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1,348 of 1,413 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who knew?
Based on reading Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker and Moneyball, I wondered whether The Big Short would prove to be entertaining and informative. If you've read some of Lewis' books, you might agree that the "entertaining" part would seem to be a reasonably safe bet. It turns out, it is. The Big Short is fast-paced, straightforward, conversational and salty--very much like...
Published on March 15, 2010 by AdamSmythe

1,422 of 1,621 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Big Short Falls a Bit Short
Let me get the easy part of this out of the way first. Michael Lewis is a remarkably gifted writer, and I have often found his books impossible to put down. When I first read his debut at book authorship, Liar's Poker, I literally read it straight through. I was not alone in this, as Liar's Poker rightfully made Michael a very well-respected author and a very wealthy man...
Published on March 15, 2010 by David Bahnsen

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1,348 of 1,413 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who knew?, March 15, 2010
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Based on reading Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker and Moneyball, I wondered whether The Big Short would prove to be entertaining and informative. If you've read some of Lewis' books, you might agree that the "entertaining" part would seem to be a reasonably safe bet. It turns out, it is. The Big Short is fast-paced, straightforward, conversational and salty--very much like his earlier works. Indeed, if you didn't know Michael Lewis had written this book, you could probably guess it. It is easy reading and very hard to put down. In short (no pun), The Big Short doesn't disappoint in being entertaining.

In a sense, this book is similar to Moneyball in that Lewis tells his story by following a host of characters that most of us have never heard of--people like Steve Eisman (the closest thing to a main character in the book), Vincent Daniel, Michael Burry, Greg Lippmann, Gene Park, Howie Hubler and others.

How informative is the book? Well, it may seem that Lewis has his work cut out for himself, since the events of the recent financial crisis are already well known. More than that, lots of people have their minds made up concerning who the perps of the last few years are--banks and their aggressive managers, "shadow banks" and their even more aggressive managers, hedge funds, credit default swaps, mortgage brokers, the ratings agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Fed's monetary policy, various federal regulators, short sellers, politicians who over-pushed home ownership, a sensationalist media, the American public that overextending itself with excessive borrowing (or that lied in order to get home loans), housing speculators, etc. The list goes on--and on. Okay, so you already know this. The defining aspect of this book, however, is that it asks (and answers) "Who knew?" about the impending financial crisis beforehand. Who knew--before the financial crisis cracked open for everyone to see (and, perhaps, to panic) in the fall of 2008--that a silent crash in the bond market and real estate derivatives market was playing out? Indeed, the good majority of this book addresses events that occurred before Lehman's failure in September of 2008. In describing what led up to the darkest days of the crisis, Lewis does a good job helping the reader to see how the great financial storm developed. All in all, this is an informative book.

Interestingly, in the book's prologue, Salomon Brothers alumnus Lewis explains how, after he wrote Liar's Poker over 20 years ago, he figured he had seen the height of financial folly. However, even he was surprised by the much larger losses suffered in the recent crisis compared to the 1980s, which seem almost like child's play now.

For a taste of The Big Short, Steve Eisman was a blunt-spoken "specialty finance" research analyst at Oppenheimer and Co., originally in the 1990s, and he eventually helped train analyst Meredith Whitney, who most people associate with her string of negative reports on the banking industry, primarily from late 2007. Giving a flavor of his style, Eisman claims that one of the best lines he wrote back in the early 1990s was, "The [XYZ] Financial Corporation is a perfectly hedged financial institution--it loses money in every conceivable interest rate environment." His own wife described him as being "not tactically rude--he's sincerely rude." Vinny Daniel worked as a junior accountant in the 1990s (and eventually worked for Eisman), and he found out how complicated (and risky) Wall Street firms were when he tried to audit them. He was one of the early analysts to notice the high default rates on manufactured home loans, which led to Eisman writing a 1997 report critical of subprime originators. Michael Burry (later Dr. Michael Burry) was, among other things, a bond market researcher in 2004 who studied Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, and who correctly assessed the impact of "teaser rates" and interest rate re-sets on subprime loans. In 2005, Burry wrote to his Scion Capital investors that, "Sometimes markets err big time." How right he would be.

