The End of Wall Street

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The roots of the mortgage bubble and the story of the Wall Street collapse-and the government's unprecedented response-from our most trusted business journalist.

The End of Wall Street is a blow-by-blow account of America's biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Drawing on 180 interviews, including sit-downs ...

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The End of Wall Street

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Download the cheat sheet for Roger Lowenstein's The End of Wall Street »

The roots of the mortgage bubble and the story of the Wall Street collapse-and the government's unprecedented response-from our most trusted business journalist.

The End of Wall Street is a blow-by-blow account of America's biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Drawing on 180 interviews, including sit-downs with top government officials and Wall Street CEOs, Lowenstein tells, with grace, wit, and razor-sharp understanding, the full story of the end of Wall Street as we knew it. Displaying the qualities that made When Genius Failed a timeless classic of Wall Street-his sixth sense for narrative drama and his unmatched ability to tell complicated financial stories in ways that resonate with the ordinary reader- Roger Lowenstein weaves a financial, economic, and sociological thriller that indicts America for succumbing to the siren song of easy debt and speculative mortgages.

The End of Wall Street is rife with historical lessons and bursting with fast-paced action. Lowenstein introduces his story with precisely etched, laserlike profiles of Angelo Mozilo, the Johnny Appleseed of subprime mortgages who spreads toxic loans across the landscape like wild crabapples, and moves to a damning explication of how rating agencies helped gift wrap faulty loans in the guise of triple-A paper and a takedown of the academic formulas that-once again- proved the ruin of investors and banks. Lowenstein excels with a series of searing profiles of banking CEOs, such as the ferretlike Dick Fuld of Lehman and the bloodless Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan, and of government officials from the restless, deal-obsessed Hank Paulson and the overmatched Tim Geithner to the cerebral academic Ben Bernanke, who sought to avoid a repeat of the one crisis he spent a lifetime trying to understand-the Great Depression.

Finally, we come to understand the majesty of Lowenstein's theme of liquidity and capital, which explains the origins of the crisis and that positions the collapse of 2008 as the greatest ever of Wall Street's unlearned lessons. The End of Wall Street will be essential reading as we work to identify the lessons of the market failure and start to reb...

