Too Big to Fail (Review)
Some call Andrew Ross Sorkin’s new behind-the-scenes book about the financial crisis of 2008-2009 “Too Big to Read” due to its meaty page count at 624 pages (a tad more than my book). But actually, once you crack the first chapter of Too Big to Fail you become immediately sucked in. In creating the “fly on the wall” perspective covering the elite power brokers of Wall Street and Washington, Sorkin utilizes 500 hours of interviews with more than 200 individuals.
Through the detailed and vivid conversations, you get the keen sense of overwhelming desperation and self-preservation that overtakes the executives of the sinking financial system. Some of the chief participants failed, some were triumphant, and some were pathetically bailed out. History will ultimately be the arbiter of whether government and Wall Street averted, mitigated, postponed, or contributed to the financial collapse. Regardless, Sorkin brilliantly encapsulates this emotionally panicked period in our history that will never be erased from our memories.
Here are a few passages that capture the feeling and mood of the book:
Merger Musical Chairs
The terror-induced insanity of merger musical chairs is best depicted through the notepad of Timothy Geithner, then the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank:
“On a pad that morning, Geithner started writing out various merger permutations: Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase. Morgan Stanley and Mitsubishi. Morgan Stanley and CIC. Morgan Stanley and Outside Investor. Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Goldman Sachs and Wachovia. Goldman Sachs and Outside Investor. Fortress Goldman. Fortress Morgan Stanley. It was the ultimate Wall Street chessboard.”
The book is also laced with financial nuggets to put the scope of the crisis in perspective. Here Sorkin examines the distressed call of assistance from AIG CEO, Bob Willumstad, to Timothy Geithner:
“A bombshell that Willumstad was confident would draw Geithner’s attention-was a report on AIG’s counterparty exposure around the world, which included ‘$2.7 trillion of notional derivative exposures, with 12,000 individual contracts.” About halfway down the page, in bold, was the detail that Willumstad hoped would strike Geithner as startling: “$1 trillion of exposures concentrated with 12 major financial institutions.’”
Bernanke’s Bumbled Spelling Bee
In setting the stage for the drama that unfolds, Sorkin also provides a background on the key players in the book. For example in describing Ben Bernanke you learn he was
“born in 1953 and grew up in Dillon South Carolina, a small town permeated by the stench of tobacco warehouses. As an eleven-year-old, he traveled to Washington to compete in the national spelling championship in 1965, falling in the second round, when he misspelled ‘Edelweiss.’”
On how the precise $700 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) figure was created, Sorkin describes the scattered thought process of the program designer Neel Kashkari:
“They knew they could count on Kashkari to perform some sort of mathematical voodoo to justify it: ‘There’s around $11 trillion of residential mortgages, there’s around $3 trillion of commercial mortgages, that leads to $14 trillion, roughly five percent of that is $700 billion.’ As he plucked numbers from thin air even Kashkari laughed at the absurdity of it all.”
Mixed in with the facts and downbeat conversations are a series of humorous anecdotes and one-liners. Here is one exchange between Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, and his Chief of Staff Russell Horwitz:
“’I don’t think I can take another day of this,’ Horowitz said wearily. Blankfein laughed. ‘You’re getting out of a Mercedes to go to the New York Federal Reserve – you’re not getting out of a Higgins boat* on Omaha Beach! Keep things in perspective.’”
*Blankfein’s quote: A reference to the bloody D-Day battle.
Too Big to Fail is an incredible time capsule for the history books. Let’s hope we do not have to relive a period like this in our lifetimes. I wouldn’t mind reading another Andrew Ross Sorkin book…just not another one about a future financial crisis.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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