Greg Lippmann was a bond trader for Deutsche Bank, who discussed with Eisman ways to bet against the subprime mortgage market. Before home prices declined, he noted, for example, that people whose homes appreciated 1 - 5% in value were four times more likely to default than those whose homes appreciated over 10%. In other words, home prices didn't need to actually fall for problems to develop. (Of course, home prices fell a lot.) When Lippmann mentioned this to a Deutsche Bank colleague, he was called a Chicken Little. To which, Lippmann retorted, "I'm short your house!" He did this by buying credit default swaps on the BBB-rated tranches (slices) of subprime mortgage bonds. If that's not a mouthful, read further in the book for a description of Goldman Sachs and "synthetic subprime mortgage bond-backed CDOs." Then there's the AIG Financial Products story, told through the story of Gene Park, who worked at AIG, and his volatile boss, Joe Cassano.

Did I say this book is informative? Here's a bit more: Did you know that a pool of mortgages, each with a 615 FICO score, performs very differently (and better) than a pool of mortgages with half of the loans with a 550 FICO score and half with a 680 FICO score (for a 615 average)? If you think about it, the 550/680 pool is apt to perform significantly worse, because more of the 550 FICO score loans develop problems. Think about how that got gamed.

There's more, but hopefully you've gotten the point. This is a very interesting, entertaining and informative book that accomplishes what it sets out to do. Chances are you'll enjoy it.
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1,422 of 1,621 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Big Short Falls a Bit Short, March 15, 2010
David Bahnsen (Newport Beach, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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Let me get the easy part of this out of the way first. Michael Lewis is a remarkably gifted writer, and I have often found his books impossible to put down. When I first read his debut at book authorship, Liar's Poker, I literally read it straight through. I was not alone in this, as Liar's Poker rightfully made Michael a very well-respected author and a very wealthy man. Moneyball, The Blind Side, and numerous other best-sellers built on that reputation. The long-awaited newest contribution from Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, is 264 pages long, and I also read this in 24 hours. However, I doubt many others will feel the same. The book was compelling, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and nothing in the book modified my view that Michael Lewis is one of the most interesting writers of this era. I simply doubt that this book evoke the same response from the masses of people who will buy it. Perhaps I am wrong. So before I begin to disect the important parts of the book (its underlying messages, etc.), I will say that it was another hard-to-put-down book from Michael Lewis. Thumbs up, and all that stuff.

So what did I really think of the book? Well, Lewis should be commended for writing a book on the 2008 financial crisis from the most unique perspective thus far. Rather than focus on the major characters that a plethora of other books have focused on (Paulson, Bernanke, Geithner, etc.), Lewis tells his story using some extremely obscure characters as his lead actors: A handful of hedge fund managers who made massive bets against the subprime industry (and by hedge fund managers, I am not referring to high profile, well-known hedgies; I am talking about very, very minor players). Readers will feel connected to the characters when they are done with the book, and a less gifted writer could have never pulled this off. It was a difficult task for Lewis as well, but he skillfully made the points he wanted to make and simultaneously told a story, all through a narrative of four or five unconnected characters of whom the public has never heard.

What are these points Lewis wanted to make? I suppose the major tension of the book is the teeter-tottering between the greed/evil genius of the major Wall Street firms (on one hand), and then the utter stupidity and incompetence of Wall Street (on the other). It is a difficult balance to strike, and one reason it is difficult is because, well, one can not have it both ways. Lewis can not claim, as he astonishingly and explicitly does, that Goldman Sachs made AIG write credit default swaps on the subprime mortgage industry, guaranteeing AIG's demise and Goldman Sachs flourishing, but then on the other hand claim that the firms had no idea what they were doing, and were completely shell-shocked by what happened to their CDO's (the collateralized debt obligation instruments which served as the toxic assets you hear so much about). This inconsistency permeates the book, and tonight on 60 Minutes I heard Lewis repeat what his major thesis is: Wall Street did not know what they were doing. This is the correct thesis. But it is wholly imcompatible with the obscene Goldman Sachs conspiracy movement that has taken over the Oliver Stone mainframe of our society. Even a Michael Lewis fan like myself was taken aback by the audacity of this oft-repeated contradiction.

