I loved Michael Lewis' book – The Big Short – about the 2008 Wall Street created global financial catastrophe, that is still impacting the little guys on Main Street eight years after it was supposedly resolved by Paulson, Bernanke and Obama. I even wrote an article about it called The Big Short: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street. I also loved one of the main characters in the book – Frontpoint Partners hedge fund manager Steve Eisman – a foul mouthed, highly skeptical, open minded guy who figured out the fraudulent subprime mortgage scheme and shorted the crap out of the derivatives backing the fraud, making hundreds of millions in the process.
I had the opportunity to attend a 90 minute talk by Steve Eisman last night where he discussed the financial crisis, the response by the Fed and government, and the future for the financial industry. My perception of him, based on the book and movie, was he was a cantankerous asshole who didn't care what anyone thought about him. My perception matched what I experienced. He was dropping f-bombs, insulting the institution hosting his talk, making fun of business school students (he graduated with a liberal arts degree) and dismissing any question he found to be stupid.
He was very funny. You could tell immediately he was smart and very opinionated. He was confident in his area of expertise. His diagnosis of what happened leading up to the financial implosion was dead on. He correctly tied the entire debacle to ridiculous levels of leverage taken on by Wall Street banks, warped incentives for financial industry employees and rating agencies, and Federal Reserve regulators asleep at the wheel, convinced Wall Street could regulate itself. I think he was too easy on the people who knowingly committed fraud to buy houses they knew they couldn't afford. He said they were lured into the fraud by the unscrupulous mortgage industry. It takes two to tango.
He described how the credit standards continued to descend as the Wall Street doomsday machine needed more product to convert into toxic derivative products, rated AAA by the greedy worthless rating agencies, so they could sell the weapons of mass destruction to unsuspecting pension funds, mutual funds, and little old ladies. He openly despised Alan Greenspan as the worst Fed Chairman in history and blames him for the lack of regulation leading up to the crisis.
The slimy mortgage originators offered teaser rates of 3% to migrant workers so they could purchase a $700,000 home with nothing down and no proof of income. After three years the rate would adjust to 9%. The underwriters rated the loans based on the 3%, not the 9%. The home occupier had to pay 4 or 5 basis up front to get the loan. Since they could never afford the 9%, they had to refinance and pay another 4 or 5 basis points. The same loan would get repackaged twice into derivatives, while the shysters made out like bandits.
"In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $724,000." - Michael Lewis, The Big Short
This subprime slime was the fuse destined to blow up the system, but it was the Wall Street leverage which created the nuclear bomb attached to the fuse. He described how the Wall Street banks were leveraged 10 to 1 in 2000. By 2007 they were leveraged 33 to 1. And most of the assets on their balance sheet were toxic debt slime. Eisman was a Wall Street guy and understood their mindset. When he would point out how stupid these decisions were, the Wall Street big swinging dicks would respond they made $50 million last year and he didn't. They were smart because they were rich.
The arrogant pricks who ran Wall Street firms mistook their self pronounced brilliant results for leverage propelled fake profits. Levering up your firm with toxic un-payable debt made you look brilliant in the short term, but created a debt bomb destined to blow up the world. Greed, hubris, ignorance of the products they were creating, complete lack of risk management, and the immoral culture of Wall Street led to the worst financial crisis in world history. Eisman's diagnosis of the causes was perfect.
In my opinion, his positive response to how Paulson, Bernanke and the Obama administration "solved" the crisis was disingenuous, proof he's a Wall Street guy at heart, and not the defender of the little guy as described by Steve Carrell, who portrayed him in the movie:
"I think he [Eisman] seems himself as a defender of justice and righteousness, while at the same time being conflicted."
In the movie he was portrayed as the moral compass. After hearing his praise for the awesome job Paulson did by saving the criminal Wall Street banks with taxpayer money, I think the justice and righteousness stuff is overdone. Earlier in his talk he said banks existed to "fuck you" – his exact words. Then later he says we had to save them or the world would have ended. He spun the same old narrative that if you didn't save AIG, Goldman, GE, and the rest of the corrupt Wall Street cabal, unemployment would have been 30% instead of the 10% it eventually reached. I guess he believes the BLS bullshit that unemployment is currently 4.7%.
Other smart people, not beholden to Wall Street (he works for Neuberger Berman), argue that we could have had an orderly liquidation of the Wall Street banks that took too much risk and levered themselves 33 to 1. The people on Main Street didn't lever themselves 33 to 1, but we got to bail them out. Rewarding failure encourages more failure. There were over 8,000 banks in the US and it was only 10 or 20 who almost destroyed the world. They should have paid the price for their criminality and recklessness. Their executives should have gone to jail. Not one did.
