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101 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written book that is a must-read for anyone who works in finance, or is mad at the financial wreck we are in
Having read this book over 3 days (interrupted only by work, playtime with my two toddlers, and sleep), I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about our financial system (be it that you work in finance, or hate financiers that brought us the ruins - just bear in mind they were not the only ones to blame, throw in the regulators, lenders, and borrowers who enjoyed the...
Published on May 23, 2009 by S. Yang

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176 of 203 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as Good as it Appears
I loved the documented history this book provides. It's a treasure trove of dates, quotes and important juxtapositions on the development and unwinding of structured finance. I turned the pages and you will too. But in the end, I was disappointed by the author's superficial understanding of the underlying issues. She wants to argue that the banks used clever innovation to...
Published on May 26, 2009 by EWC


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101 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written book that is a must-read for anyone who works in finance, or is mad at the financial wreck we are in, May 23, 2009
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Having read this book over 3 days (interrupted only by work, playtime with my two toddlers, and sleep), I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about our financial system (be it that you work in finance, or hate financiers that brought us the ruins - just bear in mind they were not the only ones to blame, throw in the regulators, lenders, and borrowers who enjoyed the party, and politicians who took credit for the housing boom). The book is well-written, focused, and surprisingly a page-turner that you don't want to put down once you start reading it.

Having fought the battles in the trenches over the past two years during the ongoing financial crisis, I have a deep appreciation for what Gillian Tett has accomplished in this book. It provides a comprehensive view of one corner of the financial markets - the one that caused so much of the wreckage over the past two years. While it will be a daunting task for any single writer to document the crisis we are still going through (given the multiple contributing factors/actors to this crisis), the author has done a great job producing a contemporary record on the credit derivatives market and its role in fueling the housing bubble leading up to the crisis.

Obviously, the author deliberately chose to exclude some critical episodes of the credit crisis (such as the SocGen trading scandal, the resulting ill-timed massive cut in Fed funds rate leading to the oil shock of 2008 that partially contributed to the inflation scare and added shock to the economy). She also chose to withhold judgment on policy responses during the early stage of the crisis and exclude the various "local" factors contributing to the subprime housing boom (think Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke claiming the subprime crisis "being contained", think Barney Frank and his role in shielding Fannie and Freddie from proper oversight, think Clinton and Bush administrations' claim that homeownership was at "historical highs"). She may be right to do so as inclusion of these topics will obfuscate the focus on credit derivatives. An educated reader will want to keep in mind such background information as part of the mosaic of the financial crisis.

Without a full understanding of all the factors contributing to the crisis we find ourselves in, it would be tempting to find solutions that seem to eliminate the excesses of the past years only to sow the seeds for future problems. So-called "always fighting the last war". A simplistic solution to the credit derivatives abuse would be to ban it. A simplistic solution to the failed U.S. auto industry would be to subsidize it with taxpayer funds. A simplistic solution to the housing problem would be to mitigate mortgage foreclosures through taxpayer subsidies (as if everybody who bought a home deserves to live in that home or be a homeowners in the first place).

Gillian Tett was nominated as British Business Journalist of the Year not for this book, but her regular writings in the Financial Times. Her writings in the FT are insightful and timely. This book only reinforces her reputation as one of the best journalists in the field.

On a separate note not related to the book but the book reviews found on Amazon, I find it hard to believe that any review by people who haven't actually read the book is entertained on this site. Simply saying that "I heard this was a good book and I heard the author interviewed" is no qualification for one to write a book review. There is no prize to win from writing the first review, especially when it's only based on hear-say. Anyone who does that is doing the author and intended readers a great disservice, no matter how flattering the review is. Amazon should impose some minimal standard on such postings.
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176 of 203 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not as Good as it Appears, May 26, 2009
I loved the documented history this book provides. It's a treasure trove of dates, quotes and important juxtapositions on the development and unwinding of structured finance. I turned the pages and you will too. But in the end, I was disappointed by the author's superficial understanding of the underlying issues. She wants to argue that the banks used clever innovation to exploit big loopholes in Fed and Basel regulations and to arbitrage ratings but she doesn't have a deep enough understanding to truly explain how this was done. As a result, she ends up contributing to the general populations' great misunderstanding of these markets.