Perhaps the most disappointing message of the Lewis book is the conclusion he saved for the final chapter - the one I have heard him preaching for some time now on the media circuit. Lewis has been preaching since the days of Liar's Poker that the great sin of Wall Street was when all of the major firms went public (i.e. rather than function as closely-held partnerships, they sold shares to the public in the IPO market and now have no reason to ever check their evil inhibitions at the door). It is a rhetorically effective charge, but one that is not up for the most routine of examinations. The individuals most responsible for the massive money-losing operations of 2005-2007 were the largest shareholders in the firms. Jimmy Cayne of Bear Stearns saw his stock holdings decline from $1 billion of value to $50 million of value, directly under his watch. Richard Fuld was thrown to the lions as Lehman Brothers burned to the ground, but it burned up his $550 million of Lehman stock as well. The gentlemen running these firms were wealthy, and they were driven by a desire to get even wealthier, but it is absurd to postulate that the performance of these companies in the public stock markets were not important to them. It was all that was important to them. Are we really to believe that Wall Street would not have found more creative ways to raise capital in the capital markets if they were partnerships? Whether the firms were partnerships or public corporations, they lived off of balance sheet capital that they mostly raised in the debt markets. It was the bondholders who were on the verge of utter collapse in September of 2008. Why would that be different if they were partnerships? The most obvious refutation of Lewis's thesis is the question many are probably dying to point out to him after reading it: If being a public corporation corrupts the intentions of financial firms, why couldn't the same broad brush be used for all public corporations of all industries? If the removal of the partner capital from the company capital is a self-corrupting event, why should any corporation ever be allowed to go public? What exactly is the difference? Do not huge retail businesses, manufacturing firms, and technology outfits also use shareholder money to grow and operate? Does Lewis really want to advocate the abolition of public equity markets in America? It is absurd to even carry that argument through to its logical conclusion.

I do not want readers to be confused. There are some stellar observations in Lewis's newest book. He gets inside some of the most confused and ridiculous financial transactions ever conducted in the history of civilization, and he does it with the precision of a surgeon. But Lewis does not use his 264-page book to even apply one word - not one single utterance - against the malignant government policies behind much of this malaise. He could easily counter that his book was not meant to be a comprehensive introspection of the financial crisis, and that would be a fair response. But readers hoping for a biog-picture analysis of this crisis will not get it here. They will see the worst of a very small number of Wall Street traders, and they will see a system that was clueless to keep this process from ballooning out of control (his section on the high seven-figure bond traders being regulated by the high five-figure ratings agency analysts is choice). The risk management processes of Wall Street broke down. The hubris of a select number of people grew to a point of perversity. Contrary to Lewis's assertion, the bulk of these CEO's and executives did lose their jobs (Citi, Merrill Lynch, UBS, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, etc.) all fired their Presidents and CEO's as their houses burned to the ground. But overall, the book has a ton of good to say about the crisis. Most notably, he demonstrates how "in an old-fashioned panic, perception creates its own reality" (a concept that I want to explore much further in the future). He summarizes in a single sentence the most important thing that can be said about Lehman Brothers ("the problem wasn't that Lehman had been allowed to fail; the problem was that Lehman had been allowed to succeed").

I am truly glad that I read this book, and I do recommend it. However, as the pivotal work of evaluating the big picture of the crisis continues, the conclusion that Wall Street's transition to a shareholder-owned entity was at the heart of the matter is quite lacking. Unfortunately, both evil and incompetence exist in all kinds of business structures.
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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BookForum review, March 23, 2010
Seth Hettena (San Diego, CA USA) - See all my reviews
In the run-up to the housing collapse of 2007-2008, houses weren't merely expensive, they were insanely expensive. Yet just when it seemed that prices couldn't go higher, some fool would come along and pay an enormous sum for a glorified hovel. You didn't have to be a genius to realize that American real estate was overvalued. It did, however, take something special to figure out how to make money off the madness. A group of between ten and twenty people did just that, making the bet of a lifetime that author Michael Lewis calls "The Big Short"

The cast of characters in Lewis's highly readable chronicle of the collapse (and what led to it) includes a misanthropic former medical resident, a money manager who saw himself as Spider-Man, and a pair of men in their thirties who started with $110,00 in a Schwab account they managed from a backyard shed in Berkeley, California. "Each filled a hole," Lewis writes. "Each supplied a missing insight, an attitude to risk which, if more prevalent, might have prevented the catastrophe."

