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Monday, 23 August 2010

Books - Too Big To Fail - Inside the Battle to Save Wall Street by Andrew Ross Sorkin

Star rating – 8/10

Only a mere three years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the near collapse of AIG and many more besides, we all seem to have forgotten the anger we collectively felt at the bankers’ huge bonuses, and at the risks they had been prepared to make with other people’s lives for their own gain. Yes the bumper bonuses are rolling gain in the City and on Wall Street, whatever mealy mouthed protestations are made to the contrary by regulators and politicians. So it is timely that Andrew Ross Sorkin has provided us with a detailed account of those hazy, crazy days just before and after the Lehman Brothers demise, to give us a rare insight into the episode which will surely be pored over by generations to come in their economics and history lessons.

Sorkin is a journalist on the New York Times, and has had unprecedented access to personal emails and notes from the people at the eye of the storm to write this book. It is a riveting account of how frantic efforts were made by the key players to avert a world wide economic catastrophe. Lehman Brothers was the sacrificial lamb that the American Government did not feel able to step in and save, even though they did pump billions of public money into saving Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Goldman Sachs, and AIG. And no real explanation is evident by reading about the Board room manoeuvrings and back tracking that went on for days and nights as to why Lehmans was not saved and the others were.

What is obvious is that the fate of the world economy was in the hands of a few American financiers who knew each other well, had personally moved between many of the key organisations involved during the course of their stellar careers, and who formed something of an old boys network (and they were mainly men, with only a couple of women at the cutting edge of the drama as related by Sorkin).

Sorkin’s fascinating account of the deal and double crosses gives a real sense of history in the making. Other books about the crisis tell the tale from other points of view, this one is firmly from the bankers’ perspective. Nothing much is said about the ordinary American people whose lives were wrecked by the collapse. It is also a very American viewpoint, and the way some of the British characters in the show are viewed as weak and unhelpful is amusing.
But whilst it is fascinating, and very well told, you can’t help but wonder in astonishment whilst reading it that it has taken so little time to return to the same greed and grasping for individual gain that caused this mess in the first place, or that the same system in still in place that allows banks and bankers to behave in this frankly criminally irresponsible way if they so choose. For my money there is a gossamer fine line between some of the key players in this particular drama, and the senior people who went to jail for their part in the Enron saga.

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