Pages 61 to 64 provide one of many examples. She concludes at the top of page 64, "Banks had typically been forced to hold $800 million in reserves for every $10 billion in corporate loans on their books. Now that could be just $160 million. The CDS concept had pulled off a dance around the Basel rules." Regulators and rating agencies aren't that naive! Three pages earlier she notes that the issuer of credit default insurance had to post $700mm of collateral, held as Treasuries, and that the Fed demanded that the issuer either had to have a triple AAA rating, i.e. the capacity to absorb losses greater than the $700mm it posted as collateral, or else the bank had to post an addition $160mm of reserves with the Fed, over and above the $700mm. The logic of this requirement is obvious, either way, someone, the bank or the insurer, had to post at least $800 of reserves. There is a popular belief that AIG posted no collateral but the truth is that while, it in part did not post liquid collateral, it in fact posted the value of its other businesses as collateral. The Fed, of course, took those businesses as collateral in exchange for posting liquid collateral.

Her descriptions of leveraged super senior on pages 96-98 are similarly muddled, incomplete and misleading, greatly overstating the extent to which sophisticated regulators, rating agencies and commercial paper investors failed to understand the issues surrounding these structures. It's akin to a beginning chess player interpreting the games of grandmasters by mistakenly assuming they are boldly trying to win pieces rather than much subtler truly winable advantages. Instead, capital markets are highly efficient. And regulators and rating agencies are far more knowledgeable than the popular press wants to admit. I would suggest going to: [...] and reading paragraph 1.3, "Incentives for the Protection-Buyer in a Leveraged Super Senior Transaction".

In the end, if the value of loans fall far enough, no matter how much you slice and dice the risk tranches someone must eat those loses. The slicing and dicing isn't necessarily the problem but rather the magnitude of the losses. And so, the story is woefully incomplete without also understanding the buying spree of Freddie and Fannie who, when they were not allowed to guarantee sub-prime and alt-a mortgages, instead bought 15-20% of the market with cheap quasi-government guaranteed financing, which drove up pricing. Brokers and banks couldn't have offered homeowners the ridiculous terms they did unless investors stood eagerly ready to buy on those terms. In large part, that buyer was Freddie and Fannie.

For its rendition of history, I would give the book 4; for the more important underlying argument, a 2; and so generously in total, a 3.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Easy read, noteworthy book providing insight from the JP Morgan point of view...., May 26, 2009
If you want to understand the current economic crisis, this book is a fascinating and well written narrative which personalizes the crisis from the JPM point of view. It also suggests and invites serious dialogue about the way by which the banking, regulatory and investment world conduct themselves. If one can extrapolate lessons to broader concerns about human folly related to global social areas, all the better.

Gillian Tett's book Fools Gold covers the current financial crisis from its purported beginning in 1994 to the point at which most of us became aware of the systemic flaws in the global financial systems, with an inside look at the crisis from J.P. Morgan's version of the story.

The book begins by engagingly and sympathetically introducing us to the players on the banking and investment side of the equation; the team of collegiate, young, impassioned and idealistic folks at J.P. Morgan responsible for creating and marketing credit derivatives back in the early 1990's. It loosely follows the team, and more interestingly, follows the firm's evolution through the 1990's (with an admiring nod to Jerry Corrigan's concern regarding risk) and subsequent leaders (with a resounding `hurrah!' to Jamie Dimon and his `hands on' management style) and the industry excesses outside of JPM that, combined with a crisis in confidence in the financial markets, have created the worst financial crisis known since The Great Depression.

