Michael Lewis, Part 2

Thursday, March 26, 2009

This piece on Iceland reminds me of what went on in Narvik, Norway. CNBC"s David Faber's recent special report on the subprime mortgage debacle, HOUSE OF CARDS (re-airs frequently on CNBC) explores:

"just how far the effect of the credit crisis extended to Narvik, Norway, a town far above the Arctic Circle that was convinced it could solve its budget problems by investing in Wall Street's wares... primarily CDOs. Town leaders thought it was a safe investment.

But the investment collapsed. Now, the town has closed a school and slashed services for the elderly."

Wall Street on the Tundra

Iceland’s de facto bankruptcy—its currency (the krona) is kaput, its debt is 850 percent of G.D.P., its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance—resulted from a stunning collective madness. What led a tiny fishing nation, population 300,000, to decide, around 2003, to re-invent itself as a global financial power? In Reykjavík, where men are men, and the women seem to have completely given up on them, the author follows the peculiarly Icelandic logic behind the meltdown.

by Michael Lewis April 2009, Vanity Fair Magazine

Just after October 6, 2008, when Iceland effectively went bust, I spoke to a man at the International Monetary Fund who had been flown in to Reykjavík to determine if money might responsibly be lent to such a spectacularly bankrupt nation. He’d never been to Iceland, knew nothing about the place, and said he needed a map to find it. He has spent his life dealing with famously distressed countries, usually in Africa, perpetually in one kind of financial trouble or another. Iceland was entirely new to his experience: a nation of extremely well-to-do (No. 1 in the United Nations’ 2008 Human Development Index), well-educated, historically rational human beings who had organized themselves to commit one of the single greatest acts of madness in financial history. “You have to understand,” he told me, “Iceland is no longer a country. It is a hedge fund.”

An entire nation without immediate experience or even distant memory of high finance had gazed upon the example of Wall Street and said, “We can do that.” For a brief moment it appeared that they could. In 2003, Iceland’s three biggest banks had assets of only a few billion dollars, about 100 percent of its gross domestic product. Over the next three and a half years they grew to over $140 billion and were so much greater than Iceland’s G.D.P. that it made no sense to calculate the percentage of it they accounted for. It was, as one economist put it to me, “the most rapid expansion of a banking system in the history of mankind.”

At the same time, in part because the banks were also lending Icelanders money to buy stocks and real estate, the value of Icelandic stocks and real estate went through the roof. From 2003 to 2007, while the U.S. stock market was doubling, the Icelandic stock market multiplied by nine times. Reykjavík real-estate prices tripled. By 2006 the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, and virtually all of this new wealth was one way or another tied to the new investment-banking industry. “Everyone was learning Black-Scholes” (the option-pricing model), says Ragnar Arnason, a professor of fishing economics at the University of Iceland, who watched students flee the economics of fishing for the economics of money. “The schools of engineering and math were offering courses on financial engineering. We had hundreds and hundreds of people studying finance.” This in a country the size of Kentucky, but with fewer citizens than greater Peoria, Illinois. Peoria, Illinois, doesn’t have global financial institutions, or a university devoting itself to training many hundreds of financiers, or its own currency. And yet the world was taking Iceland seriously. (March 2006 Bloomberg News headline: iceland’s billionaire tycoon “thor” braves u.s. with hedge fund.)

Global financial ambition turned out to have a downside. When their three brand-new global-size banks collapsed, last October, Iceland’s 300,000 citizens found that they bore some kind of responsibility for $100 billion of banking losses—which works out to roughly $330,000 for every Icelandic man, woman, and child. On top of that they had tens of billions of dollars in personal losses from their own bizarre private foreign-currency speculations, and even more from the 85 percent collapse in the Icelandic stock market. The exact dollar amount of Iceland’s financial hole was essentially unknowable, as it depended on the value of the generally stable Icelandic krona, which had also crashed and was removed from the market by the Icelandic government. But it was a lot.

Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, “Well, at least we didn’t do that.” In the end, Icelanders amassed debts amounting to 850 percent of their G.D.P. (The debt-drowned United States has reached just 350 percent.) As absurdly big and important as Wall Street became in the U.S. economy, it never grew so large that the rest of the population could not, in a pinch, bail it out. Any one of the three Icelandic banks suffered losses too large for the nation to bear; taken together they were so ridiculously out of proportion that, within weeks of the collapse, a third of the population told pollsters that they were considering emigration.

In just three or four years an entirely new way of economic life had been grafted onto the side of this stable, collectivist society, and the graft had overwhelmed the host. “It was just a group of young kids,” said the man from the I.M.F. “In this egalitarian society, they came in, dressed in black, and started doing business.”

Five hundred miles northwest of Scotland the Icelandair flight lands and taxis to a terminal still painted with Landsbanki logos—Landsbanki being one of Iceland’s three bankrupt banks, along with Kaupthing and Glitnir. I try to think up a metaphor for the world’s expanding reservoir of defunct financial corporate sponsorships—water left in the garden hose after you’ve switched off the pressure?—but before I can finish, the man in the seat behind me reaches for his bag in the overhead bin and knocks the crap out of me. I will soon learn that Icelandic males, like moose, rams, and other horned mammals, see these collisions as necessary in their struggle for survival. I will also learn that this particular Icelandic male is a senior official at the Icelandic stock exchange. At this moment, however, all I know is that a middle-aged man in an expensive suit has gone out of his way to bash bodies without apology or explanation. I stew on this apparently wanton act of hostility all the way to passport control.

You can tell a lot about a country by how much better they treat themselves than foreigners at the point of entry. Let it be known that Icelanders make no distinction at all. Over the control booth they’ve hung a charming sign that reads simply, all citizens, and what they mean by that is not “All Icelandic Citizens” but “All Citizens of Anywhere.” Everyone is from somewhere, and so we all wind up in the same line, leading to the guy behind the glass. Before you can say, “Land of contradictions,” he has pretended to examine your passport and waved you on through.

Next, through a dark landscape of snow-spackled black volcanic rock that may or may not be lunar, but that looks so much as you would expect the moon to look that nasa scientists used it to acclimate the astronauts before the first moon mission. An hour later we arrive at the 101 Hotel, owned by the wife of one of Iceland’s most famous failed bankers. It’s cryptically named (101 is the city’s richest postal code), but instantly recognizable: hip Manhattan hotel. Staff dressed in black, incomprehensible art on the walls, unread books about fashion on unused coffee tables—everything to heighten the social anxiety of a rube from the sticks but the latest edition of The New York Observer. It’s the sort of place bankers stay because they think it’s where the artists stay. Bear Stearns convened a meeting of British and American hedge-fund managers here, in January 2008, to figure out how much money there was to be made betting on Iceland’s collapse. (A lot.) The hotel, once jammed, is now empty, with only 6 of its 38 rooms occupied. The restaurant is empty, too, and so are the small tables and little nooks that once led the people who weren’t in them to marvel at those who were. A bankrupt Holiday Inn is just depressing; a bankrupt Ian Schrager hotel is tragic.

With the financiers who once paid a lot to stay here gone for good, I’m given a big room on the top floor with a view of the old city for half-price. I curl up in silky white sheets and reach for a book about the Icelandic economy—written in 1995, before the banking craze, when the country had little to sell to the outside world but fresh fish—and read this remarkable sentence: “Icelanders are rather suspicious of the market system as a cornerstone of economic organization, especially its distributive implications.”

That’s when the strange noises commence.

Stefan Alfsson

Stefan Alfsson: A fisherman turned banker, who was laid off from his trading job in October and now might return to fishing.

First comes a screeching from the far side of the room. I leave the bed to examine the situation. It’s the heat, sounding like a teakettle left on the stove for too long, straining to control itself. Iceland’s heat isn’t heat as we know it, but heat drawn directly from the earth. The default temperature of the water is scalding. Every year workers engaged in street repairs shut down the cold-water intake used to temper the hot water and some poor Icelander is essentially boiled alive in his shower. So powerful is the heat being released from the earth into my room that some great grinding, wheezing engine must be employed to prevent it from cooking me.

Then, from outside, comes an explosion.


Then another.


As it is mid-December, the sun rises, barely, at 10:50 a.m. and sets with enthusiasm at 3:44 p.m. This is obviously better than no sun at all, but subtly worse, as it tempts you to believe you can simulate a normal life. And whatever else this place is, it isn’t normal. The point is reinforced by a 26-year-old Icelander I’ll call Magnus Olafsson, who, just a few weeks earlier, had been earning close to a million dollars a year trading currencies for one of the banks. Tall, white-blond, and handsome, Olafsson looks exactly as you’d expect an Icelander to look—which is to say that he looks not at all like most Icelanders, who are mousy-haired and lumpy. “My mother has enough food hoarded to open a grocery store,” he says, then adds that ever since the crash Reykjavík has felt tense and uneasy.

Two months earlier, in early October, as the market for Icelandic kronur dried up, he’d sneaked away from his trading desk and gone down to the teller, where he’d extracted as much foreign cash as they’d give him and stuffed it into a sack. “All over downtown that day you saw people walking around with bags,” he says. “No one ever carries bags around downtown.” After work he’d gone home with his sack of cash and hidden roughly 30 grand in yen, dollars, euros, and pounds sterling inside a board game.

Before October the big-name bankers were heroes; now they are abroad, or laying low. Before October Magnus thought of Iceland as essentially free of danger; now he imagines hordes of muggers en route from foreign nations to pillage his board-game safe—and thus refuses to allow me to use his real name. “You’d figure New York would hear about this and send over planeloads of muggers,” he theorizes. “Most everyone has their savings at home.” As he is already unsettled, I tell him about the unsettling explosions outside my hotel room. “Yes,” he says with a smile, “there’s been a lot of Range Rovers catching fire lately.” Then he explains.

For the past few years, some large number of Icelanders engaged in the same disastrous speculation. With local interest rates at 15.5 percent and the krona rising, they decided the smart thing to do, when they wanted to buy something they couldn’t afford, was to borrow not kronur but yen and Swiss francs. They paid 3 percent interest on the yen and in the bargain made a bundle on the currency trade, as the krona kept rising. “The fishing guys pretty much discovered the trade and made it huge,” says Magnus. “But they made so much money on it that the financial stuff eventually overwhelmed the fish.” They made so much money on it that the trade spread from the fishing guys to their friends.

