Americans in 2011 have a lot to be unhappy about: high unemployment, entire neighborhoods of foreclosed houses, decimated retirement accounts and portfolios, and so on for far too many depressing statistics. Since the Crisis of 2007-08 we've grown accustomed to talking heads wisely explaining that this is part of a cycle of boom and bust that is unavoidable. Really? Jeff Madrick's well researched and engaging history of the last 40 years or so has a very different view.
Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s financiers began to pressure the US government to ease or eliminate many of the provisions to regulate the financial markets that had been put into place during the New Deal. Their efforts began to bear fruit in the 1970s, when both Republican and Democratic Administrations and Congresses, heavily influenced by advice from wealthy bankers and brokers, agreed to dismantle most of the regulatory structure. This deregulatory process gained strength in the 1980s and 1990s, again at the hands of both parties, and finally bore fruit in the 2000s when the markets collapsed and came close to dragging the entire world into another Great Depression. Like most people, I remember those frightening days all too well, but I didn't fully understand what was going on and I certainly didn't know what to expect in the future.
Jeff Madrick has done an excellent job of chronicling the financial decisions and decision makers of the last four decades. He provides many short but thorough biographies of the principal actors, some well known or infamous like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, others less public but still important like Lewis Uhler and Walter Wriston. Having this background information makes the decisions of Arthur Burns, Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, and the eight presidents since 1970 more understandable and also more disheartening. Throughout the book Madrick returns to the main moral: while the men who gambled with the economy often made vast fortunes and gained enormous prestige, the middle class saw their pay stagnate, their pensions shrivel, and their houses lose value. The solution is obvious, but Madrick delineates it carefully: the regulatory structure that shriveled during the "good times" must be reinstated and strengthened, and future political leaders need to spend less time listening to Wall Street and more time on Main Street.
Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present by Jeff Madrick
"Age of Greed..." is the historical development of greed over the past forty years. Jeff Madrick takes the reader through a biographical ride of the main players involved in the economic decline of America. This 480-page book is composed of the following chapters: 1. Walter Wriston Regulatory Revolt, 2. Milton Friedman Proselytizer, 3. Richard Nixon and Arthur Burns, 4. Joe Flom The Hostile Takeover and Its Consequences, 5. Ivan Boesky Wanting It All, 6. Walter Wriston II Bailing Out Citibank, 7. Ronald Reagan The Making of an Idealogy, 8. Ted Turner, Sam Walton, and Steve Ross Size Becomes Strategy, 9. Jimmy Carter Capitulation, 10. Howard Jarvis and Jack Kemp Tapping the Anger, 11. Paul Volcker, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan Revolution Completed, 12. Tom Peters and Jack Welch Promises Broken, 13. Michael Milken "The Magnificent", 14. Alan Greenspan Ideologue, 15. George Soros and John Meriwether Fabulous Wealth and Controversial Power, 16. Sandy Weill King of the World, 17. Jack Grubman, Frank Quattrone, Ken Lay, and Sandy Weill Decade of Deceit, 18. Angelo Mozilo The American Tragedy, and 19. Jimmy Cayne, Richard Fuld, Stan O'Neil, and Chuck Prince Collapse.
1. Well-written and insightful historical account of the events.
2. Well-researched book that is accessible to the masses.
3. Even-handed. An equal opportunity critic.
4. Doesn't shy away from placing blame.
5. Does a real good job of capturing the most important events that transpired in a very straight-forward manner.
6. A good review on economic history over the past four decades. I particularly enjoyed presidential references.
7. A lot of great insights. Interesting how our perceptions of some of the main players change over time when in fact the reality is something else.
8. The recurring theme of dismantling the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The quest for deregulation.
9. The preoccupation of inflation.
10. The development and impact of the economic philosophy of Milton Friedman.
11. A lot of fascinating tidbits about Nixon.
12. The transition from long-term health of corporations, their workers, and communities they served, to Wall Street bankers.
13. The model for business takeovers established. Interesting how but the very largest companies were safe from acquisitions in the 1980s.
14. Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters, Ronald Reagan.