The book provides the reader with a relatively balanced look at the conditions, culture and tools that allowed a cadre of `quants' (quantitative analysts) to trump historically `sound' banking practices across the banking industry and which further allowed the subsequent derivative / analysts culture combined with unregulated banking and investment banking practices to prevail and flourish during the mid-1990's up to the current period (2009). To be fair, Tett's narrative indicates that at least at J.P. Morgan, the risk sensitive side of the equation held sway within policies of the firm. She provides the reader with a compelling understanding of how the desire to bolster shareholder profits in an unrealistic market led to decisions to embrace greater risk across the banking, investment and finance industry in spite of the ever more looming and unaccounted for 5% side of the 95% correlation, the so-called 'fat tail'(simplistically, what happens if more than anticipated % of US mortgage holders default?).

In summary, Ms. Tett provides an insiders view of JPM's creation of and internal struggles with the increasingly complex derivatives which the firm initially lobbied for, then marketed and finally shied away from due to the unknown risk the instruments presented. As such, the book is an insider's view and a noteworthy `first look' of the financial industry's corporate culture out of which the crisis came but by no means was the sole player in.

The author's background as a social anthropologist (she holds a PhD from Cambridge) provides a solid basis for her narrative, and the ending Epilogue holds alone enough material for a burgeoning Masters student who wishes to potentially dissect the financial excesses of society and the psychological bases which fuel them ...
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book on the crisis, as it relates to Financial Institutions., May 28, 2009
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An excellent book, engagingly written, tracing the excesses of the credit derivatives and credit structured products that were a major part of the cause of the current crisis.

This book is NOT a overview of the whole crisis. It is specifically intended to concentrate on the aspect above. It is written for those who are generally financially literate (e.g., typical readers of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal), not for those who are already knowledgeable in credit derivatives and credit structured products (a more expert reader would want explanations at the level of the books by Janet Tavakoli). However, for the primary audience, more basic explanations of CDSs, Synthetic CDOs, Super Senior tranches, ABX indices, Conduits and SIVs etc -- all the specialised vocabulary that has been in the financial news in the last two years -- are quite sufficient and are more than adequate.

What I particularly liked, in addition to the very readable style, was the clarity of the overriding theme of corruption of the products with undiversified sub-prime mortgage assets, exaccerbated by excesses of leverage and shadow-banking vehicles to hold them; how an intelligent set of ideas was perverted in an environment encouraging greed at the expense of prudent risk-taking.

A highly informative book, well researched and written by Gillian Tett. Strongly recommended.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tett offensive, June 1, 2010
This review is from: Fool's Gold: The Inside Story of J.P. Morgan and How Wall St. Greed Corrupted Its Bold Dream and Created a Financial Catastrophe (Paperback)
I've now read no fewer than seven excellent books detailing the financial atrocities of 2007-9. Each takes a different spin.

British broker Philip Augar covers the historical perspective; hedge fund manager and amateur philosopher George Soros looks to epistemology; former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan provides a wide-ranging survey aimed more or less at self-exculpation; former Goldman Sachs chief and US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson breathlessly covers the regulator's perspective; New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin impressively covers the CEO's perspective and Michael Lewis writes from the perspective of those motley few who not only saw the crash coming (as we all did!) with hindsight, but bet on it happening ahead of time.

Now Gillian Tett, an excellent writer for the Financial Times, provides the credit structurer's perspective. Surveying the economic and intellectual environment which lent the tools and opportunity for these sub-prime backed products to get off the ground, Tett tells the story through the prism of the J. P. Morgan structuring desk from whose "BISTRO" transactions ("bank of international settlements total rip-off" indeed!) all of this started, but who still never fell for the mortgage-backed kool-aid which overwhelmed the rest of the market. The house of Morgan (Jean Strouse's reverent tome is well recommended) has a venerable tradition that even Goldman Sachs would envy; its performance over the last three years has burnished that reputation in a way that Goldman certainly ought to.

Tett's curiously titled book is, for the most part excellent, entertaining and novel. She does a better (and certainly more balanced) job of explaining the engineering of a CDO than Lewis (though in fairness, his is the only other entry to even have a go), and the J. P. Morgan angle is a clever narrative to lay over the goings on.

