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Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe Hardcover – May 12, 2009

4.3 out of 5 stars 106 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

[ one ]

The Derivatives Dream

On half a mile of immaculate private beach, along Florida's fabled Gold Coast, sits the sugar-pink Boca Raton Hotel, designed in a gracious Mediterranean style by the Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner. Since the hotel opened in 1926, it has styled itself a temple to exclusivity, boasting Italianate statues and manicured palm trees, a dazzling marina with slips for thirty-two yachts, a professional tennis club, a state-of-the-art spa, a designer golf course, and a beautiful strip of privatebeach. A glitzy roll call of celebrities and the wealthy have flocked to the resort, billed as a "private enclave of luxury," where they can relax well away from prying eyes.

On one summer's weekend back in June 1994, a quite different clientele descended: several dozen young bankers from the offices of J.P. Morgan in New York, London, and Tokyo. They were there for an off-site meeting, called to discuss how the bank could grow its derivatives business in the next year. In the humid summer heat, amid the palm trees and gracious arches, the group embraced the idea of a new type of derivative that would transform the wider world of twenty-first-century finance and play a decisive role in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. "It was in Boca where we started talking seriously about credit derivatives," recalls Peter Hancock, the British-born leader of the group. "That was where the idea really took off, where we really had a vision of how big it could be."

As with most intellectual breakthroughs, the exact origin of the concept of credit derivatives is hard to pinpoint. For Hancock, a highly cerebral man who likes to depict history as a tidy evolution of ideas, one step of the breakthrough occurred at the Boca Raton off-site. Some of his team, however, have only the haziest, alcohol-fuddled memories of that weekend. Full of youthful exuberance and a sense of entitlement, the young bankers had arrived in Florida determined to party as hard as they could.

They worked for the "swaps" department -- a particular corner of the derivatives universe -- which was one of the hottest, fastest-growing areas of finance. In the early 1980s, J.P. Morgan, along with several other venerable banks, had jumped into the newfangled derivatives field, and activity in the arcane business had exploded. By 1994, the total notional value of derivatives contracts on J.P. Morgan's books was estimated to be $1.7 trillion, and derivatives activity was generating half of the bank's trading revenue. In 1992 -- one year when J.P. Morgan broke out the number for public consumption -- the total was $512 million.

More startling than those numbers was the fact that most members of the banking and wider investing world had absolutely no idea how derivatives were producing such phenomenal sums, let alone what socalled swaps groups actually did. Those who worked in the area tended to revel in its air of mystery.

By the time of the Boca meeting, most of the J.P. Morgan group were still under thirty years old; some had just left college. But they were all convinced, with the heady arrogance of youth, that they held the secret to transforming the financial world, as well as dramatically enhancing J.P. Morgan's profit profile. Many arrived in Boca presuming the weekend was a lavish "thank you" from the bank management.

On Friday afternoon, they greeted each other with wild merriment and headed for the bars. Many had flown down from New York; a few had come from Tokyo; and a large contingent had flown over from London. Within minutes, drinking games got under way. As the night wore on, some of them commandeered a minivan to visit a local nightclub. Others hijacked golf carts and raced around the lawns. A large gaggle assembled around the main Boca Raton swimming pool threatening to throw one another in.

As the revelry around the pool intensified, Peter Voicke, a buttoned-up German who held the title head of global markets and, though only in his late forties, was the most senior official present, earnestly tried to calm them down. Voicke had agreed to stage the off-site in the hope it would forge camaraderie. "It is important to develop a healthy esprit de corps!" he liked to say in his flat Teutonic accent. But the camaraderie was getting out of hand. In no mood to heed his admonitions, several of them pushed Voicke into the pool. "My shoes, shoes!" he shouted, shocked, as expensive loafers drifted off his feet.

The drunken crowd then turned on Bill Winters, a jovial American who, at just thirty-one, was the second most senior official of them. Halfheartedly, he tried to dodge the crowd. But as he ducked, his face slammed into an incoming elbow, and a fountain of blood spurted out. "You've broken my nose!" Winters shouted, as he too tumbled into the pool. For a moment, the drunken laughter stopped. Voicke was obviously furious. Now Winters was hurt. But then Winters let out a laugh, hauled himself out of the pool, and clicked his nose back into place. The drinking games resumed.