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Editorial Reviews

Daniel Gross
Roger Lowenstein…is a connoisseur of investing intelligence and folly. In constructing a precise, condensed version of the origins, climax and fallout of the "dark and powerful storm front that had long been gathering at Wall Street's shores," he finds much more folly than intelligence…Careful and meticulous, The End of Wall Street covers a lot of well-trodden ground. Still, there's plenty of telling detail.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
The End of Wall Street offers one expert reporter's domino theory about Wall Street's collapse. It is a complex but imaginative book, an especially useful piece of the jigsaw puzzle that current Wall Street books are busy creating…not a story of blowhard personalities, even if it is filled with C.E.O.'s and financial regulators who arguably control the future of global finance. Instead it is a coherently issue-oriented book that frames each stage of the crisis in terms of the real world's ability to confound theorists, number-crunching quants, economic historians and other putative experts, many of whom have seen their most cherished ideas destroyed by the events of the last few years.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Lowenstein (When Genius Failed) offers an overview of the causes and consequences of the financial crisis that rises above the glut of similarly themed books with its juicy behind-the-scenes detail and thoughtful analysis. He sets out to prove that the current financial difficulties began long before the summer of 2008, and long before the failure of Lehman Brothers. He begins with the history of Fannie Mae and the rise of mortgage-based securities and a dangerously burgeoning housing bubble, and hits the high points of the 2008-2009 news cycles, including Washington Mutual’s unwise loan strategies, the panic following Bear Stearns’s near-demise, a rash of foreclosures, TARP, and the woes of Citigroup. The insider knowledge lends flavor and context to many of these stories—a ranting Jim Cramer, Ben Bernanke’s loss of confidence, and Alan Greenspan’s astonishing 2008 testimony to Congress. Lowenstein’s strong knowledge of the source material and flair for the dramatic—and doomsday title—should draw readers who still wonder what went wrong and how. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
A veteran financial/business journalist examines the past three years of economic collapse, chronicling actions and inactions from dozens of villains and a few heroes. New York Times Magazine and Bloomberg contributor Lowenstein (While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis, 2008, etc.) teases out the upsetting saga of ignorance and greed without adding much to the story already related in newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets, not to mention a few books that beat his to bookstores. Nonetheless, he handles the recap skillfully, in language nonspecialists can understand. The author identifies more than 100 key players, almost all of them middle-aged white males from Wall Street, private mortgage companies, law firms, federal government agencies and the U.S. Congress. The narrative consistently demonstrates how almost all of those who could have halted the coming recession by employing common sense instead decided that the housing market would never collapse. When it did, nearly all of the smart guys in the room expressed shock, even though some of them had worried privately about a looming disaster. Among the most loathsome of the destroyers in Lowenstein's case are Angelo Mozilo, chief executive of Countrywide Financial, which wrote billions of dollars of home loans bound to default; and Joseph Cassano, an executive of insurance behemoth AIG who overexposed the company and its clients to the risks of credit-default swap losses. The leading heroes, chosen from a slim field, are Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, who tried to discuss governmentregulation of derivatives a decade before the debacle; and Robert L. Rodriguez, chief executive of First Pacific Advisors, who protected his investors from the insane greed while trying to warn anybody who would listen about the house of cards about to collapse. A well-delineated chronicle likely to cause readers to ask who put the clowns in charge of the circus, and why aren't they confined to prison cells. Agent: Melanie Jackson/Melanie Jackson Agency
In the flood of new books about the financial crisis, Roger Lowenstein's is a standout. Lowenstein, a highly accomplished financial journalist, lays out what may be the best explanation yet of the recent crash — and as good a prediction as any on what happens next.
If a novelist lined up as many dramatic events as the author does here, his work would be blasted as contrived. Lowenstein, a magnificent business writer, creates an almost novelistic accounting of the all-too-real 2008 financial collapse.... Lowenstein has a pitch-perfect sense of the Street's monumental recklessness.
Library Journal
This account of the credit crisis of 2007–08 follows many others. Being later means that Lowenstein (When Genius Fails) is able to extend his coverage into the 2009 recession and assess the financial carnage from the perspective of more time. He blames the origins of the crisis on the hubris of those in the financial industry—who deluded themselves into thinking that the credit markets would never retrench—and acquiescent politicians who saw loosened credit as a means of bolstering the economic prospects of the poor. He blames the depth of the crisis and resulting recession on early misjudgments by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bush administration; by the time they moved to shore up the banks in late 2008, it was necessary for the government to absorb much of the cost, which meant a weaker dollar, bigger government, higher unemployment, and increased taxes. Lowenstein is able to make arcane financial concepts like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and leveraged balance sheets intelligible to average readers. VERDICT While CNBC reporter Charles Gasparino's The Sellout paints a more colorful picture and Andrew Ross Sorkin's frenetic Too Big To Fail focuses more specifically on the crucial events of early fall 2008, in breadth Lowenstein's work is the most complete yet to appear and is essential reading for everyone. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/09.]—Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143118725
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/29/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 713,027
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Roger Lowenstein, author of the bestselling Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist and When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-term Capital Management, reported for the Wall Street Journal for more than a decade and wrote the Journal’s stock market column “Heard on the Street” and also its “Intrinsic Value” column. He now contributes articles and reviews to the Journal and the New York Times Magazine and is a columnist for SmartMoney Magazine. He lives in Westfield, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

