Skip to content

David's Macro Blog

Analysis and commentary on business, economics, real estate, financial markets, and other fun topics


Tag: Wall Street

When did Wall Street become the dumb money?

Why did traders who lost on their bets still earn millions (sometimes tens of millions) in income?

Author Micheal Lewis (Liars Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side) explains the answers to both of these questions in his best-selling book, The Big Short. He writes so that even his mother could understand the intricacies of the financial system that the wrecked the global economy for the next decade.

The most remarkable thing to me is that individual traders on BOTH sides of the bet (for or against subprime mortgages) got rich while their firms collapsed and taxpayers got the bill.

Watch the C-SPAN interview with Michael Lewis below:

My Favorite Quotes

That the Wall Street firms had become the dumb money at the poker table. Somehow these firms, which used to be the smart money… When I left Soloman Brothers, the last thing you wanted to do if you were an investor, was be on the other side of one of Soloman Brothers trades. There was some zero-sum bet to be made with Soloman Brothers, you did not make it because you were sure to lose money. And what had happened was somehow the firms had become, had turned stupid as institutions, they’d become the dumb money. That made me curious. Something big had changed. The natural question was, who was the smart money? That led me to my characters because they were the smart money.

They didn’t know their own balance sheets. He doesn’t persuasively know his own business.

The whole financial system is organized around a bet.

The minute that the Wall Street firms were in the business of harvesting middle class and lower middle class Americans for their home equity value (via sub-prime loans) and making loans to them against it, there was a natural risk of abuse because just generally in financial transactions people are bewildered.

There were lots of cases where the nature of the loan was sort of disguised from the person who was borrowing the money. Teaser rates should be criminal. You essentially talk someone into taking a loan out that has an artificially low rate for the first couple of years so it looks very tempting. Then it skyrockets after two years.

There were 3 trillion dollars of loans there were dubious [referring to sub prime and alt-A]

But then seeing this explosion of lending again in this beast he (Steven Eisman) thought he slayed back in the 90’s, the sub-prime mortgage lending business and he says this is all going to blow up again, this is going to end badly because I know how this business is done. It’s a sinister business.

Interviewer: “So the $180 billion taxpayers dollars that went to AIG then went to Goldman Sachs (and other Wall Street firms) to pay off bets?”

ML: “Yes, yes, yes – for bets”

Interviewer: “Why did Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke want to pay off the gambling debts of AIG?”

ML: “Because all the other Wall Street firms were on the other side of (AIG’s) bets and if AIG didn’t pay off then those firms would have experienced losses. For example Goldman Sachs lost on its bet to Michael Burry, but they thought they were just brokering the bet between Michael Burry and AIG so they paid off Michael Burry and they are out of pocket. They want to get paid by AIG, or they have a $13 billion loss. Paulson and Bernanke are thinking, if we don’t make the Wall Street firms whole, they will collapse, the market is not going to believe they’ll survive. And they would have all collapsed.”

Interviewer: “Who got hurt?”

ML: “Not the Wall Street firms. The rest of the country got hurt by what the Wall Street firms had been doing the last five years, generating this frenzy of finance where finance shouldn’t have happened.”

This was to me, my revelation. First, that the financial system had organized itself around this bet. And second, no matter which side of this bet you were on, you STILL got rich personally. Your institution might have lost huge sums of money, but you yourself got rich.

The only social purpose I had in writing the book was, I thought if I could explain this to people, they’d be outraged. And they need to know.

Derivatives are meant to redistribute the risk in an intelligent way.

None of those people in Davos made a lot of money betting against the subprime mortgage market. If they really understood it, that’s what they would have done.

Michael Lewis on his personal profession of book writing:

The interesting thing that I do is learn about something and communicating it in words.


Credit Default Swaps is the mechanism created in 2005 to bet against the subprime mortgage market. CDS is like an insurance policy and costs a couple percent per year.

CDS quickly became a way to bet against mortgages, instead of just an insurance policy against your own bonds defaulting.

Subprime mortgage bonds are pools of loans. Most were betting the bonds would pay off, just a few were betting against it – they were the smart money who ran the numbers, not just looking for commissions and transaction fees.

The unit selling most of the CDS was AIG FP (AIG financial products group). They used AIG’s AAA rating to sell insurance but reserved no capital against losses.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
A Nightmare on Wall Street
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Related Posts

Jon Stewart Explains the May 6th Flash Crash

Jon Stewart Interviews Jim Cramer on the Daily Show

Warren Buffett calls derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction.”  Do you believe him?

Derivatives are financial instruments whose prices are derived from underlying assets.  One example would be a futures contract between a farmer and a food processor.  In this case the underlying asset is the grain harvested by the farmer and the derivative is the contract to deliver that grain at a specified price, time, and location.

This all sounds reasonable enough.  So why would Warren Buffett call derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction”?

