Friday, January 4, 2013

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin

It might not be easy to compliment Too Big to Fail. It's a book about how rich bankers courageously fight for their firms' survivals, I would tell my friends. No no, it's really compelling and well written! Just imagine John Grisham writing a novel about the key people involved in the financial system's collapse. It's about big egos having to deal with failure and intelligent people making awful decisions. Still convinced that this book is not worth your time?

Too Big to Fail is one of the more successful business books of the last ten years both according to its sales figures and praising reviews. It's the story of the key people involved in the unraveling of the global economy, especially American politicians and investment bank CEOs.

Most of all, Too Big to Fail does a wonderful job of describing the dozens of people working for a plethora of government institutions, investment banks and the like. Dick Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers and main antagonist, is described without the usual fussy praise and damning accusations that sometimes weigh on American journalism . He is a mere mortal, on the brink of a burnout or a possible mental breakdown. Seeing the company he saved from doom a decade before crumble, he regresses to his most human.

Most secondary characters also offer interesting insights to the world of high finance. The chief executives at AIG, an insurance giant, rummage old company vaults in search of a 14 billion stash of old stock paper in order to save the company from imminent bankruptcy. Joe Gregory, of Lehman fame too, flies a helicopter to work everyday, and overall probably earns a spot at the top of an all-time worst corporate executives list. Brilliance and folly are shown in equal measure as is sacrifice and salvation.

At the height of the panic, the Federal Reserve calls for a meeting of the biggest banks in a desperate attempt to counter the looming disaster. It's a strange meeting and more than once reminded me of a gathering of the heads of Mafia families. Men with egos the size of power boats perched around a mahogany table, henchmen whispering in their ears, threats being volleyed from all sides. Secret agreements are made in hushed tones over dinner at Michelin restaurants and aboard private jets.

All this is told in a matter-of-fact tone by Sorkin, who brilliantly manages to leave connecting the dots to the reader. This book is all about the facts, a proper and uncompromising history of events. There is no attempt to draw conclusions, no need to underline the themes. I might be overplaying my hand, but at its core, this is a book about human weakness and making mistakes. I still have no clue how a non-fiction business book swimming in jibberish like Credit Default Swap and Mortgage Backed Asset could be this good. This one shouldn't be judged by it's cover.

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