At some banks, dousing the boss would have been a firing offense. But J.P. Morgan prided itself on a close-knit, almost fraternal culture. Those on the outside viewed the J.P. Morgan crowd as elitist and arrogant, overly enamored of the bank's vaunted history as a dominant force in American and British finance. Insiders often referred to the bank as a family. The derivatives group was one of the most unruly but also most tightly knit teams. "We had real fun -- there was a great spirit in the group back then," Winters would later recall with a wistful grin. When he and the rest of that little band looked back on those wild times, many said they were the happiest days of their lives.

One reason for that was the man running the team, Peter Hancock. At the age of thirty-five, he was only slightly older than many of the group, but he was their intellectual godfather. A large man, with thinning hair and clumsy, hairy hands, he exuded the genial air of a family doctor or university professor. Unlike many of those who came to dominate the complex finance world, Hancock sported no advanced degree in mathematics or science. Like most of the J.P. Morgan staff, he had joined the bank straight from getting his undergraduate degree, but notwithstanding the lack of a PhD, he was exceedingly cerebral, intensely devoted to the theory and practice of finance in all its forms. He viewed almost every aspect of the world around him as a complex intellectual puzzle to be solved, and he especially loved developing elaborate theories about how to push money around the world in a more efficient manner. When it came to his staff, he obsessively ruminated on how to build the team for optimal performance. Most of all, though, he loved brainstorming ideas.

Sometimes he did that in formal meetings, like the Boca off-site. But he also spewed out ideas on a regular basis as he strode around the bank's trading floor. The team called his exuberant outbursts of creativity "Come to Planet Pluto" moments, because many of the notions he tossed out seemed better suited to science fiction than banking. But they loved his intensity, and they were passionately loyal to him, knowing that he was fiercely devoted to protecting, and handsomely rewarding, his tribe. They were also bonded by the spirit of being pioneers.

The J.P. Morgan derivatives team was engaged in the banking equivalent of space travel. Computing power and high-order mathematics were taking finance far from its traditional bounds, and this small group of brilliant minds was charting the outer reaches of cyberfinance. Like scientists cracking the DNA code or splitting the atom, the J.P. Morgan swaps team believed their experiments in what bankers refer to as "innovation" -- meaning the invention of bold new ways of generating returns -- were solving the most foundational riddles of their discipline. "There was this sense that we had found this fantastic technology which we really believed in and we wanted to take to every part of the market we could," Winters later recalled. "There was a sense of mission."

That stemmed in part from Hancock's intense focus on the science of people management. He was almost as fascinated by how to manage people for optimal performance as by financial flows.

The moment he was appointed head of the derivatives group, Hancock had started experimenting with his staff. One of his first missions was to overhaul how his sales team and the traders interacted. Against all tradition, he decided to give the sales force the authority to quote prices for complex deals, instead of relying on the traders. He expected that doing so would more intensely motivate sales, and the change produced good results. He then started inventing new systems of remuneration designed to discourage taking excessive risks or hugging brilliant projects too close to the vest. He wanted to encourage collaboration and longer-term thinking, rather than self-interested pursuit of short-term gains. The teamwork ethos was already well entrenched at the bank, especially by comparison to most other Wall Street banks, but Hancock fervently believed that J.P. Morgan needed to go even further.

In later years, Hancock pushed his experimentation to unusual extremes. He hired a social anthropologist to study the corporate dynamics at the bank. He conducted firm-wide polls to ascertain which employees interacted most effectively with those from other departments, and he then used that data as a benchmark for assessing employee compensation, plotting it on complex, color-coded computer models. He was convinced that departments needed to interact closely with each other, so that they could swap ideas and monitor each other's risks. Silos, or fragmented departments, he believed, were lethal. At one stage he half-jokingly floated the idea of tracking employee emails, to measure the level of cross-departmental interaction in a scientific manner. The suggestion was blocked. "The human resources department thought I was barking mad!" he later recalled. "But if you want to create the conditions for... --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

About the Author

Gillian Tett oversees global coverage of the financial markets for the Financial Times, the world’s leading newspaper covering finance and business. In 2007 she was awarded the Wincott prize, the premier British award for financial journalism, for her capital-markets coverage. In 2008, she was named British Business Journalist of the Year. She previously served as the newspaper’s deputy head of the Lex column (an agenda-setting column on business and financial topics), Tokyo bureau chief, economic correspondent, and foreign correspondent. She speaks regularly at conferences around the world on finance and global markets. She has a PhD in social anthropology from Cambridge University. In 2003, she published a book on Japan’s banking crisis, Saving the Sun: How Wall Street Mavericks Shook Up Japan’s Financial World and Made Billions.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (May 12, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 141659857X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416598572
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #614,478 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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).
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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