Ever since he left Salomon Brothers to write Liar's Poker, the classic 1989 account of his years as a bond salesman, Lewis has been waiting for a day of reckoning. Little did he realize that the Wall Street he once knew now seems quaint. By 2007, it had morphed into a financial Frankenstein, a "black box" filled with hidden risks on complicated bets that could destroy its creators, but only if the government allowed it to do so.

The first to figure out how to use the system against itself was a man named Michael Burry, who once described himself in an online personal ad as "a medical student with only one eye, an awkward social manner, and $145,000 in student loans." Burry possesses an intellect so unusual that Lewis turns his journey of self-discovery into a fascinating subplot. While working the grueling schedule of a medical resident, Burry started writing about stocks in an online forum. (He also took apart his personal computer and put it back together between 16-hour shifts at Stanford Hospital, prompting his superiors to send him to see a shrink.) When he quit medicine to start the hedge fund Scion Capital, admiring investors tracked him down and gave him money.

When Burry started buying insurance in 2005 on nearly two billion dollars' worth of bonds backed by lousy mortgages, his investors thought he had gone nuts and nearly mutinied. But in 2007, when the housing market began to crumble and Burry's bet paid off, everyone realized that his predictions weren't crazy so much as a sane interpretation of a market gone mad.

Burry might have set the trade in motion, but he was no salesman. The one who took his idea and ran with it, the "Patient Zero" of this tale, was a bond salesman at Deutsche Bank named Greg Lippmann, who went around telling everyone he could that the end was near. Only a few took his advice, but most who did became extremely rich. (John Paulson, who made an astounding personal profit of four billion dollars, is the subject of another recent book on the same theme, Gregory Zuckerman's The Greatest Trade Ever.)

The reader can't help but root for this gang of financial renegades as they take on a corrupt and rotten system. Still, The Big Short lacks the pure narrative drive of Lewis' best-selling sports books, Moneyball and The Blind Side. The new work draws its energy from a different source, a palpable undercurrent of anger at the excesses of Wall Street the author shares with his subjects. Lewis is justifiably outraged at the behavior of Wall Street and what its trillion-dollar subprime-mortgage business truly represented: a means of extracting money from the bottom of America's social pyramid and moving it to the top. The problem isn't that Lehman Brothers failed, he shrewdly observes, but that it was allowed to succeed in the first place.

Lewis reserves special scorn for the biggest banks. Goldman Sachs was selling large volumes of bonds backed by subprime mortgages and, at the same time, betting against the junk it was peddling. The Big Short also tells the little-known tale of how Morgan Stanley allowed a single trader to lose more than $9 billion.

It's appalling, but not much has changed. Most Wall Street CEOs who set a course for the iceberg remain in power today. The blind are still leading the blind. At any rate, as Lewis observes, they still can't see things any better than a one-eyed former medical resident.
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303 of 359 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Liars Poker Squared, March 15, 2010
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Mike Lewis has the gift for watching America and picking stories that are interesting to the public: in the last ten years Moneyball (the effect of statistical analysis on baseball) and The Blind Side (Importance of Left Tackles in American Football and rescuing an impoverished athlete). But his undying fame was Liars Poker, the story of Solomon Brothers Investment firm where he worked when 24 and made bonuses of about $200,000 without really understanding what he was doing. Possibly the most interesting part of this book is the foreward where Lewis describes how he felt when writing Liars Poker Wall Street provided worthless value to the economy and it was just a matter of years before the market recognized this. Unfortunately he was about 24 years too late. Couple this with his closing lunch with John Gutfruend and you have a great bookend for closure.

