate of the triple-B tranche of sub-prime mortgage-backed bonds without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to accept them. Now he got it: the credit default swaps, filtered through the CDOs, were being used to replicate bonds backed by actual home loans. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. Wall Street needed his bets in order to synthesise more of them. “They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,” Eisman says. “They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses in the financial system are so much greater than just the sub-prime loans. That’s when I realised they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”

I now have a new hero to worship. His name is Steve Eisman. He is a total prick. Whenever he opens his mouth in public, his two associates – Vincent Daniel and Danny Moses – sink down in their seats in anticipation of him saying something truly outrageous and true. In this book Lewis details how a few skeptical oddball guys figured out that the subprime mortgage market was the scam of the century and tried desperately to call attention to what was happening. The fact that they got unbelievably rich in the process is really secondary to the story of corruption, greed and stupidity by Wall Street bankers, the ratings agencies Moodys and S&P, the SEC, and the American homeowners.

The subprime mortgage market was miniscule during the 1990’s. Steve Eisman, Michael Burry, and three guys named Charlie Ledley, Jamie Mai, and Ben Hockett operating out of a garage with $1 million, figured out independently from each other that as the 2000’s progressed an immense bubble of bad debt was being created. The question was how could they take advantage of their discovery.

Eisman had a disdain for the companies in the subprime mortgage industry because he knew they were taking advantage of ignorant poor people. Household Finance was peddling these misleading loans and the CEO sold out to HSBC before the disaster struck. Eisman said, “It was engaged in blatant fraud. They should have taken the CEO out and hung him up by his [expletive] testicles. Instead they sold the company and the CEO made a hundred million dollars.” After this he made it his life’s mission to expose the fraud in this market.

Vinny Daniel was Eisman’s analyst and Danny Moses was his trader. Vinny was from Queens and trusted no one. Eisman described him as “Very dark.” He dug into the transaction details and fed the info to Steve. Danny didn’t trust anyone on Wall Street.

When a Wall Street firm helped him to get into a trade that seemed perfect in every way, he asked the salesman, “I appreciate this, but I just want to know one thing: How are you going to [expletive] me?”

Heh-heh-heh, c’mon, we’d never do that, the trader started to say, but Danny, though perfectly polite, was insistent. “We both know that unadulterated good things like this trade don’t just happen between little hedge funds and big Wall Street firms. I’ll do it, but only after you explain to me how you are going to [expletive] me.” And the salesman explained how he was going to [expletive] him. And Danny did the trade.

Eisman and his colleagues did real due diligence on the market. They flew around the country, attended subprime conferences and grilled CEOs and the ratings agencies. Lewis detailed these efforts in the book:

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. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “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.

As an investor, Eisman was allowed on the quarterly conference calls held by Moody’s but not allowed to ask questions. The people at Moody’s were polite about their brush-off, however. The C.E.O. even invited Eisman and his team to his office for a visit in June 2007. By then, Eisman was so certain that the world had been turned upside down that he just assumed this guy must know it too. “But we’re sitting there,” Daniel recalls, “and he says to us, like he actually means it, ‘I truly believe that our rating will prove accurate.’ And Steve shoots up in his chair and asks, ‘What did you just say?’ as if the guy had just uttered the most preposterous statement in the history of finance. He repeated it. And Eisman just laughed at him.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Daniel told the C.E.O. deferentially as they left the meeting, “you’re delusional.”

This wasn’t Fitch or even S&P. This was Moody’s, the aristocrats of the rating business, 20 percent owned by Warren Buffett. And the company’s C.E.O. was being told he was either a fool or a crook by one Vincent Daniel, from Queens.

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.”

FrontPoint had spent a lot of time digging around in the dog shit and knew that the default rates were already sufficient to wipe out this guy’s entire portfolio. “God, you must be having a hard time,” Eisman told his dinner companion.

“No,” the guy said, “I’ve sold everything out.”