So much so that when Tett loses her focus on Morgan in the closing stages - her attention switches to the much larger field of conflict as the financial world blew up - the book suffers: Tett's treatment Bear, Lehman, AIG, and others is (of necessity) cursory, and those who are interested should seek out Sorkin's extraordinary survey, which is far more thorough.

Tett does pull it all back together again in her epilogue by re-focussing on the Morgan diaspora in a where-are-they-now summary, and she provides a stark and assertive personal perspective. Her background is social anthropology which she says (and I fully agree) provides a valuable perspective on how this could all have happened, and how it might happen again, that you won't find in Hayek or Friedman. But this is added as an afterthought rather than a spoke of the central thesis, which is a pity. For me that's the real story: the herd mentality, the group-think, the social and anthropological hierarchies that persist (and on which our financial and political institutions, frankly, are built) which tend to neuter the checks and balances which classical market theory says ought to be provided by the market. Curiously, George Soros gets closest to this, in his otherwise rather idiosyncratic (and a bit premature) book.

Tett's missed opportunity here is compounded when she misinterprets the metaphor of Plato's cave: The participants who look at only the shadows projected on the wall aren't at fault for failing to look at the "perfect forms" whose outlines create the shadows: Plato's point is they *can't* ever see them: it is the human condition to be stuck with the shadows. That ought to lead, therefore to a different conclusion: not that we should turn around to look at the projector - for that will surely blind us - but that we need at all times to maintain a healthy scepticism for what we are seeing. The fatal mistake is to suppose it is the truth.

If we can devise a way of building that impulse - a will to contingency, if you like - into our institutions, we'll be on the way to fixing this.

Fat chance, I suspect.

Olly Buxton
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Type of Book You Can't Put Down, July 20, 2009
Of the recent chronicles of our ongoing financial collapse, this is one of the finest. I'll leave the theoretical hairsplitting to our financial clergy, but for us laity, it's a fast-paced page-turner. It's the type of book you can't put down, but by that I mean that it's a book that you mustn't lay down, because if you stop reading on a Friday and resume the following Monday, will you retain the meaning of all the financial jargon? For us mere mortals, there's a lot of detail here to remember, mostly initials (which Ms. Tett wrongly calls "acronyms"): IIF, ISDA, CDO of ABS, CDOs of CDOs, BISTRO, SIV, &c., &c.

But wait! The good news is that this book has a glossary! -- which most of the other financial-meltdown accounts lack. [Hurrah! Wild cheering!] The bad news is that there are only 25 terms listed in it [cheering dies down], and you're left on your own with such esoteric terms as "ABX derivatives," and the definitions themselves are far from obvious: "SIV: An entity that operates in a manner similar to a conduit but does not enjoy complete credit support from a bank, and has external equity investors who bear the first risk of losses." [cheering turns into a dull murmur]

That's unfortunate, because the general public sorely needs to know what happened, and the news media are apparently unable to provide a coherent and unbiased account. Without a basic understanding of the situation, the average person naturally reverts to his prejudices: that the meltdown was caused by minorities (you know who) purchasing homes that they knew they couldn't afford; that it was nothing more than another case of shysters trying to do an end run around the wise regulators; or, as is commonly believed in Europe, that it's the rotten Americans to blame again (when, actually, half of the CDOs were traded in the UK).

We, reverting to our peasant stock, also want to know who to blame for the mess, so that we can tar-and-feather them, but after reading this book, it's not so clear that any one person or group was to blame. Nor is it clear that the crisis could have been averted if only . . . if only . . . (more regulation, better regulators, Democratic administration -- supply your own pet panacea here). In fact, most people mentioned in this book seem to have conducted themselves admirably, or if not admirably, no worse than you or I would've behaved had we been among the financial elite.