It must have seemed like a no-brainer: buy these ever more valuable houses and cars with money you are, in effect, paid to borrow. But, in October, after the krona collapsed, the yen and Swiss francs they must repay are many times more expensive. Now many Icelanders—especially young Icelanders—own $500,000 houses with $1.5 million mortgages, and $35,000 Range Rovers with $100,000 in loans against them. To the Range Rover problem there are two immediate solutions. One is to put it on a boat, ship it to Europe, and try to sell it for a currency that still has value. The other is set it on fire and collect the insurance: Boom!

The rocks beneath Reykjavík may be igneous, but the city feels sedimentary: on top of several thick strata of architecture that should be called Nordic Pragmatic lies a thin layer that will almost certainly one day be known as Asshole Capitalist. The hobbit-size buildings that house the Icelandic government are charming and scaled to the city. The half-built oceanfront glass towers meant to house newly rich financiers and, in the bargain, block everyone else’s view of the white bluffs across the harbor are not.

The best way to see any city is to walk it, but everywhere I walk Icelandic men plow into me without so much as a by-your-leave. Just for fun I march up and down the main shopping drag, playing chicken, to see if any Icelandic male would rather divert his stride than bang shoulders. Nope. On party nights—Thursday, Friday, and Saturday—when half the country appears to take it as a professional obligation to drink themselves into oblivion and wander the streets until what should be sunrise, the problem is especially acute. The bars stay open until five a.m., and the frantic energy with which the people hit them seems more like work than work. Within minutes of entering a nightclub called Boston I get walloped, first by a bearded troll who, I’m told, ran an Icelandic hedge fund. Just as I’m recovering I get plowed over by a drunken senior staffer at the Central Bank. Perhaps because he is drunk, or perhaps because we had actually met a few hours earlier, he stops to tell me, “Vee try to tell them dat our problem was not a solfency problem but a likvitity problem, but they did not agree,” then stumbles off. It’s exactly what Lehman Brothers and Citigroup said: If only you’d give us the money to tide us over, we’ll survive this little hiccup.

A nation so tiny and homogeneous that everyone in it knows pretty much everyone else is so fundamentally different from what one thinks of when one hears the word “nation” that it almost requires a new classification. Really, it’s less a nation than one big extended family. For instance, most Icelanders are by default members of the Lutheran Church. If they want to stop being Lutherans they must write to the government and quit; on the other hand, if they fill out a form, they can start their own cult and receive a subsidy. Another example: the Reykjavík phone book lists everyone by his first name, as there are only about nine surnames in Iceland, and they are derived by prefixing the father’s name to “son” or “dottir.” It’s hard to see how this clarifies matters, as there seem to be only about nine first names in Iceland, too. But if you wish to reveal how little you know about Iceland, you need merely refer to someone named Siggor Sigfusson as “Mr. Sigfusson,” or Kristin Petursdottir as “Ms. Petursdottir.” At any rate, everyone in a conversation is just meant to know whomever you’re talking about, so you never hear anyone ask, “Which Siggor do you mean?”

Because Iceland is really just one big family, it’s simply annoying to go around asking Icelanders if they’ve met Björk. Of course they’ve met Björk; who hasn’t met Björk? Who, for that matter, didn’t know Björk when she was two? “Yes, I know Björk,” a professor of finance at the University of Iceland says in reply to my question, in a weary tone. “She can’t sing, and I know her mother from childhood, and they were both crazy. That she is so well known outside of Iceland tells me more about the world than it does about Björk.”

One benefit of life inside a nation masking an extended family is that nothing needs to be explained; everyone already knows everything that needs to be known. I quickly find that it is an even greater than usual waste of time to ask directions, for instance. Just as you are meant to know which Bjornjolfer is being spoken of at any particular moment, you are meant to know where you are on the map. Two grown-ups—one a banker whose office is three blocks away—cannot tell me where to find the prime minister’s office. Three more grown-ups, all within three blocks of the National Gallery of Iceland, have no idea where to find the place. When I tell the sweet middle-aged lady behind the counter at the National Museum that no Icelander seems to know how to find it, she says, “No one actually knows anything about our country. Last week we had Icelandic high-school students here and their teacher asked them to name an Icelandic 19th-century painter. None of them could. Not a single one! One said, ‘Halldor Laxness?’!” (Laxness won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature, the greatest global honor for an Icelander until the 1980s, when two Icelandic women captured Miss World titles in rapid succession.)

The world is now pocked with cities that feel as if they are perched on top of bombs. The bombs have yet to explode, but the fuses have been lit, and there’s nothing anyone can do to extinguish them. Walk around Manhattan and you see empty stores, empty streets, and, even when it’s raining, empty taxis: people have fled before the bomb explodes. When I was there Reykjavík had the same feel of incipient doom, but the fuse burned strangely. The government mandates three months’ severance pay, and so the many laid-off bankers were paid until early February, when the government promptly fell. Against a basket of foreign currencies the krona is worth less than a third of its boom-time value. As Iceland imports everything but heat and fish, the price of just about everything is, in mid-December, about to skyrocket. A new friend who works for the government tells me that she went into a store to buy a lamp. The clerk told her he had sold the last of the lamps she was after, but offered to order it for her, from Sweden—at nearly three times the old price.

Bjarni Brynjolfsson

Bjarni Brynjolfsson: A fishing guide, who is back to hosting fly-fishermen instead of bankers.

Still, a society that has been ruined overnight doesn’t look much different from how it did the day before, when it believed itself to be richer than ever. The Central Bank of Iceland is a case in point. Almost certainly Iceland will adopt the euro as its currency, and the krona will cease to exist. Without it there is no need for a central bank to maintain the stability of the local currency and control interest rates. Inside the place stews David Oddsson, the architect of Iceland’s rise and fall. Back in the 1980s, Oddsson had fallen under the spell of Milton Friedman, the brilliant economist who was able to persuade even those who spent their lives working for the government that government was a waste of life. So Oddsson went on a quest to give Icelandic people their freedom—by which he meant freedom from government controls of any sort. As prime minister he lowered taxes, privatized industry, freed up trade, and, finally, in 2002, privatized the banks. At length, weary of prime-ministering, he got himself appointed governor of the Central Bank—even though he was a poet without banking experience.

After the collapse he holed up in his office inside the bank, declining all requests for interviews. Senior government officials tell me, seriously, that they assume he spends most of his time writing poetry. (In February he would be asked by a new government to leave.) On the outside, however, the Central Bank of Iceland is still an elegant black temple set against the snowy bluffs across the harbor. Sober-looking men still enter and exit. Small boys on sleds rocket down the slope beside it, giving not a rat’s ass that they are playing at ground zero of the global calamity. It all looks the same as it did before the crash, even though it couldn’t be more different. The fuse is burning its way toward the bomb.

When Neil Armstrong took his small step from Apollo 11 and looked around, he probably thought, Wow, sort of like Iceland—even though the moon was nothing like Iceland. But then, he was a tourist, and a tourist can’t help but have a distorted opinion of a place: he meets unrepresentative people, has unrepresentative experiences, and runs around imposing upon the place the fantastic mental pictures he had in his head when he got there. When Iceland became a tourist in global high finance it had the same problem as Neil Armstrong. Icelanders are among the most inbred human beings on earth—geneticists often use them for research. They inhabited their remote island for 1,100 years without so much as dabbling in leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers, derivatives trading, or even small-scale financial fraud. When, in 2003, they sat down at the same table with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, they had only the roughest idea of what an investment banker did and how he behaved—most of it gleaned from young Icelanders’ experiences at various American business schools. And so what they did with money probably says as much about the American soul, circa 2003, as it does about Icelanders. They understood instantly, for instance, that finance had less to do with productive enterprise than trading bits of paper among themselves. And when they lent money they didn’t simply facilitate enterprise but bankrolled friends and family, so that they might buy and own things, like real investment bankers: Beverly Hills condos, British soccer teams and department stores, Danish airlines and media companies, Norwegian banks, Indian power plants.

That was the biggest American financial lesson the Icelanders took to heart: the importance of buying as many assets as possible with borrowed money, as asset prices only rose. By 2007, Icelanders owned roughly 50 times more foreign assets than they had in 2002. They bought private jets and third homes in London and Copenhagen. They paid vast sums of money for services no one in Iceland had theretofore ever imagined wanting. “A guy had a birthday party, and he flew in Elton John for a million dollars to sing two songs,” the head of the Left-Green Movement, Steingrimur Sigfusson, tells me with fresh incredulity. “And apparently not very well.” They bought stakes in businesses they knew nothing about and told the people running them what to do—just like real American investment bankers! For instance, an investment company called FL Group—a major shareholder in Glitnir bank—bought an 8.25 percent stake in American Airlines’ parent corporation. No one inside FL Group had ever actually run an airline; no one in FL Group even had meaningful work experience at an airline. That didn’t stop FL Group from telling American Airlines how to run an airline. “After taking a close look at the company over an extended period of time,” FL Group C.E.O. Hannes Smarason, graduate of M.I.T.’s Sloan School, got himself quoted saying, in his press release, not long after he bought his shares, “our suggestions include monetizing assets … that can be used to reduce debt or return capital to shareholders.”

Nor were the Icelanders particularly choosy about what they bought. I spoke with a hedge fund in New York that, in late 2006, spotted what it took to be an easy mark: a weak Scandinavian bank getting weaker. It established a short position, and then, out of nowhere, came Kaupthing to take a 10 percent stake in this soon-to-be defunct enterprise—driving up the share price to absurd levels. I spoke to another hedge fund in London so perplexed by the many bad LBOs Icelandic banks were financing that it hired private investigators to figure out what was going on in the Icelandic financial system. The investigators produced a chart detailing a byzantine web of interlinked entities that boiled down to this: A handful of guys in Iceland, who had no experience of finance, were taking out tens of billions of dollars in short-term loans from abroad. They were then re-lending this money to themselves and their friends to buy assets—the banks, soccer teams, etc. Since the entire world’s assets were rising—thanks in part to people like these Icelandic lunatics paying crazy prices for them—they appeared to be making money. Yet another hedge-fund manager explained Icelandic banking to me this way: You have a dog, and I have a cat. We agree that they are each worth a billion dollars. You sell me the dog for a billion, and I sell you the cat for a billion. Now we are no longer pet owners, but Icelandic banks, with a billion dollars in new assets. “They created fake capital by trading assets amongst themselves at inflated values,” says a London hedge-fund manager. “This was how the banks and investment companies grew and grew. But they were lightweights in the international markets.”

