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on August 17, 2009
First, what this book isn't, then what it is. Panic is NOT a "Michael Lewis Book." In other words, it's not "Liars Poker" or "MoneyBall" the classics written entirely by him, which will disappoint some readers.

This book is a series of articles that form a coherent whole, discussing the four "once in a millennium" financial meltdowns we had in the last 25 years. Michael Lewis weaves them together by contributing a chapter to each of the four parts. His portions are of course the most readable and interesting (although Dave Barry gives him a run for his money writing about how to get rich in real estate). For readers that lived through these times, this book is a nice recap to jog memories for brains that may fade with time and for those that are new to the markets and think the crash of 2008 in unusual, this may be an eye-opener.

Michael Lewis's message is "financial panics have become almost commonplace; events that are to meant to occur once in a millennium now seem to occur every few years. Could this be because the financial system was built on an idea that badly underestimates the risk of catastrophes - and so conspires with human nature to create them?" After studying all four of these major panics, he also concludes that the press was at least partly complicit in the inflation of these bubbles.

Lewis starts with the crash of 87, writing "Black Monday was the first of a breed: a crash the suggested disastrous economic and social consequences but in the end had no serious effects at all." He writes: "the sweet logic of Black-Scholes was shown to be irrelevant in the real world of crashes and panics." It is truly dumbfounding how a theory that seemed to have been proved invalid on one destructive day persisted anyway, in a different form. He writes: "This is interesting: The very theory underlying all insurance against financial panic falls apart in the face of an actual panic. A few smart traders may have abandoned the theory, but the market itself hasn't." After this introduction, Lewis and others take us on a ride through not one panic, but four gnarly collapses.

The Crash of 87. Lewis marvels at how wrong observers were in the aftermath of the crash of 1987, which wiped out more than 20% of stock market value in one day: "New York Times wrote that these yuppies are unprepared and unconditioned for the hard times to come. But as it turned out, those yuppies were so well prepared that they survived to create many more crashes."

Before the crash, the atmosphere in the markets was akin to that of the dot-com bubble - some of the quotes are priceless. An LA screenwriter and amateur stock investor says: "It's so simple, it's insane. If you do this carefully, it's like picking money off trees." But no party lasts forever, and "with the stock market crash the market in junk bonds, inextricably linked to the asset values of corporations, temporarily ceased to function altogether." Sound familiar? One of the reasons people prefer Michael Lewis's style of writing to typical Wall Street journalists is this line: "It was striking how little control we had of events, particularly in view of how assiduously we cultivated the appearance of being in charge by smoking big cigars and saying [...] all the time."

The Asian/Russian/Long-Term Capital Crash. Wall Street always finds a new confidence game. Lewis starts this section by writing: "This section, describes not the fall, but the rise of the ever more highly mobile financier, running ever more highly mobile money...obviously the poor guy in Thailand who lost his company doesn't think of his crisis as a Wall Street subplot. But on Wall Street, that's what it was. Capital was fast. It was about to become even faster." This panic occurred during the rise of widespread use of computers on Wall Street. In this panic, "traders are glued to their screens whenever stories flash across about Clinton's sex life or Yeltsin's drinking habits. They have no interest in what Bill Clinton or Yeltsin say about the Russian Ruble - they prefer to hear from George Soros."

The L.T.C.M debacle is neatly summed up: "the best minds were destroyed by the oldest and most famously addictive drug in finance, leverage." Also mentioned is the fact that Goldman Sachs saw the LTCM "book" and may have traded against them - more fodder for those that question the practices of Goldman.

The best nugget on the LTCM was John Merriweather, quoting one of his analysts: "I like the way Victor put it: The hurricane is not more or less likely to hit because more hurricane insurance has been written. In the financial markets this is not true. The more people write financial insurance, the more likely it is that a disaster will happen, because the people who know you have sold the insurance can make it happen."

The seeds of the current subprime debacle appear to be sown in 1998. Lewis writes: "In October 1987, the markets took power from the people who traded with their intuition and bestowed it upon people who trade with their formulas. In August 1998, the markets took power away from people with formulas and bestowed it upon the large Wall Street firms that oversee the marketplace." This sounds prescient today.

The dot-com collapse. Lewis tells the tale of the dot-com bubble as he describes how Jim Clark couldn't even get a meeting with Salomon Brothers to take Silicon Graphics public, but a few years later had people fighting to take ill-fated Healtheon public.

