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

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

3.8 46
by Patrick Robinson

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One of the biggest questions of the financial crisis has not been answered until now.  What happened at Lehman Brothers and why was it allowed to fail, with aftershocks that rocked the global economy? In this news-making, often astonishing book, a former Lehman Brothers Vice President gives us the straight answers—right from the belly of the beast.



One of the biggest questions of the financial crisis has not been answered until now.  What happened at Lehman Brothers and why was it allowed to fail, with aftershocks that rocked the global economy? In this news-making, often astonishing book, a former Lehman Brothers Vice President gives us the straight answers—right from the belly of the beast.

In A Colossal Failure of Common Sense, Larry McDonald, a Wall Street insider, reveals, the culture and unspoken rules of the game like no book has ever done. The book is couched in the very human story of Larry McDonald’s Horatio Alger-like rise from a Massachusetts “gateway to nowhere” housing project to the New York headquarters of Lehman Brothers, home of one of the world’s toughest trading floors.
We get a close-up view of the participants in the Lehman collapse, especially those who saw it coming with a helpless, angry certainty. We meet the Brahmins at the top, whose reckless, pedal-to-the-floor addiction to growth finally demolished the nation’s oldest investment bank. The Wall Street we encounter here is a ruthless place, where brilliance, arrogance, ambition, greed, capacity for relentless toil, and other human traits combine in a potent mix that sometimes fuels prosperity but occasionally destroys it.
The full significance of the dissolution of Lehman Brothers remains to be measured. But this much is certain: it was a devastating blow to America’s—and the world’s—financial system. And it need not have happened. This is the story of why it did.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“...gives the readers a visceral sense of what it was like to work at Lehman Brothers and the fateful decisions and events that led to the company’s death spiral...”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Highly readable…A Colossal Failure of Common Sense largely rings true. It expresses the anger that many former Lehman employees still feel toward Mr. Fuld. And it convincingly characterizes the investment bank as a house divided against itself, between the bears who had foreseen bubbles and the bulls who wrongly believed that this time was different.”
—The Economist

“... describes a CEO ­acting as if his firm was too big to fail.”
—Wall Street Journal

“...poignantly told...from an insider [who] witnessed, often in amazement and disgust, the corporate dysfunction and hubristic leadership that led to [Lehman’s] demise.”

“...engaging and even funny.”

From the Hardcover edition.

"Armageddon happens. The world freezes. But why were the shockwaves so devastating? How did Wall Street become so involved with this madness? Why did a home loan in an asparagus field outside San Francisco bring down Lehman Brothers and put Bank of America on life support? How did Lehman's bankruptcy obliterate hedge funds around the world? What was the connection? What really happened at Lehman?" In A Colossal Failure of Common Sense, former Lehman vice president Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson, the coauthor of Lone Survivor, expose the largely untold story of the collapse of the behemoth global financial service firm. With its insider's perspective, clear, powerful prose, and biting analysis, this book earns comparisons with classics like House of Cards.
Michiko Kakutani
Mr. McDonald's book gives the reader a visceral sense of what it was like to work at Lehman Brothers and the fateful decisions and events that led to the company's death spiral—decisions that turned the once-proud firm into a grim illustration, in the words of one of the author's colleagues, of the "colossal failure of common sense."
—The New York Times

