Tuesday, March 10, 2009

who is john galtsson?

Michael Lewis is probably the most entertaining financial writer in this country. He writes about other stuff, too. But he made his name with "Liars Poker" and he still has a way of capturing the culture of the financial world better than almost anyone. He appears to be writing a book about the current financial crisis, giving us the periodic pleasure of it as a work-in-progress in various publications. His latest is in Vanity Fair ("Wall Street on the Tundra"), about the Icelandic Meltdown. Just the bit where he describes how the 1100-year-old Icelandic fishing culture naturally lent itself to investment banking is a classic. Read it now.

This is the gist:



Iceland was ... a nation of extremely well-to-do (No. 1 in the United Nations’ 2008 Human Development Index), well-educated, historically rational human beings who had organized themselves to commit one of the single greatest acts of madness in financial history. “You have to understand,” he told me, “Iceland is no longer a country. It is a hedge fund.”

An entire nation without immediate experience or even distant memory of high finance had gazed upon the example of Wall Street and said, “We can do that.” For a brief moment it appeared that they could. In 2003, Iceland’s three biggest banks had assets of only a few billion dollars, about 100 percent of its gross domestic product. Over the next three and a half years they grew to over $140 billion and were so much greater than Iceland’s G.D.P. that it made no sense to calculate the percentage of it they accounted for. It was, as one economist put it to me, “the most rapid expansion of a banking system in the history of mankind.”


He comes up with passages like this:

Back in the 1980s, Oddsson had fallen under the spell of Milton Friedman, the brilliant economist who was able to persuade even those who spent their lives working for the government that government was a waste of life. So Oddsson went on a quest to give Icelandic people their freedom—by which he meant freedom from government controls of any sort. As prime minister he lowered taxes, privatized industry, freed up trade, and, finally, in 2002, privatized the banks. At length, weary of prime-ministering, he got himself appointed governor of the Central Bank—even though he was a poet without banking
experience.
And this:
Fishermen, in other words, are a lot like American investment bankers. Their overconfidence leads them to impoverish not just themselves but also their fishing grounds.

And in part of the final passage of the article:
When you borrow a lot of money to create a false prosperity, you import the future into the present. It isn’t the actual future so much as some grotesque silicon version of it. Leverage buys you a glimpse of a prosperity you haven’t really earned.

There are passages that made me think of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It's as if that island nation of 300,000 inhabitants had awkwardly morphed into John Galt's exclusive commune -- where everyone is a hedge-fund manager.



Along the lines of this recent updated version of Atlas Shrugged. A sample of the faux Ms. Rand's timeless prose:

"I heard the thugs in Washington were trying to take your Rearden metal at the point of a gun," she said. "Don't let them, Hank. With your advanced alloy and my high-tech railroad, we'll revitalize our country's failing infrastructure and make big, virtuous profits."

"Oh, no, I got out of that suckers' game. I now run my own hedge-fund firm, Rearden Capital Management."

"What?"

He stood and adjusted his suit jacket so that his body didn't betray his shameful weakness. He walked toward her and sat informally on the edge of her desk. "Why make a product when you can make dollars? Right this second, I'm earning millions in interest off money I don't even have."

He gestured to his floor-to-ceiling windows, a symbol of his productive ability and
goodness.

"There's a whole world out there of byzantine financial products just waiting to be invented, Dagny. Let the leeches run my factories into the ground! I hope they do! I've taken out more insurance on a single Rearden Steel bond than the entire company is even worth! When my old company finally tanks, I'll make a cool $877 million."

2 comments:

Gilmoure said...

Hope they keep selling their sweaters. I have one that was my father's in the 60's. Very well made. Is too small, though.

Would be a shame if the entire island goes under. I guess there would be stories for thousands of years about a glorious island nation sinking beneath the waves...

Uncle Rob said...

You post the following passage
"When you borrow a lot of money to create a false prosperity, you import the future into the present. It isn’t the actual future so much as some grotesque silicon version of it. Leverage buys you a glimpse of a prosperity you haven’t really earned."
as being an insightful thought, yet can't see that the passage could easily have been written about Obama's budget.