I began to realize Eisman is a liberal Democrat when he enthusiastically praised Elizabeth Warren as a champion of the people and how Dodd Frank has completely reined in the Wall Street banks. He positively gushed about his friend Daniel Tarullo, the Fed's chairman of the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council. He expounded on how tough he has been on the Wall Street banks and his gotten them under control. Meanwhile, they continue to pay billions in fines for their criminal acts and Michael Lewis' other bestseller – Flashboys – documents the continued rigging of markets and criminality on Wall Street.
His defense of Wall Street as it's constituted today reminded me of the Upton Sinclair quote:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
He is a creature of Wall Street who depends on their good graces for his continued income. He wouldn't even name Bill Miller as the idiot mutual fund manger who bought Bear Stearns as it was about to go under, because his compliance manager said he shouldn't do so. It was at this point I realized he wasn't some prescient sage who understands the markets better than the average schmuck. He got lucky. It wasn't even his idea to short the subprime market derivatives. Greg Lippman from Deutsche Bank sold the idea to him in February 2006. He just acted on the advice.
His dismissal of overturning the Glass Steagall Act as a cause, Fannie & Freddie's role in the crisis, and the fact this was a calculated control fraud deserving of prison sentences for hundreds of Wall Street executives, changed my view of the man in a matter of minutes. I find liberal minded people like himself are sometimes excellent at diagnosing problems, but their solutions either exacerbate the problem or ignore the real problem.
He said nothing about how Bernanke & Geithner's threats to the FASB, resulting in the suspension of mark to market accounting, marked the exact bottom of the market. From that point onward, the Wall Street banks, along with Fannie and Freddie, could value their assets at whatever they wanted – mark to fantasy. Amazingly, the banks and the insolvent mortgage companies immediately started reporting billions of fake profits. Loan loss reserves were relieved, while Fannie & Freddie made billions in fake payments to the Treasury, artificially decreasing annual deficits.
Eisman, the man of the people, said nothing about how real median household income is lower today than it was at the height of the crisis, while Wall Street bonus pools are at record highs. He said nothing about senior citizens who used to count on 5% money market returns to scrape by now getting .25% because the Fed used ZIRP to save the Wall Street banks. Eisman is an extremely rich Wall Streeter. He wouldn't know how to find Main Street, even with a GPS. He was surely blindsided by the deplorables, outside his NYC bubble, electing Trump as a reaction to the screwjob they received from Wall Street, the Fed and the Obama administration.
His laid back view of the Wall Street banks and how great their balance sheets are, with leverage of only 11 to 1, completely ignores the fact the Fed bought $3.6 trillion of their toxic debt at one hundred cents on the dollar, and the Obama administration took on $10 trillion of national debt to give the economy the appearance of recovery – while the majority are still experiencing a recession, except for Eisman's Wall Street cronies. He had no problem with Wall Street hedge funds buying up all the foreclosed homes, driving prices higher to fix Wall Street balance sheets, and renting them back to the poor people he pretends to care about.
No mention from Steve about why the economy requires emergency level interest rates, nine years after the crisis. He seems sanguine about a $20 trillion national debt, where normalization of interest rates would blow up the world again. He thinks the US banking industry is the safest it has ever been in history. Isn't it funny that he did an interview a few weeks ago revealing he is long the banking industry? He is just talking his book, just like every other Wall Street chameleon.
Even though stock valuations are at highs only seen in 1929, 2000, and 2007, Eisman sees no stock market bubble. He expects stocks to go higher due to Trump's tax cuts and deregulation plans. Even though home prices are nearing 2005 levels again, he sees no real estate bubble. He sees no subprime auto loan bubble. He sees no student loan bubble – he said it's the government's problem, as if the government gets their money from someone other than the people. He doesn't care about the debt bubble, because he's an equity guy. This type of vision might explain why his hedge fund venture after Frontpoint – Emrys Partners – went under in two years.
My experience of seeing Steve Eisman in person was a letdown. I expected some sort of visionary superhero and I got an abrasive, myopic, captured Wall Street guy, parroting the Wall Street line that all is well, the future is bright, debt doesn't matter, and stocks always go higher. I left the venue wondering whether I have the bad case of cognitive dissonance and can't see how great things are, or whether Steve has the bad case of cognitive dissonance. I guess time will tell.
There are two things I learned.
- Its better to be lucky than smart.
- Wall Street will never change.
"What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don't need to make smart decisions–if they can get rich making dumb decisions? The incentives on Wall Street were all wrong; they're still all wrong." - Michael Lewis, The Big Short