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Read an Excerpt

I still live just a few city blocks away from the old Lehman Brothers headquarters at 745 Seventh Avenue—six blocks, and about ten thousand years. I still walk past it two or three times a week, and each time I try to look forward, south toward Wall Street. And I always resolve to keep walking, glancing neither left nor right, locking out the memories. But I always stop.
And I see again the light blue livery of Barclays Capital, which represents—for me, at least—the flag of an impostor, a pale substitute for the swashbuckling banner that for 158 years was slashed above the entrance to the greatest merchant bank Wall Street ever knew:
Lehman Brothers.
It was only the fourth largest. But its traditions were those of a banking warrior—the brilliant finance house that had backed, encouraged,
and made possible the retail giants Gimbel Brothers, F. W.
Woolworth, and Macy’s, and the airlines American, National, TWA,
and Pan American. They raised the capital for Campbell Soup Company,
the Jewel Tea Company, B. F. Goodrich. And they backed the birth of television at RCA, plus the Hollywood studios RKO, Paramount,
and 20th Century Fox. They found the money for the Trans-
Canada oil pipeline.
I suppose, in a sense, I had seen only its demise, the four-year death rattle of twenty-first-century finance, which ended on September
15, 2008. Yet in my mind, I remember the great days. And as I
come to a halt outside the building, I know too that in the next few moments I will be engulfed by sadness. But I always stop.
And I always stare up at the third floor, where once I worked as a trader on one of the toughest trading floors on earth. And then I find myself counting all the way up to thirty-one, the floor where it all went so catastrophically wrong, the floor that housed the royal court of King
Richard. That’s Richard S. Fuld, chairman and CEO.
Swamped by nostalgia, edged as we all are by a lingering anger,
and still plagued by unanswerable questions, I stand and stare upward,
sorrowful beyond reason, and trapped by the twin words of those possessed of flawless hindsight: if only.
Sometimes I lie awake at night trying to place all the if-onlys in some kind of order. Sometimes the order changes, and sometimes there is a new leader, one single aspect of the Lehman collapse that stands out above all others. But it’s never clear. Except when I stand right here and look up at the great glass fortress which once housed
Lehman, and focus on that thirty-first floor. Then it’s clear. Boy, is it ever clear. And the phrase if only slams into my brain.
If only they had listened—Dick Fuld and his president, Joe Gregory.
Three times they were hit with the irredeemable logic of three of the cleverest financial brains on Wall Street—those of Mike Gelband,
our global head of fixed income, Alex Kirk, global head of distressed trading research and sales, and Larry McCarthy, head of distressed-
bond trading.
Each and every one of them laid it out, from way back in 2005,
that the real estate market was living on borrowed time and that
Lehman Brothers was headed directly for the biggest subprime iceberg ever seen, and with the wrong men on the bridge. Dick and Joe turned their backs all three times. It was probably the worst triple since St. Peter denied Christ.
Beyond that, there were six more if-onlys, each one as cringemakingly awful as the last.
If only Chairman Fuld had kept his ear close to the ground on the inner workings of his firm—both its triumphs and its mistakes. If he had listened to his generals, met people who formed the heart and soul of Lehman Brothers, the catastrophe might have been avoided.
But instead of this, he secluded himself in his palatial offices up there on the thirty-first floor, remote from the action, dreaming only of accelerating growth, nursing ambitions far removed from reality.
If only the secret coup against Fuld and Gregory had taken place months before that clandestine meeting in June 2008. If the eleven managing directors who sat in ostensibly treasonous but ultimately loyal comradeship that night had acted sooner and removed the Lehman leaders, they might have steadied the ship, changing its course.
If only the reign of terror that drove out the most brilliant of
Lehman’s traders and risk takers had been halted earlier, perhaps in the name of common sense. The top managers might have marshaled their forces immediately when they saw giants such as Mike Gelband being ignored.
If only Dick Fuld had kept his anger, resentment, and rudeness under control. Especially at that private dinner in the spring of 2008
with Hank Paulson, secretary of the United States Treasury. That was when Fuld’s years of smoldering envy of Goldman Sachs came cascading to the surface and caused Paulson to leave furious that the
Lehman boss had disrespected the office he held. Perhaps that was the moment Hank decided he could not bring himself to bail out the bank controlled by Richard S. Fuld.
If only President George W. Bush had taken the final, desperate call from Fuld’s office, a call made by his own cousin, George Walker
IV, in the night hours before the bank filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