My favorite part of the dot-com portion of the book is how Madoff, now public enemy number one, would not allow trading in Amazon on margin. Lewis writes: "To Mr. Madoff, it was insanity. This thing was getting out of control." No worries, Madoff made it through the October 1987 crash - as Nasdaq's chairman. No wonder he survived - the money wasn't in stocks.

Even Cramer got hurt by the dot-com crash saying "I feel I went from being, you know, top of the game to pretty humiliated." Of course, he reinvented himself from dot-com company founder to discredited CNBC TV guru.

My favorite part of this section is how a Sr. VP for marketing for [...] derides all the other dot-bombs that spent $6 million for 30 second commercials during the superbowl. He says "I have the luxury of saying this because we have a brand." Today, they don't even have that.

Also wonderful for schadenfreude is revisiting the fact that Launny Steffens of Merrill saying the internet was "a serious threat to American's financial lives" weeks before launching internet mutual funds and having Henry Blodgett as pitchman for money- losing internet IPOs. Lewis says Wall Street will never be cleaned up and "A boom without crooks is like a dog without fleas. It just doesn't happen."

Suprime/Real Estate/Wall Street collapse of 2008. Lewis calls this "The People's Panic" since it "has yet to find its one big culprit, and not sure it ever will." This panic was different from the others due to "the sheer amount of destruction it's caused inside big Wall Street firms." Of course, like every other panic, Lewis caveats: "But that doesn't mean the game is over." He discusses John Paulson, who took home over $3.7 billion in one year by shorting subprime - more money than anyone has ever made on Wall Street in a year.

Dave Barry's "How to get Rich in Real Estate" in this section is fantastic. The silliest part is a picture of Suze Orman with the caption: "The most deadly critter is the dry-rot fungus, an organism made up of tiny but voracious spores that, when magnified 127,000 times, look like this:" He says mistake number one is to buy an old house, and follows it up with mistake number two, buying a new house: "Unlike old houses, which fall apart over time, new houses start falling apart immediately. Often the last subcontractors on the job have to spring from the house as it begins to collapse around them, like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom." The house price collapse was not unique, as he reminds us in a chapter which says that between 1989 and 1995, house prices in San Francisco fell by 40%.

Lewis skewers Jim Cramer, recalling the "buy" rating on Bear Stearns at $62 only days before it was sold for $2 and eventually $10 per share to JP Morgan. No one on Wall Street is spared - in one part of this section the book makes the assertion that the Hedge Fund industry may be built on a series of lies. "For the past decade, it's explosive growth has been based on a simple claim: that skilled money managers, motivated by high performance fees, could outperform the market when it was going up - and sidestep the trouble when it was going down. And yet the credit crunch has shown that to be a myth." Academics claim returns were distorted, and some fund managers were "outright con artists."

Ultimately, the ending is the conclusion that there is no end to financial panics. "The cycles of euphoria and panic have become more and more thrilling: whoever has been seeking to minimize drama in the financial markets has been doing a poor job of it." Perhaps this is the nature of global capitalism - "ever more complex, ever more opaque, ever faster booms and busts."
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on February 3, 2009
I really like Michael Lewis's work. In fact, I have read everything he has written, from Liar's Poker to The Blind Side. The guy is, in a word, gifted.

So, imagine my delight when I saw (while I was rushing through an airport) a new book by Michael. I purchased the book, and could hardly wait to start reading it. When I finally got in the plane, and opened the book, I discovered that the writings in the book were not Lewis at all, but rather a collection of no-so-interesting articles about the various financial crashes.

Nothing is staler than yesterday's Wall Street journal (financial news spoils quickly) and reading WSJ or Barron's pieces from 10 to 20 years ago is just painful.

The title PANIC: The story of modern financial insanity led me to believe the book was about the current crises. The book does say, in very, very fine print "Edited by" Michael Lewis.

I feel I was misled....shame on you Michael for lending your name to this and shame on your publisher
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on November 24, 2008
As I look at the Amazon product page for the book I've just received, there's nothing that indicates that this is NOT a book written by Michael Lewis. Rather, it's a collection of short articles (a lot of them, probably 50-75 in total, of which he wrote 6) that he selected to discuss various topics. My rating doesn't reflect the quality of the articles - I'm sure they're good, and I've actually read some of them in the past year. My rating reflects the fact that this isn't a new Michael Lewis book, and that isn't indicated anywhere. Disappointing.
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on May 20, 2009
Like countless others who have reviewed Michael Lewis' "Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity", I didn't realize I was buying a collection of works of other authors in addition to Lewis' previously published pieces. However, it was interesting to get a glimpse into different financial eras to see how things have progressed over the past twenty years. Of the four sections, the Dot.Com was my favorite due to Lewis' defense of the entrepreneurial spirit within the firms and criticism of Wall Street's post-crash, hypocritical stance of "don't blame us".