15. Walton's obsession with cutting costs and how he made Wal-Mart.
16. How Jimmy Carter's micromanagement style failed the country.
17. One of the major topics discussed is deregulation. A lot of interesting insights on this subject.
18. Federal Reserve Chairman Volcker's views.
19. Reagan's regressive taxes and their impact. Good stuff.
20. Reagan's antiregulation approach. Example, the Garn-St. Germain Act to help failing savings and loan associations.
21. Jack Welch the transformation of GE.
22. Milken the junk bond king.
23. The impact of Greenspan. A major player over the years, many interesting anecdotes.
24. 2004 the year Greenspan raised rates and how it took many by surprise.
25. The impact of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).
26. The power of hedge funds and how George Soros dominated for over 25 years.
27. The interesting rise of Sandy Weill. His rise through acquisitions.
28. Another recurring them, conflict of interests.
29. Eliot Spitzer the enforcer.
30. How the blatant corruption of some of our biggest companies stunned the nation.
31. Why stock options is key to executive pay.
32. The IPO surge, can you say Quattrone?
33. The corrupt traders, some very good examples.
34. The evil that was Enron and WorldCom.
35. How Angelo Mozilo went from respectable to greedy and his impact.
36. So who was truly to blame for the real estate bubble, find out.
37. Subprime loans, subprime loans, subprime loans...
38. And to finish with a flurry how about the impact of Jimmy Cayne, Richard Fuld, Stan O'Neil and Chuck Prince.
39. Let's not forget the insurance companies...AIG.
40. Great notes section.
1. The parts are better than the whole.
2. Not the most engaging, elegant prose. A bit dry.
3. Desperately needed a cast of characters.
4. A timeline chart, graphs, would have added much value.
5. Can be difficult to follow at times particularly if you are trying to follow the takeovers and who ends up where, doing what.
6. Surprisingly doesn't include a chapter on Bernie Madoff.
7. Links from Notes to the book but not vice versa, go figure.
8. Overall lacked passion and panache.
In summary, this book provides so much information about the impact of greed and the main players involved. Jeff Madrick provides example after examples of the greed that took place in our country. Many accounts that will make you sick especially when you consider the impact these few men had over all our lives. The book provides invaluable information it just lacked a little bit of style for my taste. I recommend this book for the insight and education it provides, I take a star away for lack of panache.
Further suggestions: "Winner-Take All Politics" by Jacob S. Hacker, "The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America..." by Michael W. Hudson, "Perfectly Legal..." by David Cay Johnston, "The Looting of America" by Les Leopold and "The Great American Stickup" by Robert Scheer.
"Who's responsible for the laying waste of our economy, making the rich far richer and everyone else economically insecure? Madrick ...tells us who did what and how they did it--the ideologues, demagogues, corporate titans, and crooks. A wonderfully insightful but deeply troubling account of the movers and shakers who toppled America." -- Robert B. Reich,
The great financial crisis of 2008 had consequences so dreadful that still paralyzes our economy. It is sometimes portrayed as a 100 year economic tsunami, an erupting event that nobody could have prevented or even predicted. Intense economic inequity and instability became the character of our age. Jeff Madrick, director of policy research at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, eloquently tells us about the tragic story with an unerring command of expertise. His vivid historical version of America's greed bred economic ills, advancing quitely over the last four decades, and the agents most responsible for them may shock you. Deeply disturbing, is the suggestion not just that we are witnessing a repeating cycle, but that the busts keep getting bigger. According to Madrick, it was just the most recent downpayment for a recurrent pattern of financial outwit, taxpayer bailout, and Wall Street subsequent lack of commitment to clean their own mess.
He describes, the accumulation and eruption of America's slow receding economic crisis, in an engaging though tragic story. Thus, he relates that in 1991, when the outcome of vast, loan-financed commercial real estate over-development in the 1980's came home to settle, helping to trigger the collapse of the 'junk-bond' market and putting Citibank, and the other big banks to great risk. Thanks to monatory regulation, that bank deposits were federally insured, that averted a major crisis. Economists could be talking about 1982-83 reckless lending to Latin America, which ended in a severe debt crisis that threatened major banks such as, well Fargo, Citibank with great risk, and only huge lending to Mexico, Brazil held a deeper crisis to mature. The author reminds us, we could be talking about the grave problem trickled by the bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970, which put its lead banker, First National City on the edge. Only Federal Reserve emergency lending could avert a looming disaster.