Now Lewis presents us with this bookend to Wall Street, how it universally missed the bad securities being issued backed by subprime securities destroying over $1 trillion in wealth. And his vehicle for this exploration is not a complete rehash but rather documenting the very few people (he estimates fewer than 20) that recognized that market crash coming and profiting immensely, people like Michael Burry, a Stanford Medical student who left to manage his own Hedge Fund. Actually there were many more than 20 people that knew this was coming. I began giving speeches in 2004 on "The Coming Crash in Home Prices". But these people he mentioned left conventional wisdom in believing that the subprime mortgages were worthless AND discovered the newly created tools to profit from them: credit default swaps and the ABX index. With the belief and knowledge these investors were rewarded handsomely whereas the rest of us suffered through a very downbeat market. But they deserved it and in Lewis' upbeat writing style he conveys eloquently but simply how the decisions were made and how they profited beyond belief.

There is one problem with this book. The subject was just covered quite well in The Greatest Trade Ever by Gregory Zuckerman which was released in November 2009. I've now read both books and there is an overlap. Greatest Trade is a very fast read and tells the story well focusing on John Paulson. This book doesn't delve on Paulson but does cover Michael Burry who was featured in the other book also.

Since so many reviews seem to be more interested in giving their political view of this tragic occurence, I'm compelled to weigh in on this issue even though I know this will upset some politcally closed minds. We must recognize if it was so easy to comprehend and solve we would have all profited in the manner these investors did rather than suffer through the last two years. We wouldn't have had the meltdown that we had. The smart people on Wall Street would not have overleveraged creating the steep downward ascent in destruction of wealth as we deleveraged. Specifically, I'm startled how many people want to blame politicians and FNMA/FHLMC. As a seller of $1 billion a year to these entities and some knowledge of their loss history as well as debating this issue with a former Vice Chairman of one of these entities who is a neighbor, it is shocking when you hear people talk of the subprime mortgages that FNMA/FHLMC owned. Did they do some such targeted loans? Yes. But half their losses came from their foray into Alt A loans. Coupled with the drop in property value and low equity position (they were leveraged at an unsafe 30 to 1 ratio) their insolvency was guaranteed if there was a downturn. Why were they not managing for this? It wasn't politically motivated. It was profit motivated. Quasi-guaranteed by the govt. they could issue callable agencies, their drug of choice, and arbitrage this money into a higher yielding security which they did. UNTIL the losses started. With 3% equity/custion, the 30 to 1 leverage immediately worked against them. Where were the regulators? Where was management managing risk? As the Vice Chairman said, the problem was property value drop. Well, with much advance notice and concern, WHY WEREN'T YOU MANAGING FOR THIS?????

With that as a background, let's approach the question of should there be a FNMA/FHLMC? I believe there should be. Exactly what do they do? When they are not leveraging for earnings which BTW they started in the early 90s when loan volume dropped and they recognized they needed to do something else to "gin" earnings, they perform their intended function to make borrowing cheap for homeowners. If there were no FNMA/FHLMC for the past two years 30 year mortgage rates for the last two years would not have been 4.25% to 5.25% but rather approximately 5.75% to 7.50%. In addition there would have been a lot more balloon or adjustable rate loans. Now, does America want this higher rate when an effective "NON-Profit" or govt. entity could maintain this function? I think not and I think we need to recognize that the recovery would have been much slower if many people would not have had the availability of this lower cost money to buy homes and refinance to lower rates. Enough with policy and now back to a conclusion.

But Lewis' writing style makes this book and his credibility from having written Liars Poker and the unique perspective of having worked in the industry and left it will make this a big hit. I strongly recommend this well written, important book.
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67 of 78 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "W/O Gov't Intervention Every Powerful Financier would Have Lost His Job, & Yet, The Financiers Used Gov't 2 Enrich Themselves", March 15, 2010
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Michael Lewis's "The Big Short" tells a rather disturbing tale of some of the biggest profiteers of one of America's worst financial crisis, which we are likely still in the midst of. The amazing thing cleverly illustrated by Lewis, is that while most of the brightest minds in America woke up to our shocking decline once it was too late, a small handful of speculators not only called it correctly, some became fantastically wealthy. The question that nagged me throughout the book was how should I feel about people who just made a killing while most of us watched our retirements suffer alarming declines, and witnessed friends & family lose their jobs and houses?

Greg Lippmann is credited with being the first to expose the weakness in the market around 2006. He pitched the idea to hundreds of financial groups, but most seemed to invest in insurance policies to protect their exposure.


