A closely written account of the late financial meltdown, when, in the words of one analyst, “we went from a collective belief in soundness to a collective belief in insolvency.”
That change of attitude is entirely understandable, inasmuch as the financial system was predicated on abstractions. The origins of the meltdown and the subsequent Great Recession, write former Fortune and current Vanity Fair contributor McLean (co-author: The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, 2003) and New York Times reporter Nocera (A Piece of the Action : How the Middle Class Joined the Money Class, 1994), largely lie in the speculator’s dream called the mortgage-backed security, which “allowed Wall Street to scoop up loans made to people who were buying homes, bundle them together by the thousands, and then resell the bundle, in bits and pieces, to investors.” This innovation netted fortunes for the players at the top, undoing the former bond between buyer and seller and leading directly to the rise of the subprime industry and its toxic holdings. Ironically, write the authors, the securitizing of mortgages was not an invention of Wall Street but of government, with the federal agencies Ginnie Mae and then Freddie Mac selling securities 40 years ago. Scrupulously fair, McLean and Nocera look inside the closed doors of agencies, some now extinct, such as Bear Stearns and Countrywide, which took the official rhetoric, shared by George Bush and Bill Clinton alike, that there is something near-sacred about homeownership and ran with it. Interestingly, the authors attribute the failed policing of the subprime industry, whose criminal business practices were the engine of the meltdown, to a very real fear on the part of the government that cracking down would harm the people who most needed help. Those little fish were soon swallowed up by the Wall Street sharks, who sagely played the odds to the end, when it finally became apparent that the system was being hit by a perfect storm far beyond the worst of worst-case scenarios.
Hard-hitting reporting and fluent writing bring the utter devastation of the Great Recession to life—with John Cassidy’s How Markets Fail (2009) an essential aid to understanding where all the money went, and who benefited.