In the first part of the book, Madrick covers versant ground, chronicling how could this happen through a series of personal profiles. Friedman's worldview, advocated that free markets were the solution to almost every problem; bank regulation, financial speculation, product safety, and health care. Although Friedman offered some viable economic insights, he attempted to squeeze real market data to fit into a one-sided thesis, gaining his theories more approval than was ultimately justified. The transformation of American banking initiated by Wriston which began in early 1960's, when City Bank precursor initiated CDs, negotiable certificates of deposit, that could be cashed in early, as an alternative to regular bank deposits. As Madrick posed no difficulty to points out that, "Wriston lived a free market charade," strongly opposing the federal bailouts of Chrysler (1978) and Continental Illinois (1984) while his own back was saved multiple times by government intervention.
The second part of Madrick's book surveys the wide-open, anything goes financial world that deregulation created. This was an era marked by two huge bubbles--the technology bubble of the 1990s and the housing bubble of the Bush years--both of which ended in grief, although the economic damage inflicted by the second bubble's bursting was vastly greater.The illuminating narratives keep progressing taking away our blissful ignorance of the fine print of the free market players and economists strive to deal with their untamed greedy nature. But since all indications, that the author detailed, are most probably that the pattern is set to continue. Age of Greed: 1970 to the Present is a masterful exposition of the emergence and chronic persistence of this cyclic pattern. And since it seems that nothing was learned from the 2008 crisis, you have to wonder just how bad the next one will be.
on July 7, 2011
Age of Greed is a fascinating account of how unfettered self-interest and outright greed overcame virtually all barriers and resulted in enourmous growth of the financial sector over the past 30-40 years. The book is really a series of interconnected stories, each illustrating how prominent individuals and institutions manipulated the system and took on devastating risk levels for private gain.
The book covers a series of ever increasing financial crises and frauds, such as the Latin American and Asian financial crises and the Enron scam. It focuses on prominant people like Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan, Jack Grubman, Frank Quattrone, Ken Lay, Angelo Mozilo and Dick Fuld and how they contributed to one disaster after another. The book shows how free-market fundamentalism and "greed is good" mentality came to dominate, and how that resulted in the destruction of the regulatory environment that once kept the banking sector safe.
While the book offers a great overview of what happened in the financial sector, it fails to acknowledge the other critical forces that have been in play in America since the 1970s: Globalization, the decline of private sector unions, the entry of huge numbers of women into the workforce, and the relentless advance of information technology. (However, for an alternate view on technology and innovation see also The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will(Eventually) Feel Better.)
While the role of Wall Street, and in particular, deregulation is of critical importance, it would be a mistake to make the simplistic assumption that this explains all our problems. Information technology, in particular, has advanced tremendously since the 1970s, and it is important to recognize this because the impact will be even greater in the future.
on September 19, 2011
This book is very good. That being said it is a tough read because it's a downer all the way through. It would be like reading a book titled "Everything you need to know about the Devil." How important is that? Very. How interesting? Very. How much of an uplifting book? Not very.
This book is a necessary read, but take it in pieces and watch some comedy movies in between or you'll get too depressed.
Thanks. God Bless.
on July 19, 2011
As I was thirty years old in 1970 I enjoyed being taken back to that time and having an explanation for much of what I remember happening though the ensuring years. Some may see the book as too political but I was surprised that the authors criticism extended to all administrations. It is amazing how a handful of men consumed with greed have negatively affected not only the United States but also the greater world.
on June 5, 2011
This is an excellent book .It details how the strongest industrial manufacturing economy in the world transformed itself ,starting in the Jimmy Carter years and continuing through the Obama Presidency,into an economy emphasizing and specializing in the manipulation of paper wealth and financial assets.The author explains,for instance,how the transformation of the housing sector and the construction industry into a game of house flipping and debt leveraging ,combined with various Wall Street created stock market bubbles ,like the dot.com and Nasdaq bubbles,has resulted in an economy stuck in a high unemployment-low,if any, growth hole from which it can not escape.
