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Liar's Poker (Norton Paperback) Paperback – March 15, 2010
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As described by Lewis, liar's poker is a game played in idle moments by workers on Wall Street, the objective of which is to reward trickery and deceit. With this as a metaphor, Lewis describes his four years with the Wall Street firm Salomon Brothers, from his bizarre hiring through the training program to his years as a successful bond trader. Lewis illustrates how economic decisions made at the national level changed securities markets and made bonds the most lucrative game on the Street. His description of the firm's personalities and of the events from 1984 through the crash of October 1987 are vivid and memorable. Readers of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities ( LJ 11/15/87) are likely to enjoy this personal memoir. BOMC and Fortune Book Club selection.
- Joseph Barth, U.S. Military Acad . Lib., West Point, N.Y.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc.
“The funniest book on Wall Street I’ve ever read.”
- Tom Wolfe
“Often profane, always hilarious, right on the mark.”
“So memorable and alive . . . one of those rare works that encapsulate and define an era.”
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And the pieces are all in place for another monster Wall Street blow-up, to be bailed out once again by unwitting (and unwilling) taxpayers ("TBTF"). Wall Street has figured out how to pass all the risk of gambling with other peoples' money to the taxpayers, while keeping all of the profits for themselves. You don't even need to be be an investor in the stock market anymore to get fleeced. Uncle Sam will reach into your pocket on behalf of Wall Street!
Lewis warned us of the danger after the first time it happened, but apparently nobody listened (or not the right people). Page 163: "The mortgage trading desk evolved from corner shop to supermarket. By increasing the number of products, they increased the number of shoppers. The biggest shoppers, the thrifts, often had a very particular need. They wanted to grow beyond the limits imposed by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in Washington. It was a constant struggle to stay one step ahead of thrift regulators in Washington. Many 'new products' invented by Salomon Brothers were outside the rules of the regulatory game; they were not required to be listed on thrift balance sheets and therefore offered a way for thrifts to grow. In some cases, the sole virtue of a new product was its classification as 'off-balance sheet.' To attract new investors and to dodge new regulations, the market became ever more arcane and complex."
Is it any wonder that the same thing happened again in 2008?
If there's any doubt that Wall Street acts solely in their self-interest (customers are there to absorb losses, nothing else), Lewis lays it out on page 199: "I should have felt guilty, of course, but guilt was not the first identifiable sensation to emerge from my exploding brain. Relief was. I had told him the news. He was shouting and moaning. And that was it. That was all he could do. Shout and moan. That was the beauty of being a middleman, which I did not appreciate until that moment. The customer suffered. I didn't. He wasn't going to kill me. He wasn't even going to sue me. I wasn't going to lose my job. On the contrary, I was a minor hero at Salomon for dumping a sixty thousand dollar loss into somebody else's pocket."
Taxpayer, sew up your pockets.
Lewis begins his career in high finance with a chance (hilarious) encounter with a S. Brothers partner's wife at a charity reception hosted by the late Queen Mother. What follows is a descent into a highly lucrative fraternity house where every pledge is initiated into a hyper-macho, hyper-greedy arena. S. Brothers as described by Lewis is a brutal landscape populated by obese, obscene tribes vying for dollars.
For those of us who have read Lewis's more recent books, his debut memoir lacks one quality that his other volumes have - crystal clarity. LIAR'S POKER attempts to clarify the opaque, complex world of bond trading but the effort gets mired in jargon and wonk. I found my eyes glazing slightly at some of the internecine battles that emanated from convoluted bond schemes.
This is a great book to read thirty years after it was written because it traces the birth of a Wall Street we've come to know. Reading about the men who first came up with novel ways to convert mortgages into bonds is like reading the private musings of a young Lee Harvey Oswald. It's eerie. Other scenes involving Lewis's dismay at the habit of S. Brothers disregarding the well-being of clients in the pursuit of revenue are troubling and completely unschocking in a current context. The practice of major investment banks of subverting client interests to bank interests is now well-documented. Only days ago, Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive, published his Op-Ed in the NY Times decrying the culture of greed over relationships within Goldman. Smith's op-ed could have been written by Michael Lewis in 1987.
LIAR'S POKER may be one of the most misunderstood books. To hear aspiring financiers express their love of this book is to hear someone who has seemingly missed the point. It's odd that someone would read this book and see it as inspirational. Did they not read the epilogue where Michael Lewis decides to walk away from untold riches because he sees there's little personal value in his job as a bonds salesman, where he questions the entire social value of a job that turns money into more money, where monotony and viciousness is rewarded with a minor heap of gold?
To the young people vying for the life described in LIAR'S POKER, I say good luck.