My only complaint about "Fool's Gold" is that there is an occasional wrong word ("fallacious" --pg.113-- is not synonymous with merely "mistaken") or lapse of punctuation. Everyone hits the occasional wrong note, but this is the second book with such defects that I've recently read that was published by Simon and Schuster. Apparently they are too cheap to hire proofreaders. High marks to Ms. Tett; low marks to them.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book On The Role Various Instruments Played in The Current Financial Crisis, January 3, 2010
This book review is my fourth, in a series of reviews on the financial crisis. The three previous books I reviewed focused almost entirely on the events leading to the collapse of a specific investment bank. Two books focused on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the other book focused on the collapse of Bear Sterns.
Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett is written from a different perspective. While the book is written with an emphasis on JP Morgan, the book is not focused entirely on the firm. The book is an in depth explanation of how a small group of bankers at JP Morgan invented the tools that are now blamed for exacerbating the financial crisis. They invented credit derivatives which were supposed to be beneficial for the economy and the banking system in particular. The author notes the irony, how instruments that were supposed to make banking more efficient, were manipulated by other firms to take undo risks and cause a near collapse of the financial system.
An interesting fact I learned from the book was how the first CDS was created. In 1993, after the Valdez oil spill, Exxon wished to borrow $4.8 billion from JP Morgan. JP Morgan knew Exxon was credit worthy, but did not want to extend them a loan because it would require a large capital reserve and produce little profit. JP Morgan persuaded the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to insure the loan, while JP Morgan would keep the loan on its books. JP Morgan would pay a small fee to the bank, collect interest and be protected from a default by Exxon. JP Morgan was able to persuade regulators that since JP Morgan had no risk of default from this loan, they should be allowed to reduce capital reserves.
I have two main criticisms of the book. The author does an excellent job explaining the roots of the financial crisis, and the risks undertaken by the various financial institutions. However, the author is scant on detail when the crisis reached its height. I wish she had focused more on the collapse of Lehman Brothers, near collapse of AIG and other firms in late 2008. While the author devoted over 200 pages to explaining the various instruments the banks were using, she only devotes a few pages to the crucial year of the crisis: 2008.
My second criticism is that, although the author focuses almost entirely on the role of credit derivatives. I would have preferred that she also explain the other factors that caused the financial crisis i.e. Government actions, subprime lending etc. However, I do not think her goal in writing the book was to focus exclusively on these instruments and therefore I am not sure my criticism is valid.
Overall, the book is excellent and the author does a superb job in explaining the origination of structured investment vehicles, CDOs, and CDSs and their role in causing the financial crisis. I was surprised to learn the author had no formal education or job in finance, since she seemed to have such an excellent grasp on it, I would not recommend this book for someone who does not have a background in finance/economics. The book explains complex financial instruments which I think most people will have a hard time understanding. However, I think this is a great book for anyone who has an understanding of finance. This is the best publication I have read so far that explains the various instruments the banks created that ultimately lead the world to near financial Armageddon.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars MBA bankers, January 2, 2010
By 
R. Yu "RY" (Astoria, NY United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This book shows what many have suspected for ages, that most MBA bankers perform no conducive function to general society. The sanitation man or bus driver deserve more respect. According to this book, J.P.Morgan bankers in the late 90's (self proclaimed, the 'Morgan Mafia'), if not pioneered, then evolved complex, addictive forms of money-making products, variably acronymed CDS, CDO, MBS, ABS, SIV...For the casual reader, what they stand for is irrelevant; it was financial crack, peddled around the 'shadow banks' (renamed 'bad banks' today), which are banks within banks, but whose assets/liabilities are invisible on the mother bank's books. But to the credit of JPM, after the lessons of rocky mergers with Chase Manhattan and Bank One, and CEO Jamie Dimon (the latest Prince of Wall Street, and definitely not Chuck Prince of Citigroup, who infamously declared at the height of the bubble, 'If the music is playing, then