"A smaller number of people -more than 10, fewer than 20- made a straightforward bet against the entire multi-trillion dollar subprime mortgage market and, by extension, the global financial system. The catastrophe was foreseeable, yet only a handful noticed. Among them: Whitebox hedge fund, The Baupost Group hedge fund, Passport Capital hedge fund, Elm Ridge hedge fund, a gaggle of NY hedge funds, Elliott Associates, Cedar Hill Capital Partners, QVT Financial, and Philip Falcone's Harbinger Capital Partners. What most of these investors had in common was that they had heard, directly or indirectly, Greg Lippmann's argument."

Mr. Lewis is a fun and witty writer and his energy in The Big Short is very reminiscent of Liar's Poker, but I really found something morbid and unappealing about this subject. Reading about Paulson's $15 billion killing in 2007 had a different feel than say Soros in the `80's & `90's, but maybe now I know how the English & Indonesians felt? Our society is bred to believe that hard work and ingenuity are rewarded, but in this case there is a tangible human tragedy as a consequence of speculators earning a massive imbalance of wealth in relation to the rest of the population.

All of the speculators Mr. Lewis uses as examples technically did the right thing and chose wisely. Some were more sophisticated than others, but they all have one thing in common: they all made an obscene amount of money betting America would be brought down to its knees. I am also even more disgusted now with the rating agencies that were super-slick in stamping AAA ratings on what was absolute garbage in hindsight.

I found the book both fascinating and disturbing. I think it is now clear to me that financial speculation that doesn't promote sustainable growth needs to be addressed and properly dealt with, and that adequate steps have not been taken. Lewis definitely added a new layer to my awareness of the credit crisis, and covered some fresh ground beyond typical news. I recommend the book if you want to gain a deeper understanding of the sucker punch that just hit most of us.
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47 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good book, but a little late to market, March 15, 2010
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First, I'm a big Lewis fan. Like many, my first exposure to Lewis was Liar's Poker; although, I've read several other Lewis books, his columns in the now defunct Portfolio, and occasional writings on Bloomberg. The Big Short isn't really a Liar's Poker experience.

I enjoyed the book, and it's a quick read. It's just that a couple of Lewis's main characters--Burry of Scion and Lippman of Deutsche--were previously covered in another book, The Greatest Trade Ever. As a result of The Big Short being released comparatively late, some of Lewis's thunder has been stolen, so-to-speak.

Regardless, the story is well written and if I had no experience with sub-prime, structured finance products, etc., I would have enjoyed it more. For the most part, I found myself grinding through the pages covering Burry. Ok, sits in his darkened office, listens to heavy metal, pouring over documents, investment from Gotham Partners, at odds with investors, Goldman not valuing CDS fairly, brink of collapse, etc. There's really little insight to add to this character if you've read The Greatest Trade Ever. In some ways, the same can be said for Lippman.

I did enjoy reading about Eisman of Front Point and his crew.

Bottom line, if you've read The Greatest Trade Ever and you're a huge Lewis fan, you'll likely enjoy the book, but you'll be familiar with the tale. Otherwise, there are probably other titles on your "To Read" list where your time may be better spent.