It might have made a difference.
If only . . . if only. Those two words haunt my dreams. I go back to the fall of Lehman, and what might have made things different. For most people, victims or not of this worldwide collapse of the financial markets, it will be, in time, just water over the dam. But it will never be that for me, and my long background as a trader and researcher has prompted me many times to burrow down further to the bedrock, the cause of the crash of 2008. I refer to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall
Act in 1999.
If only President Clinton had never signed the bill repealing
Glass-Steagall. Personally, I never thought he much wanted to sign it,
but to understand the ramifications it is necessary to delve deeper, and before I begin my story, I will present you with some critical background information, without which your grasp might be incomplete.
It’s a ten-minute meadow of wisdom and hindsight, the sort of thing I
tend to specialize in.
The story begins in the heady, formative years of the Clinton presidency on a rose-colored quest to change the world, to help the poor, and ended in the poisonous heartland of world financial disaster.
Roberta Achtenberg, the daughter of a Russian-born owner of a
Los Angeles neighborhood grocery store, was plucked by President
Clinton from relative obscurity in 1993 and elevated to the position of assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Roberta and Bill were united in their desire to increase home ownership in poor and minority communities.
And despite a barrage of objections led by Senator Jesse Helms,
who referred to Achtenberg as that “damn lesbian,” the lady took up her appointment in the new administration, citing innate racism as one of the main reasons why banks were reluctant to lend to those without funds.
In the ensuing couple of years, Roberta Achtenberg harnessed all of the formidable energy on the massed ranks of United States bankers, sometimes threatening, sometimes berating, sometimes bullying—anything to persuade the banks to provide mortgages to people who might not have been up to the challenge of coping with up-
front down payments and regular monthly payments.
Between 1993 and 1999, more than two million such clients became new homeowners. In her two-year tenure as assistant secretary,
she set up a national grid of offices staffed by attorneys and investigators.
Their principal aim was to enforce the laws against the banks, the laws that dealt with discrimination. Some of the fines leveled at banks ran into the millions, to drive home Achtenberg’s avowed intent to utilize the law to change the ethos of providing mortgage money in the
United States of America.
Banks were compelled to jump into line, and soon they were making thousands of loans without any cash-down deposits whatsoever,
an unprecedented situation. Mortgage officers inside the banks were forced to bend or break their own rules in order to achieve a good
Community Reinvestment Act rating, which would please the administration by demonstrating generosity to underprivileged borrowers even if they might default. Easy mortgages were the invention of Bill
Clinton’s Democrats.
However, there was, in the mid- to late 1990s, one enormous advantage:
amid general prosperity, the housing market was strong and prices were rising steadily. At that point in time, mortgage defaults were relatively few in number and the securitization of mortgages, which had such disastrous consequences during the financial crisis that began in 2007, barely existed.
Nonetheless, there were many beady-eyed financiers who looked askance at this new morality and privately yearned for the days when bank policies were strictly conservative, when credit was flatly denied to anyone without the proven ability to repay.
And at the center of this seething disquiet, somewhere between the persuasive silken-tongued members of the banking lobby and the missionary zeal of Roberta Achtenberg, stood William J. Clinton,
whose heart, not for the first time, may have been ruling his head.
He understood full well the goodwill he had engendered in the new home-owning black and Hispanic communities. But he could not fail to heed the very senior voices of warning that whispered, There may be trouble ahead.
President Clinton wanted to stay focused with the concerns of the bankers, many of whom were seriously upset by Achtenberg’s pressure to provide shaky mortgages. And right before the president’s eyes there was a related situation, one that had the deepest possible roots in the American financial community.
This was the fabled Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, the post–Wall
Street crash legislation that prevented commercial banks from merging with investment banks, thus eliminating the opportunity for the high-rolling investment guys to get their hands on limitless supplies of depositors’ money. Glass-Steagall was nothing short of a barrier, and it stayed in place for more than sixty years, but the major U.S. banks wanted it abolished. They’d tried but failed in 1988. It would take another four years for this Depression-era legislation to come once more under attack.