In the late summer of 2008, as Lehman Brothers teetered at the edge, a bell tolled for Wall Street. The elite of American bankers were enlisted to try to save Lehman, but they were fighting for something larger than a venerable, 158-year-old institution. Steven Black, the veteran JPMorgan executive, had an impulse to start saving the daily newspapers, figuring that historic events were afoot. On Sunday, September 14, as the hours ticked away, Lehman’s employees gathered at the firm, unwilling to say goodbye and fearful of what lay in wait. With bankruptcy a fait accompli, they slunk off to bars for a final toast, as people once did in advance of a great and terrible battle. One ventured that “the forces of evil” were about to be loosed on American society. Lehman’s failure was the largest in American history and yet another financial firm, the insurer American International Group, was but hours away from an even bigger collapse. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two bulwarks of the mortgage industry, had just been seized by the federal government. Dozens of banks big and small were bordering on insolvency. And the epidemic of institutional failures did not begin to describe the crisis’s true depth. The market system itself had come undone. Banks couldn’t borrow; investors wouldn’t lend; companies could not refinance. Millions of Americans were threatened with losing their homes. The economy, when it fully caught Wall Street’s chill, would retrench as it had not done since the Great Depression. Millions lost their jobs and the stock market crashed (its worst fall since the 1930s). Home foreclosures broke every record; two of America’s three automobile manufacturers filed for bankruptcy, and banks themselves failed by the score. Confidence in America’s market system, thought to have attained the pinnacle of laissez-faire perfection, was shattered.

The crisis prompted government interventions that only recently would have been considered unthinkable. Less than a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when prevailing orthodoxy held that the free market could govern itself, and when financial regulation seemed destined for near irrelevancy, the United States was compelled to socialize lending and mortgage risk, and even the ownership of banks, on a scale that would have made Lenin smile. The massive fiscal remedies evidenced both the failure of an ideology and the eclipse of Wall Street’s golden age. For years, American financiers had gaudily assumed more power, more faith in their ability to calculate—and inoculate themselves against—risk.

As a consequence of this faith, banks and investors had plied the average American with mortgage debt on such speculative and unthinking terms that not just America’s economy but the world’s economy ultimately capsized. The risk grew from early in the decade, when little-known lenders such as Angelo Mozilo began to make waves writing subprime mortgages. Before long, Mozilo was to proclaim that even Americans who could not put money down should be “lent” the money for a home, and not long after that, Mozilo made it happen: homes for free.

But in truth, the era began well before Mozilo and his ilk. Its seeds took root in the aftermath of the 1970s, when banking and markets were liberalized. Prior to then, finance was a static business that played merely a supporting role in the U.S. economy. America was an industrial state. Politicians, union leaders, and engineers were America’s stars; investment bankers were gray and dull. In the postindustrial era, what we may call the Age of Markets, diplomats no longer adjusted currency values; Wall Street traders did. Just so, global capital markets allocated credit, and hordes of profitminded, if short-term-focused, investors decided which corporations would be bought and sold.

Finance became a growth industry, fixated on new and complex securities. Wall Street developed a heretofore unimagined prowess for securitizing assets: student loans, consumer debts, and, above all, mortgages. Prosperity in this era was less evenly spread. Smokestack workers fell behind in the global competition, but financiers who mastered the intricacies of Wall Street soared on wings of gold. Finance now was anything but dull; markets were dynamic and ever changing. Average Americans clamored to keep pace; increasingly they resorted to borrowing. By happy accident, Wall Street had opened the spigot of credit. People discovered an unsuspected source of liquidity—the ability to borrow on their homes. With global investors financing mortgages, ordinary families were suddenly awash in debt. The habit of saving, forged in the tentative prosperity that followed the war, gave way to rampant consumerism. By the late 2000s the typical American household had become a net borrower, fueled by credit from lessdeveloped countries such as China—a curious inversion of the conventional rules.

Paradoxically, the more license that was given to markets, the more that Wall Street called on bureaucrats for help. Market busts became a familiar feature of the age. Notwithstanding, it was the doctrine of the experts—on Wall Street and in Washington—that modern finance was a nearly pitch-perfect instrument. A preference for market solutions morphed into something close to blind faith in them. By the mid-2000s, when the spirit of the age attained its fullest, the very fact that markets had financed the leverage of banks, as well as the mortgages of individuals, was taken as proof that nothing could be wrong with that leverage, or nothing that government could or should try to restrict. Financiers had discovered the key to limiting risk, and central bankers, adherents to the cult of the market, had mastered the mysterious art of heading off depressions and even the normal ups and downs of the economic cycle. Or so it was believed.

Then, Lehman’s collapse opened a trapdoor on Wall Street from which poured forth all the hidden demons and excesses, intellectual and otherwise, that had been accumulating during the boom. The Street suffered the most calamitous week in its history, including a money market fund closure, a panic by hedge funds, and runs against the investment firms that still were standing. Thereafter, the Street and then the U.S. economy were stunned by near-continuous panics and failures, including runs on commercial banks, a freezing of credit, the leveling of the American workplace in the recession, and the sickening drop in the stock market.