Of course, if you haven't read The Greatest Trade Ever, The Big Short should be rewarding.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another worthwhile read on those who saw the sub-prime crisis coming, March 28, 2010
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Very much along the lines of Zuckerman's "The Greatest Trade Ever," Lewis explores the cast of characters who correctly deduced that the sub-prime fall was inevitable. Lewis' book arguably had much of its thunder stolen by being beaten to market by Zuckerman. Deciding between the two books, Zuckerman is marginally ahead, but Lewis' treatise covers enough new material and his style is different enough to make The Big Short a worthwhile read. It is an easy, uncomplicated read and flows quite well. It is not technical in nature, but should be more viewed as a populist commentary of characters and events. Lewis' analysis can't be viewed as being too in-depth (especially by market professionals) but then this book is not aimed at a dry academic market, but rather the general public interested in finance and the sub-prime crises. I enjoyed the book, but I'm still searching for the definitive account of the sub-prime debacle.
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38 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining, March 15, 2010
Philip Trubey (Rancho Santa Fe, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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Hugely entertaining look at the genesis of our current economic mess. Lewis finds the very few investors who predicted and profited from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown and follows their journey from initial realization of the impending disaster to eventual payout. Following these eccentric characters and their interactions with the big Wall Street investment banks is at turns laugh out loud funny and head shaking incredulous. Lewis knows how to turn a phrase and does a good job teasing out the dark humor of the situations. He also does a very good job at explaining the essence of very complicated financial transactions and gives the reader a good understanding of the whys and hows of the financial meltdown. While this book is an important addition to our understanding of what happened, it isn't complete as it doesn't spend any time talking about US government policies that contributed to the crash (specifically, the special legal status given to the three rating agencies, and Fannie and Freddie's role in weakening underwriting standards). Nonetheless, this is still both an important and entertaining book.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Michael Lewis gem!, March 17, 2010
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Contrary to the whining horde of "munificent" 1-Star allocating-Kindle owners, I actually read the book. Yes, through that "antique" medium, a hardcover printed edition. A medium which allows me to lend it out, have it signed by the author, pick it up in 20 years once more (after Michael Lewis pens the sequel), and place it prominently alongside other Michael Lewis volumes on the book shelves of my homely reading room.

I refrain from a comprehensive review, given that numerous detailed and persuasive reviews appear on these pages, regrettably buried amongst an alarming preponderance of peeved Kindle owners, who have instead opted to commandeer the reviews for purely self-centered reasons. Reasons completely unrelated to the narrative. (Instead of unfairly skewing the book reviews of The Big Short, Amazon provides Kindle owners with the appropriate forum to voice complaints (below the book image): Tell the Publisher! I'd like to read this book on Kindle!)

The Big Short is an interesting read, written in the delightful, thoroughly investigated, and remarkably enlightened style to which Michael Lewis aficionados are accustomed. While the book certainly doesn't encompass the entire body of the financial crisis, The Big Short provides an interesting account on some unlikely luminaries engaged in the markets prior and during the heights of the recent financial crisis. The book merits a prominent place amongst a collection of texts recounting products and players that contributed to the rise and fall of financial institutions, markets, and concepts.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Best Written, if not Most Informative, Book about the Crisis, July 3, 2011
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Considering that I have read just about every other book about the crisis, I am pretty late to the party in reading this book. I downloaded it last week and read it through within 24 hours.

First, I have to say Lewis provides the most entertaining account of the crisis. Lewis presents an account of a few short-sellers out of about 20 who were completely short the market. I will not go into details about the short-sellers since all the other reviewers mention them. I will say, however, what's most notable is who Lewis generally left out: John Paulson. After all, he was the biggest short-seller of them all. He made the "greatest trade ever" by buying up CDS's, an insane multi-billion dollar profit.

Paulson, however, was still a typical Wall Street actor. He happened to see the crisis coming, but he also bet on it in a typical Wall Street way. Unlike Burry, who used his investment letters to say everybody else was stupid, Paulson sold his fund as merely a hedge on extreme movements in the housing market. Many investors who may not have bought the certainty of doomsday did put money for insurance against doomsday. Lewis realized his Wall Street demeanor made Paulson uninteresting and consequently Lewis dedicates only a few pages to him.

And it's a good thing he did because the short-sellers, Burry, Cornwall Capital and Eisman, all make for fascinating characters and fascinating stories. In a field of dry business writers, Lewis is the one true story-teller. He breaks up monotony about the structuring of CDO's with more and more fascinating antidotes. He does a great service for presenting the truth about the financial crisis in a form people uninterested in finance can appreciate.

The only reason I am giving 4 stars is his Epilogue and the lack of good prescriptions past blaming investment banks going public. To a certain extent, the argument does make a good bit of sense. Before the banks went public, only financially sophisticated partners made decisions. After going public, shareholders pressured the bank CEO's to do anything necessary to increase profits. Furthermore, the banks had huge incentives to make their balance sheet and accounting as opaque as possible. The shareholders just were not sophisticated enough to dig through the balance sheet and realize that they were really invested in an extremely leveraged hedge fund filled with the most opaque OTC assets. After layer upon layer upon layer of obfuscation of the banks' assets as well as its counterparty risks, the CEO's took the easy way out and focused on paper profits above everything else.

