Quick Hits

Michael Lewis Takes the Stage

By posted at 10:52 am on January 4, 2009 0

As we adjust to new economic realities, Michael Lewis is emerging as the financial meltdown’s most important voice. His Portfolio piece “The End” told us how we got here but it also illuminated his own failure, in the 1980s, to get the point across with his book Liar’s Poker. Meant to be a cautionary tale, it became instead an inspiration.

But Lewis appears unwilling to let “The End” be his final, confessional comment on the matter. This weekend, as a new year and new administration are gearing up, Lewis has delivered another far more aggressive piece, this time in the New York Times (Part 1, Part 2). In it, he calls out, more strenuously than before, the fraud, incompetence, and willful ignorance behind the financial crisis and makes it clear that this fall’s efforts to resolve it were flawed at best. He also makes several direct, clear-eyed proposals to set things back on the right course. One hopes Obama is watching. One also notices that Lewis, in these pieces, is no longer acting as a journalist or even a columnist. He has thrust himself into the center of this issue, as if looking to finish what he tried to accomplish more than 20 years ago.

But Lewis has grown up too. Liar’s Poker didn’t wake up the world to Wall Street’s ills because its tone was too glib and too incredulous. We were meant to marvel at the goings on at Solomon Brothers just as the young Lewis had. That tone is gone now, and Lewis has returned to the task with a fierce seriousness. Whether or not you agree with everything that Lewis is writing in these pieces, his tone, backed up by his more than 30 years of writing about Wall Street, will give even the most optimistic observers pause.

Interestingly, Lewis’ co-author for the two New York Times pieces is David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who doesn’t exactly have a pristine reputation. Einhorn heads up Greenlight Capital, which racked up average annualized returns of 25.5% from May 1996 through mid-2008, according to New York Times, though his funds, like many on Wall Street, have struggled since. He’s also a serious poker player. In 2006, he placed 18th in the World Series of Poker’s main event, winning more than $650 thousand that he donated to charity.

Einhorn made headlines this year for his very vocal bearish stance on now defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. Einhorn eventually went public with discrepancies that he and his analysts had found in Lehman’s numbers. Believed to be short (i.e. placing bets that the stock would go down) Lehman and other financial names, Einhorn was excoriated in a war of words on Wall Street as regulators targeted short selling among financial stocks. Lewis and Einhorn make it clear where they stand on that issue, calling short sellers, “the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.”

After much confusion as the crisis played out in 2008, it may be that we are seeing whistle-blowers like Lewis and Einhorn emerge from the mess to take control of the discussion. In time we will see if they have the ear anyone in power.

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