What is very interesting and what I came away with from reading about these unique events is the realization that the panic in 1987, as well as the Asian Currency crisis, really didn't affect the average American. However, beginning with the stocks and continuing into the current subprime crisis, the markets have evolved into such a far-reaching force that the actions of Wall Street have significantly impacted all income classes. Also, Lewis does a good job in selecting pieces that, as a whole, portrays the evolution of investment banks as firms focused on servicing individual brokerage accounts to fee-driven, relationship banks for corporate clients. This has created significant conflicts of interests with regards to investment banks pushing the sale of stocks of their corporate clients to their individual investors. I perceived an implication from Lewis, through his selection of some of the pieces, that he places a large share of the blame on Wall Street for all of these Panics.

All in all, I felt the book was a good read that you can pick up over the course of a couple of weeks and read at your pace. However, there are articles that you will read and wish you had those ten minutes of your life back. I wish there would have been less focus on the Asian Currency crisis and more so on the current sub-prime mess but I suppose more time needs to pass in order to get a proper perspective on its historical significance.
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(Memo to those who do: I heard yesterday that he may be at work on a new book right now, so don't get too mad about your current disappointment...)

As other reviewers have noted, this is NOT by Michael Lewis. Rather, the same guy who gave us Liar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street and The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story has worked through a variety of sources in search of the best reportage on past financial market panics. At the time Lewis was toiling on assembling this (the last story in the anthology is dated in January 2008), it must have been hard to imagine how topical this would become. Certainly, the readings offer clear insight, from many different points of view, on how financial manias emerge, grow, build and then burst, triggering, yes, panic. In light of the events of the last six months or so, this book arrives right in time to give us a framework within which to ponder our current plight. And in some ways, I'd rather have this anthology than a book by Lewis himself -- no single viewpoint is going to give any reader a firm handle on this complex topic.

I particularly appreciate Lewis's eclectic sourcing. He goes to humorists like Dave Barry as well as outstanding business reporters like Roger Lowenstein and Greg Zuckerman to obtain insight into the phenomena that we are all seeing played out before our eyes today. Joseph Stiglitz opines on the aftermath of the Asian Crisis in a piece pulled from "Project Syndicate"; he includes blog entries and statements by politicians. He has reproduced Jack Willoughby's classic financial reporting effort on the rate at which companies were burning through cash, published by Barron's in March 2000 -- just as that market was about to turn very sour indeed.

This is a very valuable contribution to the relatively scanty ranks of accessible business/financial reporting. For those who don't scour the busienss press daily, it will provide them with insight into the way financial markets normally work and what kinds of factors can lead to them becoming distorted. Even those familiar with the way Wall Street works should find this both intriguing and useful, reminding us that there really is no such phenomenon as "it's different this time."

The one element of this collection with which I would quibble is the implication that we can learn enough from past mistakes not to repeat them. While I do believe that we should have been able to learn more from past manias about spotting a mania in development (i.e. Alan Greenspan should be ashamed at not having recognized the implications of the real estate asset bubble as it took shape), each mania (like each rogue trader) arises in different circumstances and finds its own trajectory. In this context, it would have been interesting to see a greater focus on attempts to improve risk management models -- the art of trying to prevent periods of irrational exuberance turning into manias and panics.
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VINE VOICEon November 24, 2008
I have to admit, I read the Dave Barry segment first. In it I learned that there are three proven techniques guaranteed to lose you money in real estate: Buy an old house, buy a new house, or get a mortgage. After I finished laughing about OHDD (Old House Delusion Disease), I moved on.

This anthology has a simple idea: "to re-create the more recent financial panics, in an attempt to show how financial markets now operate." Each of the four parts of the book has articles written during the heat of the crisis, and more penned afterwards about the causes and effects and repercussions of the event. Part I examines the stock market crash of 1987. Part II looks at the Asian currency crisis of 1999 which triggered the Russian government bond default that brought down the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. In Part III the Internet bubble bursts. Lastly, and most poignantly, Part IV delves into the current subprime mortgage debacle.