That said, I do not find the partnership argument wholly convincing. It seems like Lewis is using the argument to somehow vindicate bankers. Even after all his crazy antidotes about how bankers had no clue what they were buying and selling, the argument somehow says "the finance people were in fact smart, but the shareholders made them do it." For one thing, going public was not just to get a big payday for partners, although that was a big part of it. Banks were also going into more capital-intensive businesses. After computers really hit finance in the 80's, banks had to find a source of capital to buy all their computerized trading desks, data centers, etc. If Salomon Brothers did not go public, another bank eventually would have. Also, not enough people mention the SEC ending commission minimums in the 70's. For whatever reason, the SEC used to mandate minimum commissions and the banks basically earned very easy money from executing stock trades for institutional investors. When the commissions ended, the banks traditional market-making business had become very commoditized. To keep making decent money, the banks had to create more and more exotic instruments with higher transaction costs and find a way to sell them. If Salomon didn't create the MBS market, with the ensuing CDO market, somebody would have eventually just to earn the higher transaction costs.

The real answer is that some sort of reregulation is needed just like we had with the FDIC and the SEC starting in the 30's. People often respond to this suggestion by saying regulators were sleeping at the switch and regulation caused part of the reason the crisis happened in the first place (especially Basel II risk-weighting of AAA tranches, which I won't get into here). This argument against regulation does not mention that regulation and regulators became very intertwined during the Reagan, Clinton and the two Bush administrations. Neither side had a real incentive to actually limit the activity of banks. The institutions who bought fixed-income instruments also didn't have a real political constituency like the retail stockholders of Enron and Worldcom. There was no political reason to make the fixed income market more transparent. With no political pressure and cushy finance jobs awaiting them, the regulators quickly became "partners" with the banks rather adversaries and past some SEC pressure for SOX compliance, there was very little if any regulation.

With the lack of regulation, the banks became more like the banks of the 1920's. Sure, there was FDIC insurance, but retail deposits up to $250,000 were chump-change compared to the various deposit-like instruments for institutions in the shadow banking sector. The opaque repo market basically functioned as a retail deposit for those wanting to park 100's of millions of dollars. Before the crisis, a bank's word was considered as good as the Treasury's. Instead of keeping their short-term money in cash, Pension funds could park the money with a bank in the Repo market and earn a bit of interest. Same story in the Money Market, which funneled funds through the Commercial Paper market. Both Repo and Commercial Paper had to be rolled over frequently, which was also part of their great appeal to Institutions. They could forgo most interest rate and couterparty risk by getting 100 cents on the dollar in a month rather than years. The banks liked this short-term funding too because it was cheap. Borrowing short and lending long is a pretty good gig if you can get it.

Another short-term financing component were OTC options. I still do not know how exactly banks put the CDS liabilities to Burry, Paulson and others on their balance sheets. Did the CDS payments just count as pure income and retained earnings? Maybe I'll find out one day. In any case, opaque OTC options had an inherent short-term liability in them waiting to explode if the bank bet wrongly. In the worst days of the crisis, all the banks' short-term financing dried up completely and margin calls went through the roof. With 1929-style regulation, it should be no surprise that there was a 1929-style bank run in the shadow sector. It isn't dumb bankers, dumb Germans, dumb stockholders, big bonuses, etc. behind the crisis, it's the lack of FDIC-style regulation and insurance for the short-term financing in the shadow sector.

I would also guess that 1 out of 10 people who started reading this review are still reading. If you're still reading, then I sincerely appreciate it. It also shows why my argument has not gotten a lot of airtime. The deposits in the shadow-banking sector don't make for great political speeches or even great books, but it's the argument that makes the most sense to me. Without drastically regulating the shadow banking sector like the retail banking sector was regulated in the 30's, we will be doomed to repeat the crisis. Before the Great Depression, a banking panic happened about once a generation. Bankers remember, control risk for a time and then the next generation of bankers bets other people's money again, causing another panic. Before the Panic of 1929, we had the Panics of 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893 and 1907. In the era of post-1980 deregulation, we have now had the Panic of 2008. Sadly I do not think Dodd-Frank goes far enough and it probably won't be our last.
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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (Paperback - February 1, 2011)
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