I disagree with the tone of the criticism directed at Alan Greenspan.It is true that Greenspan was a follower of libertarianism and the Objectivism of Ayn Rand.However,his management of monetary policy was not based on his libertarianism or Randism.Greenspan went along with the deregulation of the financial sector,the banks and Wall Street that had been undertaken in the Carter ,Reagan,Clinton, and Bush Presidencies.He incorrectly accepted the claims of the bankers that the banking industry would be able to manage financial risk and constrain undue,excessive speculative undertakings through the use of VAR(Value at Risk)models based on the assumption of a normal(Log normal)distribution of asset prices changes in time series data.Greenspan's nearly 45 years of experience in financial markets correctly led to his December,1996 " irrational exuberance " speech,in which he correctly pinpointed that the US was in a giant bubble.Greenspan can be criticized for his failure to act with whatever powers he had available at his disposal as Federal Reserve Board Chairman.He can be criticized for lacking the virtue of courage .He failed to follow through.However, he can't be assigned primary blame for the situation the world finds itself in today,trapped in an unemployment equilibrium .I can find no other "irrational exuberance " type speeches made by any other top policy makers at the SEC,Treasury Department,FDIC,etc,during the 1980's,1990,s and 2000's.All of the other Wall Street connected policy advisors,like Bernanke,Raines, Rubin, Summers,Paulson,etc.,made no speeches trying to sound any alarm whatsoever.
It is in the Jimmy Carter years that one first finds a belief taking hold among policymakers that the giant banking and finance firewalls, created as a result of the speculative destruction wrought by the Great Depression,could be eliminated and replaced by University of Chicago economics department risk assessment models based on the normal(Log normal )distribution that had no goodness of fit or exploratory data analysis to support any of their claims about Efficient financial markets.The Nixon and Ford administrations ,to their credit,maintained the firewalls .
The result of eliminating the firewalls, that contained and prevented Wall Street speculation and manipulation from damaging the economy, is the current situation of the USA,where the so called economic recovery is stuck at 9 % plus unemployment in the USA and 12% in California two years after the recovery supposedly began, according to the economists at the NBER .These numbers grow to 13% and 17%,respectively,if the not counted unemployed workers on disability retirement are counted in.There are 9 million workers in this category alone.
on November 10, 2011
The thesis of the book is, essentially, that the Wall Street boom of roughly 30 years "was a house of cards built on Wall Street greed, unchecked by Washington regulators....(It eventually) created the nation's credit crisis...and caused the most severe recession in the United States since the Great Depression..." And, per the author, "The credit boom between 2003 and mid-2007 was built on sand....It was a handful of individual men making bad, self-serving decisions that placed the entire credit system at risk."
Madrick refutes other explanations for the crisis, such as that no one saw the problems coming, or that it was a "systemic" failure that was not caused by one person or one entity.
He gives credit where credit is due to those who caused the problems. He says that by keeping interest rates artificially low, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan "fed ever-rising levels of debt at investment banks that aggressively expanded trading and other speculative activities." He adds that "Much of Wall Street was run like a hedge fund." And he tells us that "Citicorp and Merrill became the largest issuers of the riskiest mortgage securities, surpassing earlier leaders, such as Bear and Lehman...." Per Madrick, "individual bankers made personal fortunes....Accounting fraud reached new heights...."
The author also gives credit to what saved us: "The only reason a far worse recession did not occur was the expensive government rescue package." "A bottom was found only when the federal government made hundreds of billions of dollars available to the firms to shore up their collapsing finances." He tells us that it was TARP that "calmed the markets," and that, in total, the federal government had more than $12 trillion "on the line." He tells us that "the Keynesian response did work."
But Americans lost nearly $12 trillion in real estate and stock-market equity in this crisis, some of which has since been regained in the stock market, but not in home values. But why did all this have to happen? The author tells us that it was caused by a culture of greed that began, in earnest, in the 1970s, which is where the book begins.