A segment by Peter S. Goodman of the New York Times titled "This is the Sound of a Bubble Bursting" sobered me up. Written at Christmas time 2007, this article is all about the real estate bust in Cape Coral, Florida, on the mainland near where I live. Goodman gives example after example of people losing everything, of communities gone dark after being abandoned, and the crime rate rising in these darkened neighborhoods. The only good news for Elaine Pellegrino's family, who haven't paid their mortgage for four months, is "the courts are so stuffed with foreclosures that they assume they can stay for a while."

This is scary, depressing stuff, but the writing makes the big picture clear. I highly recommend Panic to any grownup who wants to understand what has happened in our financial world. You might want to have a Dave Barry book nearby to cheer you up afterward.

(A handy glossary in the back deciphers financial terms for readers that don't know their Derivatives from their Ninja Loans.)

Here's the chapter list:

Introduction: Inside Wall Street's Black Hole

Part I: A Brand-New Kind of Crash
1. Stephen Koepp, "Riding the Wild Bull"
2. Scott McMurray and Robert L. Rose, "The Crash of '87: Chicago's `Shadow Markets' Led Free Fall in a Plunge That Began Right at Opening"
3. From the Brady Commission Report
4. Tim Metz, from Black Monday: The Catastrophe of October 19, 1987 ... and Beyond
5. Michael Lewis, from Liar's Poker: Rising through the Wreckage on Wall Street
6. Stephen Labaton, "The Lonely Feeling of Small Investors"
7. Richard J. Meislin, "Yuppies' Last Rites Readied"
8. Eric J. Weiner, from What Goes Up
9. Lester C. Thurow, "Did the Computer Cause the Crash?"
10. Terri Thompson, "Crash-Proofing the Market; A Lot of Expert Opinions, but Few Results"
11. The Economist, "Short Circuits"
12. Robert J. Shiller, "Crash Course: Black Monday's Biggest Lesson -- Don't Run Scared"
13. Franklin Edwards, from After the Crash

Part II: Foreigners Gone Wild
14. Reed Abelson, "Mutual Funds Quarterly Report; The Forecast Looks Brighter for Adventure Travel"
15. The New York Times, "Thailand Warns Currency Speculators"
16. David Holley, "A Thai Business Wonders, Will It All Crumble?"
17. Paul Krugman, Reporter Associate Jeremy Kahn, "Saving Asia"
18. Interview with Rob Johnson, from Frontline's "The Crash"
19. The Economist, "Finance and Economics: A Detour or a Derailment?"
20. Michael Lewis, "Pulling Russia's Chain"
21. Interview with Jeffrey D. Sachs, from Frontline's "The Crash"
22. Michael Lewis, "How the Eggheads Cracked"
23. Joseph Stiglitz, "10 Years After the Asian Crisis, We're Not Out of the Woods Yet"
24. Keith Bradsher, "Asia's Long Road to Recovery"
25. Choe Sang-Hun, "Tracking an Online Trend, and a Route to Suicide"

Part III: The New New Panic
26. The New York Times, "Bigger Netscape Offering"
27. The New York Times, "Underwriters Raise Offer Price for Netscape Communication"
28. Laurence Zuckerman, "With Internet Cachet, Not Profit, a New Stock is Wall St.'s Darling"
29. Carrick Mollenkamp and Karen Lundegaard, "How Net Fever Sent Shares of a Firm on 3-Day Joy Ride"
30. Michael Lewis, "New New Money," from The New New Thing
31. Rebecca Buckman and Aaron Lucchetti, "Cooling It: Wall Street Firms Try to Keep Internet Mania from Ending Badly"
32. Jack Willoughby, "Burning Up"
33. John Cassidy, from [...]: The Greatest Story Ever Told
34. Erick Schonfeld, "The High Price of Research: Caveat Investor: Stock and Research Analysts Covering Dot-Coms Aren't as Independent as You Think"
35. Katherine Mieszkowski, "[...]: Internet Companies Threw Millions into the Air at he Super Bowl. They're Still Pretending They Scored a Touchdown."
36. Mark Gimein, "Meet the Dumbest Dot-Com in the World"
37. James Surowiecki, "The Financial Page: How Mountebanks Became Moguls"
38. Jerry Useem, "Dot Coms: What Have We Learned"
39. Michael Lewis, "In Defense of the Boom"