On February 3, Tony Shearer, the former C.E.O. of a British merchant bank called Singer and Friedlander, offered a glimpse of the inside, when he appeared before a House of Commons committee to describe his bizarre experience of being acquired by an Icelandic bank.

Singer and Friedlander had been around since 1907 and was famous for, among other things, giving George Soros his start. In November 2003, Shearer learned that Kaupthing, of whose existence he was totally unaware, had just taken a 9.5 percent stake in his bank. Normally, when a bank tries to buy another bank, it seeks to learn something about it. Shearer offered to meet with Kaupthing’s chairman, Sigurdur Einarsson; Einarsson had no interest. (Einarsson declined to be interviewed by Vanity Fair.) When Kaupthing raised its stake to 19.5 percent, Shearer finally flew to Reykjavík to see who on earth these Icelanders were. “They were very different,” he told the House of Commons committee. “They ran their business in a very strange way. Everyone there was incredibly young. They were all from the same community in Reykjavík. And they had no idea what they were doing.”

Hordur Torfason

Hordur Torfason: An activist and a protest organizer.

He examined Kaupthing’s annual reports and discovered some amazing facts: This giant international bank had only one board member who was not Icelandic, for instance. Its directors all had four-year contracts, and the bank had lent them £19 million to buy shares in Kaupthing, along with options to sell those shares back to the bank at a guaranteed profit. Virtually the entire bank’s stated profits were caused by its marking up assets it had bought at inflated prices. “The actual amount of profits that were coming from what I’d call banking was less than 10 percent,” said Shearer.

In a sane world the British regulators would have stopped the new Icelandic financiers from devouring the ancient British merchant bank. Instead, the regulators ignored a letter Shearer wrote to them. A year later, in January 2005, he received a phone call from the British takeover panel. “They wanted to know,” says Shearer, “why our share price had risen so rapidly over the past couple of days. So I laughed and said, ‘I think you’ll find the reason is that Mr. Einarsson, the chairman of Kaupthing, said two days ago, like an idiot, that he was going to make a bid for Singer and Friedlander.’” In August 2005, Singer and Friedlander became Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander, and Shearer quit, he said, out of fear of what might happen to his reputation if he stayed. In October 2008, Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander went bust.

In spite of all this, when Tony Shearer was pressed by the House of Commons to characterize the Icelanders as mere street hustlers, he refused. “They were all highly educated people,” he said in a tone of amazement.

Here is yet another way in which Iceland echoed the American model: all sorts of people, none of them Icelandic, tried to tell them they had a problem. In early 2006, for instance, an analyst named Lars Christensen and three of his colleagues at Denmark’s biggest bank, Danske Bank, wrote a report that said Iceland’s financial system was growing at a mad pace, and was on a collision course with disaster. “We actually wrote the report because we were worried our clients were getting too interested in Iceland,” he tells me. “Iceland was the most extreme of everything.” Christensen then flew to Iceland and gave a speech to reinforce his point, only to be greeted with anger. “The Icelandic banks took it personally,” he says. “We were being threatened with lawsuits. I was told, ‘You’re Danish, and you are angry with Iceland because Iceland is doing so well.’ Basically it all had to do with what happened in 1944,” when Iceland declared its independence from Denmark. “The reaction wasn’t ‘These guys might be right.’ It was ‘No! It’s a conspiracy. They have bad motives.’” The Danish were just jealous!

The Danske Bank report alerted hedge funds in London to an opportunity: shorting Iceland. They investigated and found this incredible web of cronyism: bankers buying stuff from one another at inflated prices, borrowing tens of billions of dollars and re-lending it to the members of their little Icelandic tribe, who then used it to buy up a messy pile of foreign assets. “Like any new kid on the block,” says Theo Phanos of Trafalgar Funds in London, “they were picked off by various people who sold them the lowest-quality assets—second-tier airlines, sub-scale retailers. They were in all the worst LBOs.”

But from the prime minister on down, Iceland’s leaders attacked the messenger. “The attacks … give off an unpleasant odor of unscrupulous dealers who have decided to make a last stab at breaking down the Icelandic financial system,” said Central Bank chairman Oddsson in March of last year. The chairman of Kaupthing publicly fingered four hedge funds that he said were deliberately seeking to undermine Iceland’s financial miracle. “I don’t know where the Icelanders get this notion,” says Paul Ruddock, of Lansdowne Partners, one of those fingered. “We only once traded in an Icelandic stock and it was a very short-term trade. We started to take legal action against the chairman of Kaupthing after he made public accusations against us that had no truth, and then he withdrew them.”

One of the hidden causes of the current global financial crisis is that the people who saw it coming had more to gain from it by taking short positions than they did by trying to publicize the problem. Plus, most of the people who could credibly charge Iceland—or, for that matter, Lehman Brothers—with financial crimes could be dismissed as crass profiteers, talking their own book. Back in April 2006, however, an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Chicago named Bob Aliber took an interest in Iceland. Aliber found himself at the London Business School, listening to a talk on Iceland, about which he knew nothing. He recognized instantly the signs. Digging into the data, he found in Iceland the outlines of what was so clearly a historic act of financial madness that it belonged in a textbook. “The Perfect Bubble,” Aliber calls Iceland’s financial rise, and he has the textbook in the works: an updated version of Charles Kindleberger’s 1978 classic, Manias, Panics, and Crashes, a new edition of which he’s currently editing. In it, Iceland, he decided back in 2006, would now have its own little box, along with the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Craze—even though Iceland had yet to crash. For him the actual crash was a mere formality.

Word spread in Icelandic economic circles that this distinguished professor at Chicago had taken a special interest in Iceland. In May 2008, Aliber was invited by the University of Iceland’s economics department to give a speech. To an audience of students, bankers, and journalists, he explained that Iceland, far from having an innate talent for high finance, had all the markings of a giant bubble, but he spoke the technical language of academic economists. (“Monetary Turbulence and the Icelandic Economy,” he called his speech.) In the following Q&A session someone asked him to predict the future, and he lapsed into plain English. As an audience member recalls, Aliber said, “I give you nine months. Your banks are dead. Your bankers are either stupid or greedy. And I’ll bet they are on planes trying to sell their assets right now.”

The Icelandic bankers in the audience sought to prevent newspapers from reporting the speech. Several academics suggested that Aliber deliver his alarming analysis to Iceland’s Central Bank. Somehow that never happened. “The Central Bank said they were too busy to see him,” says one of the professors who tried to arrange the meeting, “because they were preparing the Report on Financial Stability.” For his part Aliber left Iceland thinking that he’d caused such a stir he might not be allowed back into the country. “I got the feeling,” he told me, “that the only reason they brought me in was that they needed an outsider to say these things—that an insider wouldn’t say these things, because he’d be afraid of getting into trouble.” And yet he remains extremely fond of his hosts. “They are a very curious people,” he says, laughing. “I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?”

Icelanders—or at any rate Icelandic men—had their own explanations for why, when they leapt into global finance, they broke world records: the natural superiority of Icelanders. Because they were small and isolated it had taken 1,100 years for them—and the world—to understand and exploit their natural gifts, but now that the world was flat and money flowed freely, unfair disadvantages had vanished. Iceland’s president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, gave speeches abroad in which he explained why Icelanders were banking prodigies. “Our heritage and training, our culture and home market, have provided a valuable advantage,” he said, then went on to list nine of these advantages, ending with how unthreatening to others Icelanders are. (“Some people even see us as fascinating eccentrics who can do no harm.”) There were many, many expressions of this same sentiment, most of them in Icelandic. “There were research projects at the university to explain why the Icelandic business model was superior,” says Gylfi Zoega, chairman of the economics department. “It was all about our informal channels of communication and ability to make quick decisions and so forth.”

“We were always told that the Icelandic businessmen were so clever,” says university finance professor and former banker Vilhjalmur Bjarnason. “They were very quick. And when they bought something they did it very quickly. Why was that? That is usually because the seller is very satisfied with the price.”

You didn’t need to be Icelandic to join the cult of the Icelandic banker. German banks put $21 billion into Icelandic banks. The Netherlands gave them $305 million, and Sweden kicked in $400 million. U.K. investors, lured by the eye-popping 14 percent annual returns, forked over $30 billion—$28 billion from companies and individuals and the rest from pension funds, hospitals, universities, and other public institutions. Oxford University alone lost $50 million.

Geir Haarde

Geir Haarde: The former prime minister, on January 28, one of his last days in office.

Maybe because there are so few Icelanders in the world, we know next to nothing about them. We assume they are more or less Scandinavian—a gentle people who just want everyone to have the same amount of everything. They are not. They have a feral streak in them, like a horse that’s just pretending to be broken.

After three days in Reykjavík, I receive, more or less out of the blue, two phone calls. The first is from a producer of a leading current-events TV show. All of Iceland watches her show, she says, then asks if I’d come on and be interviewed. “About what?” I ask. “We’d like you to explain our financial crisis,” she says. “I’ve only been here three days!” I say. It doesn’t matter, she says, as no one in Iceland understands what’s happened. They’d enjoy hearing someone try to explain it, even if that person didn’t have any idea what he was talking about—which goes to show, I suppose, that not everything in Iceland is different from other places. As I demur, another call comes, from the prime minister’s office.

Iceland’s then prime minister, Geir Haarde, is also the head of the Independence Party, which has governed the country since 1991. It ruled in loose coalition with the Social Democrats and the Progressive Party. (Iceland’s fourth major party is the Left-Green Movement.) That a nation of 300,000 people, all of whom are related by blood, needs four major political parties suggests either a talent for disagreement or an unwillingness to listen to one another. In any case, of the four parties, the Independents express the greatest faith in free markets. The Independence Party is the party of the fishermen. It is also, as an old schoolmate of the prime minister’s puts it to me, “all men, men, men. Not a woman in it.”

Walking into the P.M.’s minute headquarters, I expect to be stopped and searched, or at least asked for photo identification. Instead I find a single policeman sitting behind a reception desk, feet up on the table, reading a newspaper. He glances up, bored. “I’m here to see the prime minister,” I say for the first time in my life. He’s unimpressed. Anyone here can see the prime minister. Half a dozen people will tell me that one of the reasons Icelanders thought they would be taken seriously as global financiers is that all Icelanders feel important. One reason they all feel important is that they all can go see the prime minister anytime they like.