The age of greed is started by haters of the New Deal and of Franklin D. Roosevelt. They have no need for a powerful central government. Their first political spokesperson of note was Barry Goldwater. In the private sector, it was banker Walter Wrister, who set the precedent for pushing banks into high-risk deals, expecting the federal government to bail them out if they got in trouble. He took enormous risks to push First National City Bank through periods of near illiquidity to the point of a bank "too big to fail." It eventually would become Citibank.
There is a chapter on Milton Friedman and the role he plays in opposing Keynesian theory. He argues that with reduced government and lower taxes the poor would be better off, this being right out of the Republican playbook of today. Per the author, "The big prize for Friedman would have been to have conclusively shown that The Great Depression was caused by the fall of the money supply - that is, caused by an error in the Federal Reserve policy." Sounds just like Ron Paul, huh? Another Friedman quote: "The great achievement of capitalism is not the accumulation of property, it has been the opportunities it has offered men and women to extend and develop and improve their capacities." What this line of thinking does not include, of course, is the risk that greed and the accumulation of wealth would become the prime driving factor, as we enter the age of greed. Per the author, Friedman "helped turn the people against government, in general."
Then there are chapters about the development of corporate acquisitions and how all that worked. Investment bankers began to make enormous profits. And once it got started, the banks got interested in playing the game, as well. Joe Flom, as the leader of this movement, gets a chapter in the book.
Ivan Boesky gets a chapter, too, as does Ronald Reagan. We're also given the history of Sam Walton and Wal-Mart, which was built on a model that expected employees to qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, as Walton became the richest American, with $20 billion, way back in 1985.
And the author tells us that author Tom Peters promoted the idea that the best companies had lean staffs and were cost-effective. Jack Welch at GE was the epitome of this philosophy, as he institutionalized layoffs, by firing about 30% of GE's workers over a five-year stretch. In 1984, he was named Fortune's "toughest boss in America" award. He turned GE from a company that primarily built things, to one that made most of its money via financial ventures. The author sees Welch as a key player in the age of greed: "Welch made GE into a bank....Seven years later, the banks in America nearly collapsed."
Michael Milken gets a chapter, as does Alan Greenspan. George Soros and the hedge funds get one, as well. The collapse of Long Term Capital Management and the use of derivatives are discussed. And Sandy Weill of Citicorp gets a good bit of attention, perhaps as the one who personified greed more than any other player. Madrick is not kind to Weill and his ilk, saying, "It was on tightly run operations, rather than on new products or innovative ideas, that many of the billionaires of the age of greed made their fortunes." But Weill felt that "he and others like him deserved the money they made." To them, the way to make money was through the use of risk. Weill would be worth as much as $2 billion when he retired in 2002.
But make no mistake, the author's thesis is that "The 1990s though 2002 was the most corrupt decade since the 1920s - and one of the most corrupt in American business history." It was built on an "infrastructure of corruption." Welch used pension overfunding to supplement quarterly earnings at GE. Stock options to executives were not counted as expenses. Shenanigans at Enron sent Jeffrey Skilling and Andy Fastow to jail. Enron's bankruptcy would be the largest in U.S. history, only to be overshadowed later by those of WorldCom, then Lehman.
Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Mortgage gets a chapter near the end of the book. He built the company up to market value of about $25 billion before the subprime disclosures forced the company to be taken over by Bank of America for about $4 billion. As Countrywide was making a mess of things, per Madrick, "regulators were nowhere to be found."
It was the "Age of Greed," built on a sea of sand. It led to the worst financial collapse since The Great Depression. We need books like this one to help up stop this kind of history from ever repeating itself. The book is full of details and not that easy to read, but it is worth a read, if you have the time and energy.
on September 14, 2011
If nothing is done about the drift of America to plutocracy it wont be for lack of people writing about it. Seldom has a major problem of our society been so copiously chronicled.