President Clinton understood the ramifications, and he was wary of the reform, wary of seeming to be allied with the power brokers of the biggest banks in the country. He understood the complexities of the Glass-Steagall Act, its origins, and its purposes—principally to prevent some diabolical investment house from plunging in big on a corporation like Enron and going down with a zillion dollars of small depositors’ cash. No part of that did President Bill need.
On one hand was the belief of the main U.S. clearing banks that such mergers would strengthen the whole financial industry by increasing opportunities for hefty profits. But there were many people running small banks who were fearful that a repeal of Glass-Steagall would ultimately lead to large conglomerates crushing the life out of the minnows.
President Clinton always kept a weather eye on history, and he was aware the commercial banks, with their overenthusiastic investments in the stock market, had essentially taken the rap for the crash of 1929. They were accused of crossing a forbidden line, of buying stock in corporations for resale to the public. It had been too risky, and the pursuit of huge profits had clouded their judgment.
The man who had stood firmly in the path of the gathering storm of the 1930s was Virginia senator Carter Glass, a former treasury secretary and the founder of the U.S. Federal Reserve System. The somewhat stern Democratic newspaper proprietor was determined that the commercial banks and the investment banks should be kept forever apart.
He was supported by the chairman of the House Banking and
Currency Committee, Alabama congressman Henry Bascom Steagall,
and it was their rigid legal barricade that did much to solve Wall
Street’s greatest-ever crisis. The biggest banks were thenceforth prevented from speculating heavily in the stock markets. But even then, a lot of people thought it was a harsh and restrictive law.
With President Clinton in office for only three years, the major banks once more marshaled their forces to try for a third time to repeal
Glass-Steagall, and once more it all came to nothing, with the nation’s small banks fighting tooth and nail to hold back a system they thought might engulf them. But in 1996 they failed once more.
In the early spring of 1998, however, a Wall Street detonator exploded,
sending a sharp signal that the market was willing to go it alone despite the politicians. On April 6 Citicorp announced a merger with Travelers Insurance, a large corporation that owned and controlled the investment bank Smith Barney. The merger would create a vast conglomerate involved with banking, insurance, and securities,
plainly in defiance of Glass-Steagall.
The House scrambled to put a reform bill together, but the issue died in the Senate after it became clear that President Clinton had many concerns and was almost certain to veto it. The $70 billion merger between Citicorp and Travelers went right ahead regardless.
The result was a banking giant, the largest financial conglomerate in the world, and it was empowered to sell securities, take deposits, make loans, underwrite stocks, sell insurance, and operate an enormous variety of financial activities, all under one name: Citigroup.
The deal was obviously illegal, but Citigroup had five years to get the law changed, and they had very deep pockets. Senators harrumphed,
and the president, concerned for the nation’s smaller banks, worried.
However, the most powerful banking lobbies in the country wanted Glass-Steagall repealed, and they bombarded politicians with millions of dollars’ worth of contributions. They cajoled and pressured
Congress to end this old-fashioned Depression-era law. Inevitably they won. In November 1999, the necessary bills were passed 54–44 in the
Senate and 343–86 in the House of Representatives. In the ensuing days the final bipartisan bill sailed through the Senate, 90–8 with one abstention, and the House, 362–57 with fifteen abstentions. Those margins made it vetoproof. I remember the day well. All my life my dad had been telling me that history inevitably repeats itself. And here
I was listening to a group of guys telling me it was all different now,
that everything was so much more sophisticated, “doorstep of the twenty-first century” and all that, so much more advanced than 1933.
Oh, yeah? Well, I never bought it. It’s never different. I knew that
Glass-Steagall had been put in place very deliberately to protect customer bank deposits and prevent any crises from becoming interconnected and forming a house of cards or a row of dominoes. Carter
Glass’s bill had successfully kept the dominoes apart for more than half a century after his death.
And now that was all about to end. They were moving the pieces,
pressing one against the other. I remember my concern as I watched the television news on November 12, 1999. The action on the screen was flying in the face of everything my dad had told me. I was watching
President Clinton step up, possibly against his better judgment,
and sign into law the brand-new Financial Services Modernization Act
(also known as Gramm-Leach-Bliley), repealing Glass-Steagall. In less than a decade, this act would be directly responsible for bringing the entire world to the brink of financial ruin. Especially mine.