What he might say to them about their collapse is an open question. There’s a charming lack of financial experience in Icelandic financial-policymaking circles. The minister for business affairs is a philosopher. The finance minister is a veterinarian. The Central Bank governor is a poet. Haarde, though, is a trained economist—just not a very good one. The economics department at the University of Iceland has him pegged as a B-minus student. As a group, the Independence Party’s leaders have a reputation for not knowing much about finance and for refusing to avail themselves of experts who do. An Icelandic professor at the London School of Economics named Jon Danielsson, who specializes in financial panics, has had his offer to help spurned; so have several well-known financial economists at the University of Iceland. Even the advice of really smart central bankers from seriously big countries went ignored. It’s not hard to see why the Independence Party and its prime minister fail to appeal to Icelandic women: they are the guy driving his family around in search of some familiar landmark and refusing, over his wife’s complaints, to stop and ask directions.

“Why is Vanity Fair interested in Iceland?” he asks as he strides into the room, with the force and authority of the leader of a much larger nation. And it’s a good question.

As it turns out, he’s not actually stupid, but political leaders seldom are, no matter how much the people who elected them insist that it must be so. He does indeed say things that could not possibly be true, but they are only the sorts of fibs that prime ministers are hired to tell. He claims that the krona is once again an essentially stable currency, for instance, when the truth is it doesn’t currently trade in international markets—it is assigned an arbitrary value by the government for select purposes. Icelanders abroad have already figured out not to use their Visa cards, for fear of being charged the real exchange rate, whatever that might be.

The prime minister would like me to believe that he saw Iceland’s financial crisis taking shape but could do little about it. (“We could not say publicly our fears about the banks, because you create the very thing you are seeking to avoid: a panic.”) By implication it was not politicians like him but financiers who were to blame. On some level the people agree: the guy who ran the Baugur investment group had snowballs chucked at him as he dashed from the 101 Hotel, which his wife owns, to his limo; the guy who ran Kaupthing Bank turned up at the National Theater and, as he took his seat, was booed. But, for the most part, the big shots have fled Iceland for London, or are lying low, leaving the poor prime minister to shoulder the blame and face the angry demonstrators, led by folksinging activist Hordur Torfason, who assemble every weekend outside Parliament. Haarde has his story, and he’s sticking to it: foreigners entrusted their capital to Iceland, and Iceland put it to good use, but then, last September 15, Lehman Brothers failed and foreigners panicked and demanded their capital back. Iceland was ruined not by its own recklessness but by a global tsunami. The problem with this story is that it fails to explain why the tsunami struck Iceland, as opposed to, say, Tonga.

But I didn’t come to Iceland to argue. I came to understand. “There’s something I really want to ask you,” I say.


“Is it true that you’ve been telling people that it’s time to stop banking and go fishing?”

A great line, I thought. Succinct, true, and to the point. But I’d heard about it thirdhand, from a New York hedge-fund manager. The prime minister fixes me with a self-consciously stern gaze. “That’s a gross exaggeration,” he says.

“I thought it made sense,” I say uneasily.

“I never said that!”

Obviously, I’ve hit some kind of nerve, but which kind I cannot tell. Is he worried that to have said such a thing would make him seem a fool? Or does he still think that fishing, as a profession, is somehow less dignified than banking?

At length, I return to the hotel to find, for the first time in four nights, no empty champagne bottles outside my neighbors’ door. The Icelandic couple whom I had envisioned as being on one last blowout have packed and gone home. For four nights I have endured their Orc shrieks from the other side of the hotel wall; now all is silent. It’s now possible to curl up in bed with “The Economic Theory of a Common-Property Resource: The Fishery.” One way or another, the wealth in Iceland comes from the fish, and if you want to understand what Icelanders did with their money you had better understand how they came into it in the first place.

The brilliant paper was written back in 1954 by H. Scott Gordon, a University of Indiana economist. It describes the plight of the fisherman—and seeks to explain “why fishermen are not wealthy, despite the fact that fishery resources of the sea are the richest and most indestructible available to man.” The problem is that, because the fish are everybody’s property, they are nobody’s property. Anyone can catch as many fish as they like, so they fish right up to the point where fishing becomes unprofitable—for everybody. “There is in the spirit of every fisherman the hope of the ‘lucky catch,’” wrote Gordon. “As those who know fishermen well have often testified, they are gamblers and incurably optimistic.”

Fishermen, in other words, are a lot like American investment bankers. Their overconfidence leads them to impoverish not just themselves but also their fishing grounds. Simply limiting the number of fish caught won’t solve the problem; it will just heighten the competition for the fish and drive down profits. The goal isn’t to get fishermen to overspend on more nets or bigger boats. The goal is to catch the maximum number of fish with minimum effort. To attain it, you need government intervention.

Johanna Sigurdardottir

Johanna Sigurdardottir: The new prime minister, the modern world’s first openly gay head of state.

This insight is what led Iceland to go from being one of the poorest countries in Europe circa 1900 to being one of the richest circa 2000. Iceland’s big change began in the early 1970s, after a couple of years when the fish catch was terrible. The best fishermen returned for a second year in a row without their usual haul of cod and haddock, so the Icelandic government took radical action: they privatized the fish. Each fisherman was assigned a quota, based roughly on his historical catches. If you were a big-time Icelandic fisherman you got this piece of paper that entitled you to, say, 1 percent of the total catch allowed to be pulled from Iceland’s waters that season. Before each season the scientists at the Marine Research Institute would determine the total number of cod or haddock that could be caught without damaging the long-term health of the fish population; from year to year, the numbers of fish you could catch changed. But your percentage of the annual haul was fixed, and this piece of paper entitled you to it in perpetuity.

Even better, if you didn’t want to fish you could sell your quota to someone who did. The quotas thus drifted into the hands of the people to whom they were of the greatest value, the best fishermen, who could extract the fish from the sea with maximum efficiency. You could also take your quota to the bank and borrow against it, and the bank had no trouble assigning a dollar value to your share of the cod pulled, without competition, from the richest cod-fishing grounds on earth. The fish had not only been privatized, they had been securitized.

It was horribly unfair: a public resource—all the fish in the Icelandic sea—was simply turned over to a handful of lucky Icelanders. Overnight, Iceland had its first billionaires, and they were all fishermen. But as social policy it was ingenious: in a single stroke the fish became a source of real, sustainable wealth rather than shaky sustenance. Fewer people were spending less effort catching more or less precisely the right number of fish to maximize the long-term value of Iceland’s fishing grounds. The new wealth transformed Iceland—and turned it from the backwater it had been for 1,100 years to the place that spawned Björk. If Iceland has become famous for its musicians it’s because Icelanders now have time to play music, and much else. Iceland’s youth are paid to study abroad, for instance, and encouraged to cultivate themselves in all sorts of interesting ways. Since its fishing policy transformed Iceland, the place has become, in effect, a machine for turning cod into Ph.D.’s.

But this, of course, creates a new problem: people with Ph.D.’s don’t want to fish for a living. They need something else to do.

And that something is probably not working in the industry that exploits Iceland’s other main natural resource: energy. The waterfalls and boiling lava generate vast amounts of cheap power, but, unlike oil, it cannot be profitably exported. Iceland’s power is trapped in Iceland, and if there is something poetic about the idea of trapped power, there is also something prosaic in how the Icelanders have come to terms with the problem. They asked themselves: What can we do that other people will pay money for that requires huge amounts of power? The answer was: smelt aluminum.

Notice that no one asked, What might Icelanders want to do? Or even: What might Icelanders be especially suited to do? No one thought that Icelanders might have some natural gift for smelting aluminum, and, if anything, the opposite proved true. Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called “hidden people”—or, to put it more plainly, elves—in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free but, as he put it, “we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people.” The other, more serious problem was the Icelandic male: he took more safety risks than aluminum workers in other nations did. “In manufacturing,” says the spokesman, “you want people who follow the rules and fall in line. You don’t want them to be heroes. You don’t want them to try to fix something it’s not their job to fix, because they might blow up the place.” The Icelandic male had a propensity to try to fix something it wasn’t his job to fix.

Back away from the Icelandic economy and you can’t help but notice something really strange about it: the people have cultivated themselves to the point where they are unsuited for the work available to them. All these exquisitely schooled, sophisticated people, each and every one of whom feels special, are presented with two mainly horrible ways to earn a living: trawler fishing and aluminum smelting. There are, of course, a few jobs in Iceland that any refined, educated person might like to do. Certifying the nonexistence of elves, for instance. (“This will take at least six months—it can be very tricky.”) But not nearly so many as the place needs, given its talent for turning cod into Ph.D.’s. At the dawn of the 21st century, Icelanders were still waiting for some task more suited to their filigreed minds to turn up inside their economy so they might do it.

Enter investment banking.

For the fifth time in as many days I note a slight tension at any table where Icelandic men and Icelandic women are both present. The male exhibits the global male tendency not to talk to the females—or, rather, not to include them in the conversation—unless there is some obvious sexual motive. But that’s not the problem, exactly. Watching Icelandic men and women together is like watching toddlers. They don’t play together but in parallel; they overlap even less organically than men and women in other developed countries, which is really saying something. It isn’t that the women are oppressed, exactly. On paper, by historical global standards, they have it about as good as women anywhere: good public health care, high participation in the workforce, equal rights. What Icelandic women appear to lack—at least to a tourist who has watched them for all of 10 days—is a genuine connection to Icelandic men. The Independence Party is mostly male; the Social Democrats, mostly female. (On February 1, when the reviled Geir Haarde finally stepped aside, he was replaced by Johanna Sigurdardottir, a Social Democrat, and Iceland got not just a lady prime minister but the modern world’s first openly gay head of state—she lives with another woman.) Everyone knows everyone else, but when I ask Icelanders for leads, the men always refer me to other men, and the women to other women. It was a man, for instance, who suggested I speak to Stefan Alfsson.