Whatever rising anger Eisman felt was offset by the man’s genial disposition. Not only did he not mind that Eisman took a dim view of his C.D.O.’s; he saw it as a basis for friendship. “Then he said something that blew my mind,” Eisman tells me. “He says, ‘I love guys like you who short my market. Without you, I don’t have anything to buy.’ ”

As the financial system crashed on September 18, 2008 and the protagonists of the story became rich beyond all belief, there was no joy. They weren’t happy that they had been proven right. They were disgusted by the entire Wall Street culture. Michael Burry shut down his fund in disgust with his ungrateful investors. The system broke and the Wall Street gamblers should have paid the consequences. Instead, the US taxpayer bailed them out. In the twenty years since Lewis had written Liar’s Poker, Wall Street became greedier, nastier, more corrupt, more arrogant and more incompetent. He traced the biggest financial disaster in history back to his old boss John Gutfreund. His decision to convert Salomon Brothers from a private partnership to a public corporation opened Pandora’s Box. The other Wall Street partnerships followed like lemmings. The risk of failure was shifted from the partners to the shareholders and the citizens of the United States. Lewis details this fateful decision:

From that moment, though, the Wall Street firm became a black box. The shareholders who financed the risks had no real understanding of what the risk takers were doing, and as the risk-taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished. The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had by the investment bank as public corporation, the psychological foundations of Wall Street shifted from trust to blind faith.

No investment bank owned by its employees would have levered itself 35 to 1 or bought and held $50 billion in mezzanine C.D.O.’s. I doubt any partnership would have sought to game the rating agencies or leap into bed with loan sharks or even allow mezzanine C.D.O.’s to be sold to its customers. The hoped-for short-term gain would not have justified the long-term hit.

This decision unhinged the concept of risk from the concept of return.

Compensation was no longer tied to long term profits and success. Clients were no longer the customer. They were just fee generating suckers. Wall Street kept all the profits, took ungodly risks, lost trillions and got bailed out by Main Street. The poker game continues, as these criminals are again paying themselves billions in bonuses at the expense of Main Street. Michael Lewis completes the 20 year circle of greed with his brilliant book:

“The people in a position to resolve the financial crisis were, of course, the very same people who had failed to foresee it. All shared a distinction: they had proven far less capable of grasping basic truths in the heart of the U.S. financial system than a one-eyed money manager with Asperger’s syndrome. … The world’s most powerful and most highly paid financiers had been entirely discredited; without government intervention every single one of them would have lost his job; and yet these same financiers were using the government to enrich themselves.”


STEVE EISMAN – Manager of FrontPoint Financial Services hedge fund, which was owned by Morgan Stanley (MS). During the financial crisis he wished he could have shorted Morgan Stanley. “Even on Wall Street people think he’s rude and obnoxious and aggressive,” says Eisman’s wife. “He has no interest in manners. He’s not tactically rude. He’s sincerely rude. He knows everyone thinks of him as a character but he doesn’t think of himself that way. Steven lives inside his head.” The upper classes in this country raped this country. You [expletive] people. You built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience. Nobody ever said ‘This is wrong’.” Eisman understood Wall Street thoroughly: “What I learned from that experience was that Wall Street didn’t give a shit what it sold.”

MICHAEL BURRY – One eyed doctor turned investment manager who discovered he had Asperger’s Syndrome during his quest to be proven right about subprime mortgages being worthless. He figured it out in 2003 by himself. Burry had been “the first investor to diagnose the disorder in the American financial system. Complicated financial stuff was being dreamed up for the sole purpose of lending money to people who could never repay it.

STEVE LIPPMAN – Took Michael Burry’s idea about shorting subprime mortgages and sold it across Wall Street in order to hedge Deutsche Bank’s (DB) own subprime portfolio. “I love Greg,” said one of his bosses at Deutsche Bank. “I have nothing bad to say about him except that he’s a [expletive] whack job.” A trader who worked near him for years referred to him as “the asshole known as Greg Lippman.”

HOWIE HUBLER – Single handedly lost $9 billion for Morgan Stanley with one trade. He was the ultimate Big Swinging Dick as the head of mortgage bond trading who made $25 million the year he lost the $9 billion. CEO John Mack had no clue what his bond traders were doing. Hubler went on vacation and never came back.


John Gutfreund Michael Lewis

Disclosure: No positions

This article was written by

James Quinn profile picture
James Quinn has held financial positions with a retailer, homebuilder and university in his 29 year career. Those positions included treasurer, controller, and head of strategic planning. He is married with three boys and is writing these articles because he cares about their future. He earned a BS in accounting from Drexel University and an MBA from Villanova University. He is a certified public accountant and a certified cash manager. These articles reflect the personal views of James Quinn. They do not necessarily represent the views of his employer, and are not sponsored or endorsed by his employer.
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