Meet the Author

LAWRENCE G. McDONALD is a managing director of Pangea Capital Management LP. He was, until 2008, vice president of distressed debt and convertible securities trading at Lehman Brothers. He ran an extremely successful joint venture between the firm’s fixed income and equity divisions and was one of Lehman’s most consistently profitable traders. McDonald is also cofounder of Convertbond.com, named by Forbes magazine as “Best of the Web” from 2000 to 2003, specifically citing it as the Web’s premier source for convertible securities information, valuation, and news.
PATRICK ROBINSON wrote Lone Survivor with the U.S. Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Colossal Failure of Common Sense 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While the book does provide some helpful background on the meltdown, overall the book is too painful to read to be worth it. First, the author bills himself as an insider and would like people to think he was right up there with Kirk, Gelband and McCarthy. He was not and that goes to his overall credibility. Lehman has thousands of vice presidents and a VP is the bottom (the jobs that 20-somethings have). McDonald provides no nuance. Everything is either black and white and written in such an over dramatic fashion. He has such a high regard for himself (even to the point of saying absolutes like "I was the only one who saw this") and is so completely unlikeable that you suffer through the book with every page. Because he's not a journalist, he takes liberties with quotes and attribution and some of his facts are just plain wrong. In short, save your money and time and wait until the new books by real journalist come out.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an inside account of the failure of Lehman Brothers investment bank by a relatively low-level bond trader. While he has something of an axe to grind with the firm's leadership, so do all of us taxpayers. His analysis of the failures of management and strategy by the firm have the ring of truth. Certainly a lot can be learned about the internal politics of the firm from this account. It is reasonably well written. Early on there is a lot of biographical material about the author, which isn't as interesting, but it does illuminate his point of view, and describe his rather unconventional path to the investment banking industry. Not the only book you should read about the financial crisis, but a very interesting one.
sickofpollytics More than 1 year ago
Excellent book - easy to understand. Author provides down-to-earth explanations for the many derivative products he discusses in the book. I found the book to be a very interesting read and highly recommend.
Berkley More than 1 year ago
I have been involved in the professional money management business for more than 30 years. I recall names on the "street" such as E.F. Hutton, Kidder Peabody, Bache, Shearson and Salomon Brothers. The demise of Lehman is another in a long line of blowups on Wall Street driven primarily by leverage and the miscalculation of risk. This book is a great read in the long-line of this type of story, but this book may indeed go down with Barbarians At the Gate as a Wall Street classic. Anyone who is a student of the capital markets may indeed enjoy this read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lawrence McDonald does an excellent job of tracing the roots of the financial meltdown of 2008-09, all the way back to the repeal of Glass-Stegall combined with a well-meaning policy change designed to encourage home ownership among Americans. He similarly traces his own history in finance and marketing, and confesses his dream was always to work at Lehman Brothers, one of the smaller but more historically prominent investment banks on Wall Street. When he puts the two together, and begins to show the decisions and actions that put Lehman on the road to ruin, the book gets so compelling it's hard to put down. He has several candidates for primary cause of Lehman's collapse, but it's safe to ascribe the collapse to a combination of greed, envy, poor management strategy, and poor execution. While the bulk of Lehman continued to operate profitably and earn record or near-record profits, the sub-prime and Alt-A mortage business, along with CDOs and derivatives, and a hugely overpriced commercial real estate portfolio, combined to tip it into bankruptcy. Well written, well researched. Fascinating book.
Oops_Pumpkin More than 1 year ago
I was quite interested in reading the book due to recent history. However, I found the author to be extremely annoying how he knew this and that and yet did nothing about it. The title is a misnomer, it should be a lesson in failed leadership at his level and above. I didn't feel any sympathy who worked for Lehman, $30 million dollar bonuses in paper and so forth for employees who retire in their early 40s. Like it was nothing and now to only have $3 million. Boo hoo. If anything his rationale was the reason the federal government should not have bailed out Wall Street but let it survive on its own. Most CEOs seem to be like Mr. Fuld, seeing their company as fiefdom instead of the greater good. Perhaps Congress will finally wake up and start taxing paper profits into absolute submission along with increase regulation that traders have the actual funds available to back up their purchases. And anyone who believes in paper profits needs to wake up and realize it's not real until it's in your banking account. I recommend business students read this book as part of their undergrad or graduate program and understand that what you do really does affect everyone.