Lean and hungry-looking, wearing genuine rather than designer stubble, Alfsson still looks more like a trawler captain than a financier. He went to sea at 16, and, in the off-season, to school to study fishing. He was made captain of an Icelandic fishing trawler at the shockingly young age of 23 and was regarded, I learned from other men, as something of a fishing prodigy—which is to say he had a gift for catching his quota of cod and haddock in the least amount of time. And yet, in January 2005, at 30, he up and quit fishing to join the currency-trading department of Landsbanki. He speculated in the financial markets for nearly two years, until the great bloodbath of October 2008, when he was sacked, along with every other Icelander who called himself a “trader.” His job, he says, was to sell people, mainly his fellow fishermen, on what he took to be a can’t-miss speculation: borrow yen at 3 percent, use them to buy Icelandic kronur, and then invest those kronur at 16 percent. “I think it is easier to take someone in the fishing industry and teach him about currency trading,” he says, “than to take someone from the banking industry and teach them how to fish.”

He then explained why fishing wasn’t as simple as I thought. It’s risky, for a start, especially as practiced by the Icelandic male. “You don’t want to have some sissy boys on your crew,” he says, especially as Icelandic captains are famously manic in their fishing styles. “I had a crew of Russians once,” he says, “and it wasn’t that they were lazy, but the Russians are always at the same pace.” When a storm struck, the Russians would stop fishing, because it was too dangerous. “The Icelanders would fish in all conditions,” says Stefan, “fish until it is impossible to fish. They like to take the risks. If you go overboard, the probabilities are not in your favor. I’m 33, and I already have two friends who have died at sea.”

It took years of training for him to become a captain, and even then it happened only by a stroke of luck. When he was 23 and a first mate, the captain of his fishing boat up and quit. The boat owner went looking for a replacement and found an older fellow, retired, who was something of an Icelandic fishing legend, the wonderfully named Snorri Snorrasson. “I took two trips with this guy,” Stefan says. “I have never in my life slept so little, because I was so eager to learn. I slept two or three hours a night because I was sitting beside him, talking to him. I gave him all the respect in the world—it’s difficult to describe all he taught me. The reach of the trawler. The most efficient angle of the net. How do you act on the sea. If you have a bad day, what do you do? If you’re fishing at this depth, what do you do? If it’s not working, do you move in depth or space? In the end it’s just so much feel. In this time I learned infinitely more than I learned in school. Because how do you learn to fish in school?”

This marvelous training was as fresh in his mind as if he’d received it yesterday, and the thought of it makes his eyes mist.

“You spent seven years learning every little nuance of the fishing trade before you were granted the gift of learning from this great captain?” I ask.


“And even then you had to sit at the feet of this great master for many months before you felt as if you knew what you were doing?”


“Then why did you think you could become a banker and speculate in financial markets, without a day of training?”

“That’s a very good question,” he says. He thinks for a minute. “For the first time this evening I lack a word.” As I often think I know exactly what I am doing even when I don’t, I find myself oddly sympathetic.

“What, exactly, was your job?” I ask, to let him off the hook, catch and release being the current humane policy in Iceland.

“I started as a … “—now he begins to laugh—“an adviser to companies on currency risk hedging. But given my aggressive nature I went more and more into plain speculative trading.” Many of his clients were other fishermen, and fishing companies, and they, like him, had learned that if you don’t take risks you don’t catch the fish. “The clients were only interested in ‘hedging’ if it meant making money,” he says.

In retrospect, there are some obvious questions an Icelander living through the past five years might have asked himself. For example: Why should Iceland suddenly be so seemingly essential to global finance? Or: Why do giant countries that invented modern banking suddenly need Icelandic banks to stand between their depositors and their borrowers—to decide who gets capital and who does not? And: If Icelanders have this incredible natural gift for finance, how did they keep it so well hidden for 1,100 years? At the very least, in a place where everyone knows everyone else, or his sister, you might have thought that the moment Stefan Alfsson walked into Landsbanki 10 people would have said, “Stefan, you’re a fisherman!” But they didn’t. To a shocking degree, they still don’t. “If I went back to banking,” he says, with an entirely straight face, “I would be a private-banking guy.”

Back in 2001, as the Internet boom turned into a bust, M.I.T.’s Quarterly Journal of Economics published an intriguing paper called “Boys Will Be Boys: Gender, Overconfidence, and Common Stock Investment.” The authors, Brad Barber and Terrance Odean, gained access to the trading activity in over 35,000 households, and used it to compare the habits of men and women. What they found, in a nutshell, is that men not only trade more often than women but do so from a false faith in their own financial judgment. Single men traded less sensibly than married men, and married men traded less sensibly than single women: the less the female presence, the less rational the approach to trading in the markets.

One of the distinctive traits about Iceland’s disaster, and Wall Street’s, is how little women had to do with it. Women worked in the banks, but not in the risktaking jobs. As far as I can tell, during Iceland’s boom, there was just one woman in a senior position inside an Icelandic bank. Her name is Kristin Petursdottir, and by 2005 she had risen to become deputy C.E.O. for Kaupthing in London. “The financial culture is very male-dominated,” she says. “The culture is quite extreme. It is a pool of sharks. Women just despise the culture.” Petursdottir still enjoyed finance. She just didn’t like the way Icelandic men did it, and so, in 2006, she quit her job. “People said I was crazy,” she says, but she wanted to create a financial-services business run entirely by women. To bring, as she puts it, “more feminine values to the world of finance.”

Today her firm is, among other things, one of the very few profitable financial businesses left in Iceland. After the stock exchange collapsed, the money flooded in. A few days before we met, for instance, she heard banging on the front door early one morning and opened it to discover a little old man. “I’m so fed up with this whole system,” he said. “I just want some women to take care of my money.”

It was with that in mind that I walked, on my last afternoon in Iceland, into the Saga Museum. Its goal is to glorify the Sagas, the great 12th- and 13th-century Icelandic prose epics, but the effect of its life-size dioramas is more like modern reality TV. Not statues carved from silicon but actual ancient Icelanders, or actors posing as ancient Icelanders, as shrieks and bloodcurdling screams issue from the P.A. system: a Catholic bishop named Jon Arason having his head chopped off; a heretic named Sister Katrin being burned at the stake; a battle scene in which a blood-drenched Viking plunges his sword toward the heart of a prone enemy. The goal was verisimilitude, and to achieve it no expense was spared. Passing one tableau of blood and guts and moving on to the next, I caught myself glancing over my shoulder to make sure some Viking wasn’t following me with a battle-ax. The effect was so disorienting that when I reached the end and found a Japanese woman immobile and reading on a bench, I had to poke her on the shoulder to make sure she was real. This is the past Icelanders supposedly cherish: a history of conflict and heroism. Of seeing who is willing to bump into whom with the most force. There are plenty of women, but this is a men’s history.

When you borrow a lot of money to create a false prosperity, you import the future into the present. It isn’t the actual future so much as some grotesque silicon version of it. Leverage buys you a glimpse of a prosperity you haven’t really earned. The striking thing about the future the Icelandic male briefly imported was how much it resembled the past that he celebrates. I’m betting now they’ve seen their false future the Icelandic female will have a great deal more to say about the actual one.


Michael Lewis, Part 1

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The End

The era that defined Wall Street is finally, officially over. Michael Lewis, who chronicled its excess in Liar’s Poker, returns to his old haunt to figure out what went wrong.

Fallen bull statue in Wall Street

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

Most economists predict a recovery late next year. Don’t bet on it.
I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young pe ople like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

When I sat down to write my account of the experience in 1989—Liar’s Poker, it was called—it was in the spirit of a young man who thought he was getting out while the getting was good. I was merely scribbling down a message on my way out and stuffing it into a bottle for those who would pass through these parts in the far distant future.

Unless some insider got all of this down on paper, I figured, no future human would believe that it happened.

I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind. I expected readers of the future to be outraged that back in 1986, the C.E.O. of Salomon Brothers, John Gutfreund, was paid $3.1 million; I expected them to gape in horror when I reported that one of our traders, Howie Rubin, had moved to Merrill Lynch, where he lost $250 million; I assumed they’d be shocked to learn that a Wall Street C.E.O. had only the vaguest idea of the risks his traders were running. What I didn’t expect was that any future reader would look on m y experience and say, “How quaint.”

I had no great agenda, apart from telling what I took to be a remarkable tale, but if you got a few drinks in me and then asked what effect I thought my book would have on the world, I might have said something like, “I hope that college students trying to figure out what to do with their lives will read it and decide that it’s silly to phony it up and abandon their passions to become financiers.” I hoped that some bright kid at, say, Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Morgan Stanley, and set out to sea.

Somehow that message failed to come across. Six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.

In the two decades since then, I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?

At some point, I gave up waiting for the end. There was no scandal or reversal, I assumed, that could sink the system.

Then came Meredith Whitney with news. Whitney was an obscure analyst of financial firms for Oppenheimer Securities who, on October 31, 2007, cea sed to be obscure. On that day, she predicted that Citigroup had so mismanaged its affairs that it would need to slash its dividend or go bust. It’s never entirely clear on any given day what causes what in the stock market, but it was pretty obvious that on October 31, Meredith Whitney caused the market in financial stocks to crash. By the end of the trading day, a woman whom basically no one had ever heard of had shaved $369 billion off the value of financial firms in the market. Four days later, Citigroup’s C.E.O., Chuck Prince, resigned. In January, Citigroup slashed its dividend.

From that moment, Whitney became E.F. Hutton: When she spoke, people listened. Her message was clear. If you want to know what these Wall Street firms are really worth, take a hard look at the crappy assets they bought with huge sums of ­borrowed money, and imagine what they’d fetch in a fire sale. The vast assemblages of highly paid people inside the firms were essentially worth nothing. For better than a year now, Whitney has responded to the claims by bankers and brokers that they had put their problems behind them with this write-down or that capital raise with a claim of her own: You’re wrong. You’re still not facing up to how badly you have mismanaged your business.

Rivals accused Whitney of being overrated; bloggers accused her of being lucky. What she was, mainly, was right. But it’s true th at she was, in part, guessing. There was no way she could have known what was going to happen to these Wall Street firms. The C.E.O.’s themselves didn’t know.

Now, obviously, Meredith Whitney didn’t sink Wall Street. She just expressed most clearly and loudly a view that was, in retrospect, far more seditious to the financial order than, say, Eliot Spitzer’s campaign against Wall Street corruption. If mere scandal could have destroyed the big Wall Street investment banks, they’d have vanished long ago. This woman wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt. She was saying they were stupid. These people whose job it was to allocate capital apparently didn’t even know how to manage their own.

