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Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe

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  • Posted January 9, 2010

    Much better than other books on the banking crash

    I was too hard on this book when I first read it. Then I got ahold of "House of Cards" (Cohan) and "A Colossal Failure Of Common Sense" (McDonald/Robinson). The latter two books are "who said what when" sort of affairs. They make almost no attempt to describe the financial instruments that helped precipitate the crash. In contrast, Ms. Tett makes a very determined effort to get across some basic facts about CDOs, default swaps, and the like.

    I'd like to give the book a much higher rating, except that I have a feeling that it is not balanced or complete. Certainly, the group at J. P. Morgan, introduced in the first chapter, get kid-glove treatment. The prose is nearly worshipful. Less certainly, it is hard to understand how the system could work if it really was structured as described.

    Starting on page 52 there is a critical description of how bundles of debt-swaps (a kind of insurance against financial risk) could be bundled into high, medium and low risk "tranches". People who bought the high risk bundles were paid higher returns. About ten pages later, a major problem is described with tranches that are so free from risk that they have no meaningful returns. They are called "super senior" because of this perceived freedom from risk. The insurance firm AIG agreed to cover these non-risks for a "paltry return" of about 0.02 cents for every dollar of risk insured. As the story evolves, this putatively risk free tranch becomes a gigantic problem.

    This begs to be explained, but it is not. My suspicion (I'm not an investment banker) is that there really was risk associated with these super-senior default swaps, and that when first written these swaps had reasonable income. By bundling many swaps together, the bankers got a chance to move (you might say "steal") the income from the low risk tranches and into high risk tranches. How else could you get bundles that paid paid the banks such big fees and paid the purchasers big double-digit returns? Obviously I'm just guessing, but it demonstrates why I'm not fully happy with the book.

    Note: my description of these financial packages is pretty rough - the book is far more clear and certainly more authoritative.

    Bottom line: this is the best book that I know of about the mechanisms that set up the current financial crisis. It is not fully persuasive, but it is vastly more informative than the other books that I've seen. I really wish that Frank Partnoy ("Infectious Greed") would write a book on the subject.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 11, 2009

    How did they survive that??

    Reading the complete title, one might have thought this was another book revealing more of the skeletons in Wall Street, and flaying some of the players responsible for the debacle. But Ms. Tett is quite kind to the JP Morgan geniuses who invented the CDOs; in fact, the book later sounds like an apologetic for the special culture that pervades this august banking name. One wonders how the bank could have survived the mudslinging that followed the demise of the other big names. Maybe it does have a different culture than the rest of the greedy pack. The bankers they send off to their operations in emerging markets exhibit some of the arrogance of big New York bankers. (Is that just Wall Street? Or is that quintessentially American?) Gillian Tett weaves a good, logical and more or less balanced story; it continues to build on JP Morgan's long and reputable history. One hopes their survival doesn't make their culture even more self-righteous and cocky.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 26, 2011

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    Posted December 16, 2009

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    Posted March 2, 2011

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    Posted January 5, 2012

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