harunari More than 1 year ago
Lawrence G McDonald is a little full of himself, but there is no doubting his passion and despair over the demise of Lehman Brothers. With the help of writer Patrick Robinson, he lays out in great detail, what went wrong at Lehman Brothers, why it went wrong, and what some of the managing directors of the company tried to do to save the company, albeit, too late. His pre-Lehman career is also interesting, he was the greatest pork chop salesman on earth, he snuck into brokerage firms disguised as a pizza deliveryman in attempts of being hired as a broker, and he crashed Boston country club golfclubs in order to obtain member mailing lists so he could call them up and sell them securities. Impressively, he and a fellow broker, Steve Seefeld, launched the website, Convertbond.com, which they ended up selling to Morgan Stanley for seven figures. In addition to learning the nuts and bolts of the securities business on Wall Street, we also learn about the personalities on Wall Street, Good, Bad, and...well, I don't think there are any inbetween. Suffice to say, it was the selling of mortgage backed securities around the world that contributed to the worst Recession since the 1930's and brought down Lehman Brothers and so many other firms. "A Colossal Failure of Common Sense" is well worth the read.
RonnyRS More than 1 year ago
I actually prefer first person stories and this book fit the bill. While I realize that a a very narrow viewpoint is presented, it is still interesting to take a look at one person's experience.
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Neil_Jackson More than 1 year ago
Richard Fuld's bias for bigness, greed even in disaster, and righteousness in failure distorts the realities of human failure and moral absence. These weaknesses have been captured in Mr. McDonald's fascinating account that won't let you put the book down. The story is compelling, honest and scary. It is more than the realization that greed left unchecked once again destroys more than those involved in its acts. Mr. McDonald's book is a significant accomplishment for current and future generations and should be required reading for all Board of Directors, Director's Colleges, Executive Education forums and College Business courses. Mr. McDonald was at the right place, at the right time, did the right things and now tells us how wrong overcame right and hurt so many, so quickly. I saw a board of directors at Lehman Brothers that is a sad and truthful reflection of many companies. Their lack of action to reign in Mr. Fuld forces the reader to wonder where corporate governance really exists. It forces an incredible inside examination of the reader's courage. It challenges you from the beginning by placing you in the rooms, seeing the walls, visualizing the tenseness, being on the phone calls, hearing the stress, being in the meetings, witness to un-tempered power, seeing the indicators of abuse, deception and fraud, reporting your concerns and smelling the dung excreted from those entrusted to lead. You know it is real, you feel the forces of being dismissed as a person, and know that Mr. McDonald is right that common sense is absent as well as common dignity. Fuld and his team of cronies including the Board should be seeing each other today through bars. You also see and feel passion, love, respect and friendship and trust that Mr. McDonald received first from his parents and then gave to those he served with and for. There are usually, and understandably, multiple reasons and systemic causes for a total collapse like what happened at Lehman Brothers and Mr. McDonald's account addresses them all openly, honestly and educationally. I received back more value than the cost of the book in the first chapter. Each reader should come away bound by renewed moral principals that ensures where they end is in line with where they began; innocent of corruption, unwaivered by greed and focused on what is right in their success and the success of those they are entrusted to serve and lead. May Mr. McDonald be blessed forever with the strength received from his family, friends and his entrusted readers. Buy this book, keep it near you for your entire career, read it regularly and remember why it is important to be honorable to all relationships and finish where you want. Neil Brereton Jackson Board Risk Consultant XCEO Inc.
Truthguy More than 1 year ago
McDonald places himself amongst a group of the best and the brightest, working long hours and employing clever strategies to make huge profits. He makes it sound as if the investment banker is key to economic prosperity, yet no investment bank has ever made a nickel. He is amongst a group that simply redistributes the wealth created by others. People like Edison, Ford, Carnegie, and more contemporary folks like Jobs, Gates, Hewlett, are the creators of wealth, taking raw materials and intellect and producing products and jobs. He and the people he admires spend their energy concentrating wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of millions. They devise clever schemes to take money out of pension accounts and 401Ks and put it in the bank accounts of people like Dick Fuld. I sometimes think about what this world would look like if the brilliant people feverishly working to move the money around, redirected their efforts to actually do some good, perhaps in medicine, engineering or education.
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