At some point, I could no longer contain myself: I called Whitney. This was back in March, when Wall Street’s fate still hung in the balance. I thought, If she’s right, then this really could be the end of Wall Street as we’ve known it. I was curious to see if she made sense but also to know where this young woman who was crashing the stock market with her every utterance had come from.

It turned out that she made a great deal of sense and that she’d arrived on Wall Street in 1993, from the Brown University history department. “I got to New York, and I didn’t even know research existed,” she says. She9 9d wound up at Oppenheimer and had the most incredible piece of luck: to be trained by a man who helped her establish not merely a career but a worldview. His name, she says, was Steve Eisman.

Eisman had moved on, but they kept in touch. “After I made the Citi call,” she says, “one of the best things that happened was when Steve called and told me how proud he was of me.”

Having never heard of Eisman, I didn’t think anything of this. But a few months later, I called Whitney again and asked her, as I was asking others, whom she knew who had anticipated the cataclysm and set themselves up to make a fortune from it. There’s a long list of people who now say they saw it coming all along but a far shorter one of people who actually did. Of those, even fewer had the nerve to bet on their vision. It’s not easy to stand apart from mass hysteria—to believe that most of what’s in the financial news is wrong or distorted, to believe that most important financial people are either lying or deluded—without actually being insane. A handful of people had been inside the black box, understood how it worked, and bet on it blowing up. Whitney rattled off a list with a half-dozen names on it. At the top was Steve Eisman.

Steve Eisman entered finance about the time I exited it . He’d grown up in New York City and gone to a Jewish day school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard Law School. In 1991, he was a 30-year-old corporate lawyer. “I hated it,” he says. “I hated being a lawyer. My parents worked as brokers at Oppenheimer. They managed to finagle me a job. It’s not pretty, but that’s what happened.”

He was hired as a junior equity analyst, a helpmate who didn’t actually offer his opinions. That changed in December 1991, less than a year into his new job, when a subprime mortgage lender called Ames Financial went public and no one at Oppenheimer particularly cared to express an opinion about it. One of Oppenheimer’s investment bankers stomped around the research department looking for anyone who knew anything about the mortgage business. Recalls Eisman: “I’m a junior analyst and just trying to figure out which end is up, but I told him that as a lawyer I’d worked on a deal for the Money Store.” He was promptly appointed the lead analyst for Ames Financial. “What I didn’t tell him was that my job had been to proofread the ­documents and that I hadn’t understood a word of the fucking things.”

Ames Financial belonged to a category of firms known as nonbank financial institutions. The category didn’t include J.P. Morgan, but it did encompass many little-known companies that one way or another were involved in the early-1990s boom in subprime mortgage lending—the lower class of American finance.

The second company for which Eisman was given sole responsibility was Lomas Financial, which had just emerged from bankruptcy. “I put a sell rating on the thing because it was a piece of shit,” Eisman says. “I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to put a sell rating on companies. I thought there were three boxes—buy, hold, sell—and you could pick the one you thought you should.” He was pressured generally to be a bit more upbeat, but upbeat wasn’t Steve Eisman’s style. Upbeat and Eisman didn’t occupy the same planet. A hedge fund manager who counts Eisman as a friend set out to explain him to me but quit a minute into it. After describing how Eisman exposed various important people as either liars or idiots, the hedge fund manager started to laugh. “He’s sort of a prick in a way, but he’s smart and honest and fearless.”

“A lot of people don’t get Steve,” Whitney says. “But the people who get him love him.” Eisman stuck to his sell rating on Lomas Financial, even after the company announced that investors needn’t worry about its financial condition, as it had hedged its market risk. “The single greatest line I ever wrote a s an analyst,” says Eisman, “was after Lomas said they were hedged.” He recited the line from memory: “ ‘The Lomas Financial Corp. is a perfectly hedged financial institution: It loses money in every conceivable interest-rate environment.’ I enjoyed writing that sentence more than any sentence I ever wrote.” A few months after he’d delivered that line in his report, Lomas Financial returned to bankruptcy.

Eisman wasn’t, in short, an analyst with a sunny disposition who expected the best of his fellow financial man and the companies he created. “Yo u have to understand,” Eisman says in his defense, “I did subprime first. I lived with the worst first. These guys lied to infinity. What I learned from that experience was that Wall Street didn’t give a shit what it sold.”

Harboring suspicions about ­people’s morals and telling investors that companies don’t deserve their capital wasn’t, in the 1990s or at any other time, the fast track to success on Wall Street. Eisman quit Oppenheimer in 2001 to work as an analyst at a hedge fund, but what he really wanted to do was run money. FrontPoint Partners, another hedge fund, hired him in 2004 to invest in financial stocks. Eisman’s brief was to evaluate Wall Street banks, homebuilders, mortgage originators, and any company (General Electric or General Motors, for instance) with a big financial-services division—anyone who touched American finance. An insurance company backed him with $50 million, a paltry sum. “Basically, we tried to raise money and didn't really do it,” Eisman says.

Instead of money, he attracted people whose worldviews were as shaded as his own—Vincent Daniel, for instance, who became a partner and an analyst in charge of the mortgage sector. Now 36, Daniel grew up a lower-middle-class kid in Queens. One of his first jobs, as a junior accountant at Arthur Andersen, was to audit Salomon Brothers’ books. “It was shocking,” he says. No one could explain to me what they were doing.” He left accounting in the middle of the internet boom to become a research analyst, looking at companies that made subprime loans. “I was the only guy I knew covering companies that were all going to go bust,” he says. “I saw how the sausage was made in the economy, and it was really freaky.”

Danny Moses, who became Eisman’s head trader, was another who shared his perspective. Raised in Georgia, Moses, the son of a finance professor, was a bit less fatalistic than Daniel or Eisman, but he nevertheless shared a general sense that bad things can and do happen. When a Wall Street firm helped him get into a trade that seemed perfect in every way, he said to the salesman, “I appreciate this, but I just want to know one thing: How are you going to screw me?”

Heh heh heh, c’mon. We’d never do that, the trader started to say, but Moses was politely 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 screw me. And the salesman explained how he was going to screw him. And Moses did the trade.

Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Daniel says. “Because he’ll say ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”

At the end of 2004, Eisman, Moses, and Daniel shared a sense that unhealthy things were going on in the U.S. housing market: Lots of firms were lending money to people who shouldn’t have been borrowing it. They thought Alan Greenspan’s decision after the internet bust to lower interest rates to 1 percent was a travesty that would lead to some terrible day of reckoning. Neither of these insights was entirely original. Ivy Zelman, at the time the housing-market analyst at Credit Suisse, had seen the bubble forming very early on. There’s a simple measure of sanity in housing prices: the ratio of median home price to income. Historically, it runs around 3 to 1; by late 2004, it had risen nationally to 4 to 1. “All these people were saying it was nearly as high in some other countries,” Zelman says. “But the problem wasn’t just that it was 4 to 1. In Los Angeles, it was 10 to 1, and in Miami, 8.5 to 1. And then you coupled that with the buyers. They weren’t real buyers. They were speculators.” Zelman alienated clients with her pessimism, but she couldn’t pretend everything was good. “It wasn’t that hard in hindsight to see it,” she says. “It was very hard to know when it would stop.” Zelman spoke occasionally with Eisman and always left these conversations feeling better about her views and worse about the world. “You needed the occasional assurance that you weren’t nuts,” she says. She wasn’t nuts. The world was.

By the spring of 2005, FrontPoint was fairly convinced that something was very screwed up not merely in a handful of companies but in the financial underpinnings of the entire U.S. mortgage market. In 2000, there had been $130 billion in subprime mortgage lending, with $55 billion of that repackaged as mortgage bonds. But in 2005, there was $625 billion in subprime mortgage loans, $507 billion of which found its way into mortgage bonds. Eisman couldn’t understand who was making all these loans or why. He had a from-the-ground-up understanding of both the U.S. housing market and Wall Street. But he’d spent his life in the stock market, and it was clear that the stock market was, in this story, largely irrelevant. “What most people don’t realize is that the fixed-income world dwarfs the equity world,” he says. “The equity world is like a fucking zit compared with the bond market.” He shorted companies that originated subprime loa ns, like New Century and Indy Mac, and companies that built the houses bought with the loans, such as Toll Brothers. Smart as these trades proved to be, they weren’t entirely satisfying. These companies paid high dividends, and their shares were often expensive to borrow; selling them short was a costly proposition.

Enter Greg Lippman, a mortgage-bond trader at Deutsche Bank. He arrived at FrontPoint bearing a 66-page presentation that described a better way for the fund to put its view of both Wall Street and the U.S. housing market into action. The smart trade, Lippman argued, was to sell short not New Century’s stock but its bonds that were backed by the subprime loans it had made. Eisman hadn’t known this was even possible—because until recently, it hadn’t been. But Lippman, along with traders at other Wall Street investment banks, had created a way to short the subprime bond market with precision.

Here’s where financial technology became suddenly, urgently relevant. The typical mortgage bond was still structured in much the same way it had been when I worked at Salomon Brothers. The loans went into a trust that was designed to pay off its investors not all at once but according to their rankings. The investors in the top tranche, rated AAA, received the first payment from the trust and, because their investment was the least risky, received the lowest interest rate on their money. The investors who held the trusts’ BBB tranche got the last payments—and bore the brunt of the first defaults. Because they were taking the most risk, they received the highest return. Eisman wanted to bet that some subprime borrowers would default, causing the trust to suffer losses. The way to express this view was to short the BBB tranche. The trouble was that the BBB tranche was only a tiny slice of the deal.

But the scarcity of truly crappy subprime-mort gage bonds no longer mattered. The big Wall Street firms had just made it possible to short even the tiniest and most obscure subprime-mortgage-backed bond by creating, in effect, a market of side bets. Instead of shorting the actual BBB bond, you could now enter into an agreement for a credit-default swap with Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs. It cost money to make this side bet, but nothing like what it cost to short the stocks, and the upside was far greater.

The arrangement bore the same relation to actual finance as fantasy football bears to the N.F.L. Eisman was perplexed in particular about why Wall Street firms would be coming to him and asking him to sell short. “What Lippman did, to his credit, was he came around several times to me and said, ‘Short this market,’ ” Eisman says. “In my entire life, I never saw a sell-side guy come in and say, ‘Short my market.’”