we'll keep dancing'), they saw the warning signs. What many saw as a minor, normal correction in the housing market, Dimon turned conservative. But the other financial 'big boys' (whose names will not be repeated here, out of respect or revulsion?) giddily chased the falling knife. Even three venerable Dow Jones blue chips, who had no business in the game, created their own shadow banks to get in the action-GE (GE Capital), AIG (AIG Financial), and GM (GMAC), and all three were devastated due to it. They saw no risk - the regulators were worse than the keystone cops, and the ratings agencies were in the pocket. They were leveraged 30-40x, which is analogous to a retail investor using 100's of credit cards to buy stock. Mark-to market accounting rules were meaningless,because no one knew what they were worth at any specific time. Then the first major scare occured when two huge, but mostly anonymous Bear Stearns hedge funds holding these (now called toxic) assets (which previously consisted mostly of low grade corporate bonds, now were bundles of home mortgages, due to the housing bubble (thought they were going to miss that?)), collapsed. This was front page news and most were stupified. Since these products (called derivatives), were so fiendishly revolutionary, no legal, financial protocol existed in case they failed. Bank collapses and Ch.11 bankruptcies were commonplace, but this was an 'economic tsunami'. Severe anxiety mounted. It was as if a skyscraper showed signs of buckling, but where are the fire marshals or exit signs. You can imagine the panic, or maybe you experienced it. Once the professional real estate speculators bailed out, cutting their losses, or in most cases, running with the profits, the homeowners began to foreclose. Their house was now worth pennies on the dollar, while their mortgage agreements stood. Worse for the 'big boys' was that their hands were tied. They could not unload these products, because there was no market for them and no one knew what they were worth! Shocking losses were reported quarter after quarter. Many financial stocks became penny stocks, while other were seized, bankrupted or sold off. Fool's Gold.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Book that Breaks Down Wall Street's Financial Jargon, December 19, 2009
If you want to better understand the financial crisis, but you don't know what a CDO, CDS, SIV, super senior debt, CDOs squared, etc., is this is the book for you. Gillian Tett has written a book that anyone outside of the financial industry can understand and it is a pleasure to read. The book describes how several bankers at JP Morgan were in the forefront of the derivatives markets in the early 90's. She then explains how credit derivatives evolved and how JP Morgan escaped the carnage that took place in the fall of 2008. Essentially credit derivatives are a way for a bank to reduce their exposure to risk. JP Morgan was able to create relatively safe derivatives when they were employed on companies because they could analysis their credit worthiness, but this was not the case with home mortgages. JP Morgan could not fine any reliable nationwide data on US housing market because US home prices had always went up since the Great Depression. The lack of housing data and their merger with Manhattan Chase preventing JP Morgan from becoming a major player in the securitiazation of home mortgages during the decade. Gillian Tett does not point fingers in her book, she simple describes how the course of events played out and how JP Morgan Chase was able to avoid the problems encountered by most banks. Gillian Tett's has written a interesting and informative book about the current credit crisis that a lay person can understand.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best Book on Derivatives so far, July 4, 2009
By 
William A. Thayer (San Diego, California United States) - See all my reviews
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On a 2008 tour to Greece, I asked a fellow tour member (a senior executive from the SEC) what derivatives were? He couldn't answer the question (which says a lot about the SEC). Well, he should read this book. It's easy to understand, and the layman can come out with an understanding of credit derivatives and shadow banking. The author's description of the Bear Stearns and Lehman bankruptcies is also the best I have read. In particular, she points out that Lehman relied heavily on Repos (loans for 0 to 180 days) so they were very vulnerable to a shutoff of lending (vs. having 2 to 5 year financing which probably would have saved them). She is a little weak and incomplete when it comes to numbers (what the heck, she has a PhD in "Social Anthropology"). Also, her coverage of Credit Default Swaps (no mention of Maiden Lane bailouts) is not thorough. Nevertheless, she has brought light to the purposely opaque world of mortgage backed derivatives (including the interesting story of how it all began). If you are interested in the causes the financial meltdown, this book is a 5 star help.
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