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The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

shortA few years ago, I was a teaching assistant for a third-year geography course that dedicated one week to the cause and effects of the financial crisis. I remember doing the readings and trying to organize a tutorial for that week in a blur of confusion amidst terms like ‘mortgage-backed security’ and ‘subprime loans’. With only a thin grasp of what actually occurred in 2008, I somehow squeaked through the tutorial and managed to convince the class that I knew what I was talking about. It has always bothered me that I didn’t understand the events that led to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and when my husband, P, bought The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, I thought this was my chance to rectify the situation. As it turns out, things were much more complex than the readings for my geography course had led me to believe. On top of the aforementioned terms I already had trouble with, I was confronted with even more confusing ones: collateralized debt obligation, credit default swap, mezzanine CDO, and the concept of ‘shorting’, which although I think I understand I’m not sure I could actually convince someone that I did (and I won’t attempt that feat here!). As it turns out, I don’t even really understand what a bond is (there’s a reason P does all the household finances!). As a result, it took me several months to read this book. The strange thing is, although I had to read many paragraphs several times, then ask for clarification from P, I really enjoyed the book. The story of the events that led to the final meltdown of the financial system and the massive bailout of the big investment banks by the U.S. government, was told creatively and skillfully by Lewis through the eyes of a few people who saw the whole thing coming years in advance. The events are demented, and it should be shocking to anyone that it was allowed to happen. Surely even the staunchest free market capitalist would question his own convictions after really understanding how greed and self-interest caused such a dramatic collapse of our system, to the detriment of millions of people. A highly recommended book to anyone with an interest in the financial crisis as Lewis’ journalistic skills shine through the telling of the disaster using the perspectives of these perceptive insiders, who are entertaining characters in their own right.