And short Eisman did—then he tried to get his mind around what he’d just done so he could do it better. He’d call over to a big firm and ask for a list of mortgage bonds from all over the country. The juiciest shorts—the bonds ultimately backed by the mortgages most likely to default—had several characteristics. They’d be in what Wall Street people were now calling the sand states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada. The loans would have been made by one of the more dubious mortgage lenders; Long Beach Financial, wholly owned by Washington Mutual, was a great example. Long Beach Financial was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking home­owners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.

More generally, the subprime market tapped a tranche of the American public that did not typically have anything to do with Wall Street. Lenders were making loans to people who, based on their credit ratings, were less creditworthy than 71 percent of the population. Eisman knew some of these people. One day, his housekeeper, a South American woman, told him that she was planning to buy a townhouse in Queens. “The price was absurd, and they were giving her a low-down-payment option-ARM,” says Eisman, who talked her into taking out a conventional fixed-rate mortgage. Next, the baby nurse he’d hired back in 1997 to take care of his newborn twin daughters phoned him. “She was this lovely woman from Jamaica,” he says. “One day she calls me and says she and her sister own five townhouses in Queens. I said, ‘How did that happen?’ ” It happened because after they bought th e first one and its value rose, the lenders came and suggested they refinance and take out $250,000, which they used to buy another one. Then the price of that one rose too, and they repeated the experiment. “By the time they were done,” Eisman says, “they owned five of them, the market was falling, and they couldn’t make any of the payments.”

In retrospect, pretty much all of the riskiest subprime-backed bonds were worth betting against; they would all one day be worth zero. But at the time Eisman began to do it, in the fall of 2006, that wasn’t clear. He and his team set out to find the smelliest pile of loans they could so that they could make side bets against them with Goldman Sachs or Deutsche Bank. What they were doing, oddly enough, was the analysis of subprime lending that should have been done before the loans were made: Which poor Americans were likely to jump which way with their finances? How much did home prices need to fall for these loans to blow up? (It turned out they didn’t have to fall; they merely needed to stay flat.) The default rate in Georgia was five times higher than that in Florida even though the two states had the same unemployment rate. Why? Indiana had a 25 percent default rate; California’s was only 5 percent. Why?

Most economists predict a recovery late next year. Don’t bet on it.
Moses actually flew down to Miami and wandered around neighborhoods built with subprime loans to see how bad things were. “He’d call me and say, ‘Oh my God, this is a calamity here,’ ” recalls Eisman. All that was required for the BBB bonds to go to zero was for the default rate on the underlying loans to reach 14 percent. Eisman thought that, in certain sections of the country, i t would go far, far higher.

The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

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.

A full nine months earlier, Daniel and ­Moses had flown to Orlando for an industry conference. It had a grand title—the American Securitizati on Forum—but it was essentially a trade show for the ­subprime-mortgage business: the people who originated subprime mortgages, the Wall Street firms that packaged and sold subprime mortgages, the fund managers who invested in nothing but subprime-mortgage-backed bonds, the agencies that rated subprime-­mortgage bonds, the lawyers who did whatever the lawyers did. Daniel and Moses thought they were paying a courtesy call on a cottage industry, but the cottage had become a castle. “There were like 6,000 people there,” Daniel says. “There were so many people being fed by this industry. The entire fixed-income department of each brokerage firm is built on this. Everyone there was the long side of the trade. The wrong side of the trade. And then there was us. That’s when the picture really started to become clearer, and we started to get more cynical, if that was possible. We went back home and said to Steve, ‘You gotta see this.’ ”

Eisman, Daniel, and Moses then flew out to Las Vegas for an even bigger subprime conference. By now, Eisman knew everything he needed to know about the quality of the loans being made. He still didn’t fully understand how the apparatus worked, but he knew that Wall Street had built a doomsday machine. He was at once opportunistic and outraged.

Their first stop was a speech given by the C.E.O. of Option One, the mortgage originator owned by H&R Block. When the guy got to the part of his speech about Option One’s subprime-loan portfolio, he claimed to be expecting a modest default rate of 5 percent. Eisman raised his hand. Moses and Daniel sank into their chairs. “It wasn’t a Q&A,” says Moses. “The guy was giving a speech. He sees Steve’s hand and says, ‘Yes?’”

“Would you say that 5 percent is a probability or a possibility?” Eisman asked.

A probability, said the C.E.O., and he continued his speech.

Eisman had his hand up in the air again, waving it around. Oh, no, Moses thought. “The one thing Steve always says,” Daniel explains, “is you must assume they are lying to you. They will always lie to you.” Moses and Daniel both knew what Eisman thought of these subprime lenders but didn’t see the need for him to express it here in this manner. For Eisman wasn’t raising his hand to ask a question. He had his thumb and index finger in a big circle. He was using his fingers to speak on his behalf. Zero! they said.

“Yes?” the C.E.O. said, obviously irritated. “Is that another question?”

“No,” said Eisman. “It’s a zero. There is zero probability that your default rate will be 5 percent.” The losses on subprime loans would be much, much greater. Before the guy could reply, Eisman’s cell phone rang. Instead of shutting it off, Eisman reached into his pocket and answered it. “Excuse me,” he said, standing up. “But I need to take this call.” And with that, he walked out.

Eisman’s willingness to be abrasive in order to get to the heart of the matter was obvious to all; what was harder to see was his credulity: He actually wanted to believe in the system. As quic k as he was to cry bullshit when he saw it, he was still shocked by bad behavior. That night in Vegas, he was seated at dinner beside a really nice guy who invested in mortgage C.D.O.’s—collateralized debt obligations. By then, Eisman thought he knew what he needed to know about C.D.O.’s. He didn’t, it turned out.

Later, when I sit down with Eisman, the very first thing he wants to explain is the importance of the mezzanine C.D.O. What you notice first about Eisman is his lips. He holds them pursed, waiting to speak. The second thing you notice is his short, light hair, cropped in a manner that suggests he cut it himself while thinking about something else. “You have to understand this,” he says. “This was the engine of doom.” Then he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a “particularly egregious” C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies0who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. “I cannot fucking believe this is allowed—I must have said that a thousand times in the past two years,” Eisman says.

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.”

After taking a fee, he passed them on to other investors. His job was to be the C.D.O. “expert,” but he actually didn’t spend any time at all thinking about what was in the C.D.O.’s. “He managed the C.D.O.’s,” says Eisman, “but managed what? I was just appalled. People would pay up to have someone manage their C.D.O.’s—as if this moron was helping you. I thought, You prick, you don’t give a fuck about the investors in this thing.”

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.’ ”

That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them. Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. “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 are so much greater than the loans. But that’s when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”

This particular dinner was hosted by Deutsche Bank, whose head trader, Greg Lippman, was the fellow who had introduced Eisman to the subprime bond market. Eisman went and found Lippman, pointed back to his own dinner companion, and said, “I want to short him.” Lippman thought he was joking; he wasn’t. “Greg, I want to short his paper,” Eisman repeated. “Sight unseen.”

Eisman started out running a $60 million equity fund but was now short around $600 million of various ­subprime-related securities. In the spring of 2007, the market strengthened. But, says Eisman, “credit quality always gets better in March and April. And the reason it always gets better in March and April is that people get their tax refunds. You would think people in the securitization world would know this. We just thought that was moronic.”

He was already short the stocks of mortgage originators and the homebuilders. Now he took short positions in the rating agencies—“they were making 10 times more rating C.D.O.’s than they were rating G.M. bonds, and it was all going to end”—and, finally, the biggest Wall Street firms because of their exposure to C.D.O.’s. He wasn’t allowed to short Morgan Stanley because it owned a stake in his fund. But he shorted UBS, Lehman Brothers, and a few others. Not long after that, FrontPoint had a visit from Sanford C. Bernstein’s Brad Hintz, a prominent analyst who covered Wall Street firms. Hintz wanted to know what Eisman was up to. “We just shorted Merrill Lynch,” Eisman told him.

“Why?” asked Hintz.

“We have a simple thesis,” Eisman explained. “There is going to be a calamity, and whenever there is a calamity, Merrill is there.” When it came time to bankrupt Orange County with bad advice, Merrill was there. When the internet went bust, Merrill was there. Way back in the 1980s, when the first bond trader was let off his leash and lost hundreds of millions of dollars, Merrill was there to take the hit. That was Eisman’s logic—the logic of Wall Street’s pecking order. Goldman Sachs was the big kid who ran the games in this neighborhood. Merrill Lynch was the little fat kid assigned the least pleasant roles, just happy to be a part of things. The game, as Eisman saw it, was Crack the Whip. He assumed Merrill Lynch had taken its assigned place at the end of the chain.

There was only one thing that bothered Eisman, and it continued to trouble him as late as May 2007. “The thing we couldn’t figure out is: It’s so obvious. Why hasn’t everyone else figured out that the machine is done?” Eisman had long subscribed to Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, a newsletter famous in Wall Street circles and obscure outside them. Jim Grant, its editor, had been prophesying doom ever since the great debt cycle began, in the mid-1980s. In late 2006, he decided to investigate these things called C.D.O.’s. Or rather, he had asked his young assistant, Dan Gertner, a chemical engineer with an M.B.A., to see if he could understand them. Gertner went off with the documents that purported to explain C.D.O.’s to potential investors and for several days sweated and groaned and heaved and suffered. “Then he came back,” says Grant, “and said, ‘I can’t figure this thing out.’ And I said, ‘I think we have our story.’ ”

Eisman read Grant’s piece as independent confirmation of what he knew in his bones about the C.D.O.’s he had shorted. “When I read it, I thought, Oh my God. This is like owning a gold mine. When I read that, I was the only guy in the equity world who almost had an orgasm.”

On July 19, 2007, the same day that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the U.S. Senate that he anticipated as much as $100 billion in losses in the subprime-mortgage market, FrontPoint did something unusual: It hosted its own conference call. It had had calls with its tiny population of investors, but this time FrontPoint opened it up. Steve Eisman had become a poorly kept secret. Five hundred people called in to hear what he had to say, and another 500 logged on afterward to listen to a recording of it. He explained the strange alchemy of the C.D.O. and said that he expected losses of up to $300 billion from this sliver of the market alone. To evaluate the situation, he urged his audience to “just throw your model in the garbage can. The models are all backward-looking.