What if a Wall Street trader could make financial bets that rewarded the trader with bonuses and the firm with earnings all without setting aside capital or assets to cover that bet?  How many of those bets would you make?  How many would you make when you get immediately rewarded for wins and little or no apparent penalty for losses in the unforeseeable future?  Finally, how many would you make when your expert with a PhD from MIT says his mathematical model shows those bets are risk free?

Now that you’ve thought about those questions, watch this video from Khan Academy regarding Credit Default Swaps (CDS).   Listen for the part about a cascading failure which starts in one location and ripples through the whole system, ultimately destroying everything that looked seemingly safe and sound.

Khan Academy – Credit Default Swaps 2

Was the great real estate bubble of 2000 – 2007 preventable?

Who won and who lost?

Why weren’t the inevitable crash and current historic recession preventable or predictable by the best the brightest among us?

The following video from CNBC’s “House of Cards” (ht – Alan Sun) contains interviews with people in all parts of the real estate food chain: from borrowers to loan officers to lenders to wall street bankers to hedge fund operators to bond ratings analysts.

Wall Street will create what they can sell until there are no more buyers. This generates seemingly safe fee income which boosts quarterly profits and of course also produces undeserved multi-million dollar bonuses.

It is hard to believe now, but the banker’s financial models predicted 6% to 8% annual housing price increases forever into the future. How was this sustainable when household income wasn’t rising and probably wouldn’t rise much with global wage arbitrage? Many of the people on the front lines of this historic boom were young home buyers, recent MBA grads at Wall Street firms, etc. They had never known a down real estate market. It couldn’t even occur to them from experience that real estate goes anywhere but up in price.

The boom couldn’t start without Wall Street securitizing loans and selling them off to investors (many of them overseas). What type of WS culture creates an environment where there is strong incentive to sell what the market will buy and book a trading profit or fee income? No one had any incentive to stop the lucrative money train.
– Home buyers bought more house than they could afford.
– Loan officers originated more loans and earned significant income for basically just helping borrowers fill out a form (loan app).
– Wall Street bankers generated massive bonuses for themselves and quarterly profits for their firms.
– Rating agencies earned more fees rating mortgage backed securities (MBS) as AAA.

Isn’t it startling that nowhere was a fundamental issue like a borrower’s ability to service a loan and pay on time for 30 years ever discussed or considered?
The economic boom was NOT about fundamental value creation but solely a product of easy credit. Housing prices historically rise about 1% a year in line with increases in household income. They will revert to the mean over time. Essentially, there is no new economy or new economics. When we hear that in the MSM (mainstream media), look for the unsustainable bubble and prepare for it to end.

Why couldn’t Alan Greenspan, our economic “maestro”, our foremost authority on finance, interest rates and a stable economy, have warned us about the unsustainable boom and subsequent global economic collapse? He didn’t see the bubble. To make matters worse, he says:
“there is no doubt that somewhere in the future, we’ll have this conversation again. It will not be for quite a period of time, but it will occur because the flaws in human nature are such that we cannot change that, it does not work.”

Will you remember that all booms go bust?

Will you remember that what cannot go on forever must end?

Will you remember what your parents taught you? Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to do it too.

If history is any guide, almost all of us will forget what we learned by the time the next boom starts. Scary thought, isn’t it?

The following is from Mike Morgan’s blog (12/09/2008). I agree with many of his points.

If you still believe we are at or near the bottom, please consider a few of my Key Points to support the coming Depression:

1 – Housing prices are still falling.

2 – We are nowhere close to resolving the mortgage crisis, and millions of foreclosures are coming. In turn, this means lower housing prices and, in turn, more foreclosures.

3 – Wall Street and the Banking System has still not accepted the consequences of the toxic assets they built, sold, profited from . . . and now they are stuck with. All they have done is covered them up with a thin layer of Magic Dust (taxpayer bailout money).

4 – The housing ATM is closed. And with the closing of the housing ATM, consumers have less money to spend . . . and less money to pay their mortgages with, so there will be more foreclosures.

5 -If you map out the consequences for 1, 2, 3 and 4 you quickly see that less FFM “free-funny money” means less to spend and this means more job losses throughout the system, and this means much more pain to come.

6 – Worldwide we are seeing government responses with nonsensical bailouts and “spending” programs. The sad thing is, the spending programs are not directed at making us better, but just at how we can buy more toys and treats. In fact, governments are repeating the very same mistakes made in the 1930’s. By the way, these are only the big picture issues. I could give you a hundred reasons we are headed to very dark times, but all of it stems from the housing bubble that created the toxic asset crisis, and until we detox, the pain will get worse. This is no different than a drug addict. All we are doing now is feeding the drug addict and making matters worse . . . just like we did in the 1930’s. And just like a drug addict must go through a horrible physical detox, so must the world.