Jeff Madrick's "The Age of Greed" is likly to be the tour de force of all these writings. The story of our decline is told in two parts. Part I deals with the politicians, presidents, economists - but mostly businessmen - who fought government regulation, diminished its power, and, in a million ways, led to the "toothless" wreck that government became. Part II deals with the latter day "Robber Barons" (and some who were not Robber Barons) who took advantage of the situation and who became fabulously wealthy by employing a wide variety of financial devices (some rather ingenious) such as: down-sizing and layoffs, junk bonds, green mail, leveraged buy-outs (LBOs), hedge funds, acquisitions and mergers, initial public offerings (IPOs), securitization, mortgaged backed securities (MBS), collaterized mortgage obligations (CPOs), pay option adjustable rate mortgages (POAs), collateralized debt obligation (CDOs), and, of course, the ubiquitous derivatives. Their God was laissez faire capitalism; their natural enemy was Franklin Delano Roosevelt; their philosophers were Herbert Spencer and Ayn Rand; their political leader was Ronald Reagan; and their economist was Milton Friedman.
"Throughout history, financial crisis have generally been similar to each other. An asset - land, housing, stock, bonds, and so on - rise in price, financial institutiions lend to investors to buy more, and prices are driven to unsustainable levels. When the bubble bursts, investors sell assets to repay their loans and prices fall further, often in panic. Bad debts rise on the books of financial institutions, credit stops flowing, business and consumers sharply reduce spending, and the economy slides into serious recession."
Fortunately, says Madrick, one major lesson of the 1930s was not entirely forgotten - "the Keynesian lesson that government must intervene in times of crisis like the one that overwhelmed the nation in 2007-2008. The only reason a far worse rescession did not occur was the expensive government rescue package, including not only TARP but trillions of dollars of loan guarantees and Federal Reserve purchases of debt, as well as President Obama's nearly 800 billion of government spending and tax cuts, most of which was spent in 2009 and 2010." Without this stimulus, it has been estimated that the "recession would have continued through 2011 and GDP would have fallen by 12 percent from its high rather than by the substantial 4 percent it did fall. . . . About twice as many jobs would have been lost, some 16.5 million compared to the already high 8 million. The unemnployment rate would have reached 16.5 percent."
The crash of 2008 was a function of the unchecked greed of a handful of individuals. It was the culmination of forty years of growing financial power and weakened government. And these same individuals are, essentially, still in charge.
In her book Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein tells us that revolutionary change is best implemented when the population is still in shock from a cataclysmic event. Author Jeff Madrick gives us the opposite impression in Age of Greed. The U.S. wasn't in a state of shock; it was prosperous when change started. He shows how the greed over the past four decades has crept into American culture, politics, and law, like an undetectable cancer that grows slowly, insidiously through the body until it becomes a corpse. His subtitle "The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America..." is the cancer and the victim respectively.
No one escapes Madrick's scrutiny. Walter Wriston, Joe Flom, Milton Friedman, Jack Welsh, Angelo Mazillo, Ivan Boesky, Ronald Reagan, George Soros, and even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton played their respective parts in the slow and insidious erosion of the financial fabric of the country and allow greed to take center stage over the economic landscape.
The decline made its imperceptible presence with bad loans of petrodollars to Latin America in the 70's. In the 80's Garn-St. Germain bill allowed thrifts to offer higher interest and invest in junk. They did and the savings and loan bailout followed. Big name banks and brokerage houses disappeared in mergers and acquisitions. Milton Friedman's ideas of free market economy gained a following. In the 90's the magic beans were the technological stocks. Excess capital needed an outlet and found it in derivatives for the housing boon as trillions of paper wealth reached around the world.
Stock brokers, CEO'S, bankers, investors, consortiums, and businessmen were using the free market capitalist system to enrich themselves at the expense of the consumer rather than on behalf of the same. Like drunken gamblers at the gaming table they placed their bets on bad investments that would bring this country the closest it has ever been to another Great Depression. Federal chairmen stood by and encouraged them from the sidelines.
The author's remedy is regulation that promotes transparency in trading and discourages outright speculation and distortion of markets. Mr. Madrick says that the Obama administration and the recent banking regulation bill are not enough. He ends with a fitting sentence" Former or returned employees who were substantially involved in matters like contracts, or litigation, or audits, etc. such as lead negotiator, may not work on those matters for any private firm for the life of those matters. This restriction affects every city employee differently: "America has not yet turned the page."
This book is long on information but well-written and readable. It provides a thorough understanding of what went wrong, how it went wrong, and when it went wrong. It also includes all the players. I have only mentioned a few of them.
This is your definitive source on the path to our decline.