The models don’t have any idea of what this world has become…. For the first time in their lives, people in the asset-backed-securitization world are actually having to think.” He explained that the rating agencies were morally bankrupt and living in fear of becoming actually bankrupt. “The rating agencies are scare d to death,” he said. “They’re scared to death about doing nothing because they’ll look like fools if they do nothing.”

On September 18, 2008, Danny Moses came to work as usual at 6:30 a.m. Earlier that week, Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy. The day before, the Dow had fallen 449 points to its lowest level in four years. Overnight, European governments announced a ban on short-selling, but that served as faint warning for what happened next.

At the market opening in the U.S., everything—every financial asset—went into free fall. “All hell was breaking loose in a way I had never seen in my career,” Moses says. FrontPoint was net short the market, so this total collapse should have given Moses pleasure. He might have been forgiven if he stood up and cheered. After all, he’d been betting for two years that this sort of thing could happen, and now it was, more dramatically than he had ever imagined. Instead, he felt this terrifying shudder run through him. He had maybe 100 trades on, and he worked hard to keep a handle on them all. “I spent my morning trying to control all this energy and all this information,” he says, “and I lost control. I looked at the screens. I was staring into the abyss. The end. I felt this shooting pain in my head. I don’t get headaches. At first, I thought I was having an aneurysm.” Moses stood up, wobbled, then turned to Daniel and said, “I gotta leave. Get out of here. Now.” Daniel thought about calling an ambulance but instead took Moses out for a walk.

Outside it was gorgeous, the blue sky reaching down through the tall buildings and warming the soul. Eisman was at a Goldman Sachs conference for hedge fund managers, raising capital. Moses and Daniel got him on the phone, and he left the conference and met them on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We just sat there,” Moses says. “Watching the people pass.”

This was what they had been waiting for: total collapse. “The investment-banking industry is fucked,” Eisman had told me a few weeks earlier. “These guys are only beginning to understand how fucked they are. It’s like being a Scholastic, prior to Newton. Newton comes along, and one morning you wake up: ‘Holy shit, I’m wrong!’ ” Now Lehman Brothers had vanished, Merrill had surrendered, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were just a week away from ceasing to be investment banks. The investment banks were not just fucked; they were extinct.

Not so for hedge fund managers who had seen it coming. “As we sat there, we were weirdly calm,” Moses says. “We felt insulated from the whole market reality. It was an out-of-body experie nce. We just sat and watched the people pass and talked about what might happen next. How many of these people were going to lose their jobs. Who was going to rent these buildings after all the Wall Street firms collapsed.” Eisman was appalled. “Look,” he said. “I’m short. I don’t want the country to go into a depression. I just want it to fucking deleverage.” He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. “That Wall Street has gone down because of this is justice,” he says. “They fucked people. They 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.”

Truth to tell, there wasn’t a whole lot of hand-wringing inside FrontPoint either. The only one among them who wrestled a bit with his conscience was Daniel. “Vinny, being from Queens, needs to see the dark side of everything,” Eisman says. To which Daniel replies, “The way we thought about it was, ‘By shorting this market we’re creating the liquidity to keep the market going.’ ”

“It was like feeding the monster,” Eisman says of the market for subprime bonds. “We fed the monster until it blew up.”

About the time they were sitting on the steps of the midtown cathedral, I sat in a booth in a restaurant on the East Side, waiting for John Gutfreund to arrive for lunch, and wondered, among other things, why any restaurant would seat side by side two men without the slightest interest in touching each other.

There was an umbilical cord running from the belly of the exploded beast back to the financial 1980s. A friend of mine created the first mortgage derivative in 1986, a year after we left the Salomon Brothers trading program. (“The problem isn’t the tools,” he likes to say. “It’s who is using the tools. Derivatives are like guns.”)

When I published my book, the 1980s were supposed to be ending. I received a lot of undeserved credit for my timing. The social disruption caused by the collapse of the savings-and-loan industry and the rise of hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts had given way to a brief period of recriminations. Just as most students at Ohio State read Liar’s Poker as a manual, most TV and radio interviewers regarded me as a whistleblower. (The big exception was Geraldo Rivera. He put me on a show called “People Who Succeed Too Early in Life” along with some child actors who’d gone on to become drug addicts.) Anti-Wall Street feeling ran high—high enough for Rudy Giuliani to float a political career on it—but the result felt more like a witch hunt than an honest reappraisal of the financial order. The public lynchings of Gutfreund and junk-bond king Michael Milken were excuses not to deal with the disturbing forces underpinning their rise. Ditto the cleaning up of Wall Street’s trading culture. The surface rippled, but down below, in the depths, the bonus pool remained undisturbed. Wall Street firms would soon be frowning upon profanity, firing traders for so much as glancing at a stripper, and forcing male employees to treat women almost as equals. Lehman Brothers circa 2008 more closely resembled a normal corporation with solid American values than did any Wall Street firm circa 1985.

The changes were camouflage. They helped distract outsiders from the truly profane event: the growing misalignment of interests between the people who trafficked in financial risk and the wider culture.

I’d not seen Gutfreund since I quit Wall Street. I’d met him, nervously, a couple of times on the trading floor. A few months before I left, my bosses asked me to explain to Gutfreund what at the time seemed like exotic trades in derivatives I’d done with a European hedge fund. I tried. He claimed not to be smart enough to understand any of it, and I assumed that was how a Wall Street C.E.O. showed he was the boss, by rising above the details. There was no reason for him to remember any of these encounters, and he didn’t: When my book came out and became a public-relations nuisance to him, he told reporters we’d never met.

Over the years, I’d heard bits and pieces about Gutfreund. I knew that after he’d been forced to resign from Salomon Brothers he’d fallen on harder times. I heard later that a few years ago he’d sat on a panel about Wall Street at Columbia Business School. When his turn came to speak, he advised students to find something more meaningful to do with their lives. As he began to describe his care er, he broke down and wept.

When I emailed him to invite him to lunch, he could not have been more polite or more gracious. That attitude persisted as he was escorted to the table, made chitchat with the owner, and ordered his food. He’d lost a half-step and was more deliberate in his movements, but otherwise he was completely recognizable. The same veneer of denatured courtliness masked the same animal need to see the world as it was, rather than as it should be.

We spent 20 minutes or so determining that our presence at the same lunch table was not going to cause the earth to explode. We discovered we had a mutual acquaintance in New Orleans. We agreed that the Wall Street C.E.O. had no real ability to keep track of the frantic innovation occurring inside his firm. (“I didn’t understand all the product lines, and they don’t either,” he said.) We agreed, further, that the chief of the Wall Street investment bank had little control over his subordinates. (“They’re buttering you up and then doing whatever the fuck they want to do.”) He thought the cause of the financial crisis was “simple. Greed on both sides—greed of investors and the greed of the bankers.” I thought it was more complicated. Greed on Wall Street was a given—almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed.

But I didn’t argue with him. For just as you revert to being about nine years old when you visit your parents, you revert to total subordination when you are in the presence of your former C.E.O. John Gutfreund was still the King of Wall Street, and I was still a geek. He spoke in declarative statements; I spoke in questions.

But as he spoke, my eyes kept drifting to his hands. His alarmingly thick and meaty hands. They weren’t the hands of a soft Wall Street banker but of a boxer. I looked up. The boxer was smiling—though it was less a smile than a placeholder expression. And he was saying, very deliberately, “Your…fucking…book.”

I smiled back, though it wasn’t quite a smile.

“Your fucking book destroyed my career, and it made yours,” he said.

I didn’t think of it that way and said so, sort of.

“Why did you ask me to lunch?” he asked, though pleasantly. He was genuinely curious.

You can’t really tell someone that you asked him to lunch to let him know that you don’t think of him as evil. Nor can you tell him that you asked him to lunch because you thought that you could trace the biggest f inancial crisis in the history of the world back to a decision he had made. John Gutfreund did violence to the Wall Street social order—and got himself dubbed the King of Wall Street—when he turned Salomon Brothers from a private partnership into Wall Street’s first public corporation. He ignored the outrage of Salomon’s retired partners. (“I was disgusted by his materialism,” William Salomon, the son of the firm’s founder, who had made Gutfreund C.E.O. only after he’d promised never to sell the firm, had told me.) He lifted a giant middle finger at the moral disapproval of his fellow Wall Street C.E.O.’s. And he seized the day. He and the other partners not only made a quick killing; they transferred the ultimate financial risk from themselves to their shareholders. It didn’t, in the end, make a great deal of sense for the shareholders. (A share of Salomon Brothers purchased when I arrived on the trading floor, in 1986, at a then market price of $42, would be worth 2.26 shares of Citigroup today—market value: $27.) But it made fantastic sense for the investment bankers.

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 a s 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.

No partnership, for that matter, would have hired me or anyone remotely like me. Was there ever any correlation between the ability to get in and out of Princeton and a talent for taking financial risk?

Now I asked Gutfreund about his biggest decision. “Yes,” he said. “They—the heads of the other Wall Street firms—all said what an awful thing it was to go public and how could you do such a thing. But when the temptation arose, they all gave in to it.” He agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. “When things go wrong, it’s their problem,” he said—and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. “It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit,” he said, with a20half chuckle. He was out of the game.

It was now all someone else’s fault.

He watched me curiously as I scribbled down his words. “What’s this for?” he asked.

I told him I thought it might be worth revisiting the world I’d described in Liar’s Poker, now that it was finally dying. Maybe bring out a 20th-anniversary edition.

“That’s nauseating,” he said.

Hard as it was for him to enjoy my company, it was harder for me not to enjoy his. He was still tough, as straight and blunt as a butcher. He’d helped create a monster, but he still had in him a lot of the old Wall Street, where people said things like “A man’s word is his bond.” On that Wall Street, people didn’t walk out of their firms and cause trouble for their former bosses by writing books about them. “No,” he said, “I think we can agree about this: Your fucking book destroyed my career, and it made yours.” With that, the former king of a former Wall Street lifted the plate that held his appetizer and asked sweetly, “Would you like a deviled egg?”

Until that moment, I hadn’t paid much att ention to what he’d been eating. Now I saw he’d ordered the best thing in the house, this gorgeous frothy confection of an earlier age. Who ever dreamed up the deviled egg? Who knew that a simple egg could be made so complicated and yet so appealing? I reached over and took one. Something for nothing. It never loses its charm.


Civilization's Last Call