The first instinct was to blame Lehman (or the regulators who had failed to save it) for triggering the crisis. As the recession deepened, the thesis that one firm had caused the panic seemed increasingly tenuous. The trouble was not that so much followed Lehman, but that so much had preceded it. For more than a year, the excesses of the market age had been slowly deflating, in particular the bubble in home loans. Leverage had moved into reverse, and the process of deleveraging set off a fatal chain reaction.

By the time Lehman filed for bankruptcy, the U.S. housing market, the singular driver of the U.S. economy, had collapsed. Indeed, by then the slump was old news. Home prices had been falling for nine consecutive quarters, and the rate of mortgage delinquencies over the preceding three years had trebled. In August, the month before Lehman failed, 303,000 homes were foreclosed on (up from 75,000 three years before).

The especial crisis in subprime mortgages had been percolating for eighteen months, and the leading purveyors of these mortgages, having started to tumble early in 2007, were all, by the following September, either defunct, acquired, or on the critical list. Also, the subprime crisis had fully bled into Wall Street. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgages had been carved into exotic secondary securities, which had been stored on the books of the leading Wall Street banks, not to mention in investment portfolios around the globe. By September 2008, these securities had collapsed in value—and with them, the banks’ equity and stock prices. Goldman Sachs, one of the least-affected banks, had lost a third of its market value; Morgan Stanley had been cut in half. And the Wall Street crisis had bled into Main Street. When Lehman toppled, total employment had already fallen by more than a million jobs. Steel, aluminum, and autos were all contracting. The National Bureau of Economic Research would conclude that the recession began in December 2007—nine months ahead of the fateful days of September.

On the evidence, Lehman was more nearly the climax, or one of a series of climaxes, in a long and painful cataclysm. By the time it failed, the critical moment was long past. Banks had suffered horrendous losses that drained them of their capital, and as the country was to discover, capitalism without capital is like a furnace without fuel. Promptly, the economy went cold. The recession mushroomed into the most devastating in postwar times. The modern financial system, in which markets rather than political authorities self-regulated risk-taking, for the first time truly failed. This was the result of a dark and powerful storm front that had long been gathering at Wall Street’s shores. By the end of summer 2008, neither Wall Street nor the wider world could escape the imminent blow. To seek the sources of the crash, and even the causes, we must go back much further.

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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters xi

Introduction xxi

Prologue 1

1 To the Crossroads 7

2 Subprime 15

3 Lenders 28

4 Niagara 39

5 Lehman 48

6 Desperate Surge 65

7 Absence of Fear 81

8 Citi's Turn 99

9 Rubicon 120

10 Tottering 137

11 Fannie's Turn 155

12 Sleepless 177

13 The Forces of Evil 192

14 Aftershocks 202

15 The Hedge Fund War 218

16 The Tarp 235

17 Steel's Turn 250

18 Reluctant Socialist 258

19 Great Recession 273

20 The End of Wall Street 285

Afterword to the 2011 Edition 299

Acknowledgments 307

Notes 311

Index 335

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 20 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 26, 2010

    More fun than a novel!

    This is a blow by blow account of how Wall Street got itself into its latest mess and how it then tumbled and fell on all of us. Because it's written by a former Wall Street Journal writer, it's well written and isn't overly technical. In fact, it reads rather like a thriller. I read it over a period of two days--couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. Enjoy!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2010

    Fascinating and perceptive for the layperson

    surprisingly witty and full of interesting anecdotes about what really happened when the economy came to a halt

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2011

    Very informative

    Tell the whole story in stark detail.

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  • Posted August 25, 2011

    Would love to read it.

    I would love to read this book, but alas the sample for the Nook is only 27 pages long and only introduces the players. Come on B&N or Penguin Group you gotta give me something more than that before I am going to spend $10 on it. I love his articles that appear in magazines and newspapers all over the nation, however I need (especially in today's economic times) a little more of a taste.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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