Part IV: The People's Panic
40. Dave Barry, "How to Get Rich in Real Estate," from Dave Barry's Money Secrets
41. John Hechinger, "Shaky Foundation: Rising Home Prices Cast Appraisers in a Harsh Light"
42. John Cassidy, "The Next Crash"
43. Robert Julavits, "As Bubble Speculation Rises, Industry Sees Little Fear"
44. Peter S. Goodman, "This Is the Sound of a Bubble Bursting"
45. Christopher Dodd, Opening Statement of Chairman Christopher Dodd, Hearing on "Mortgage Market Turmoil: Causes and Consequences"
46. James Surowiecki, "Subprime Homesick Blues"
47. Roger Lowenstein, "Triple-A Failure"
48. Larry Roberts, from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"
49. Kate Kelly, "Bear CEO's Handling of Crisis Raises Issues"
50. Michael Lewis, "What Wall Street's CEOs Don't Know Can Kill You"
51. David Henry and Matthew Goldstein, "The Bear Flu: How It Spread"
52. Michael Lewis, "A Wall Street Trader Draws Some Subprime Lessons"
53. Paul Krugman, "After the Money's Gone"
54. Matthew Lynn, "Hedge Funds Come Unstuck on Truth-Twisting, Lies"
55. Gregory Zuckerman, "Trader Made Billions on Subprime"
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on January 22, 2009
If you are mainly interested in our current panic you can save yourself some time and start reading on page 299. You will only have to concentrate on twelve pieces. The one that is more appropriately frightening (even though it was written at the end of 2007) is Paul Krugman's "After the Money's Gone") on page 353. And he may not be scary enough given what has happened since he wrote the article. None of the extraordinary hundred billion dollar remedy's taken by various government agencies are not working. The panic only deepens. The inauguration is a distraction. But economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is not distracted he pronounced that we are in a deep recession headed for a depression. Paul Krugman writes that this is a "rational panic". There is good reason for it. Martin Feldstein estimates Americans lost 11 trillion dollars of net worth. A rational quantifiable reason for rational panic.
According to Paul Krugman, to restore a historically normal ratio of housing prices to rent or income home prices would have to fall about 30 percent from current levels. And with a fall of 30 percent there will be 13.7 million homeowners with negative equity. But my own personal data (contained in my book "How to Invest in Condominiums") and experience in Seattle indicates that the 30 percent may be understated. In Seattle in the late 1970's you could buy new condominiums for a price that was about seven times the gross annual rent. I stopped buying real estate in the 1980's when I could not get a price close to my recommended target price of seven times the gross annual rent. The bubble was beginning to inflate. If millions of other real estate buyers had stopped buying because housing prices were getting outrageously high relative to imputed rents it is difficult to imagine how the bubble could have continued to grow.
Now the bubble has supposedly burst, but yet the minimum selling price at condominium auctions (and they do sell rapidly) are set at about fourteen (14) times the gross annual rent. Twice what was "normal" in the late 1970's. Seattle, of course, is not the whole country but almost everyday there are indications that the panic is getting bigger. Weeks ago the government thought they could stop the panic with a $750 billion injection of capital. But now in senate hearings you hear the number $4 trillion to buy from the banks all the "toxic assets" (a scary label for over-priced real estate used in times of panic). Some economists worry that this massive amount of spending could totally destabilize the dollar. The Inauguration's main theme was hope. But the stock market responded with a crescendo of fear. It fell 332 points, the worst Inauguration Day sell off in 113 years
To more realistically quantify the present level of the panic Paul Krugman's fall in average home prices should be increased to at least 50 percent. Fortunately I don't know how to calculate the number of homeowners with negative equity that would result in. I'm in enough of a panic as it is.
I give Professor Krugman's piece five stars. I give the whole book three stars there are some funny pieces about about poor people and about how easy it is to make money in real estate.
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on January 27, 2016
This is a collection of articles written about financial collapses. Not what I expected. However it's fun to see what the perceptions were before, during, and after various disasters; then to see why they happened, in hindsight.
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on February 14, 2012
All of the Michael Lewis books are extremely readable. In this anthology, he has assembled lots of works from the Panics, in a well organized fashion. The price is absolutely fantastic and for this small price will help you develop a mind set to "keep your head while others are loosing theirs". This book could save you a lot of money SO..Buy this book"
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on March 2, 2015
Please note that Mr. Lewis didn't write this book; he is the Editor, compiling a selection of pieces written by other authors - and their writing style is not up to his level. I didn't realize this when I bought it, and it's been something of a chore to get through.
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