13 November 2008

The End of Wall Street ~ A story from the belly of the beast

What they were doing, oddly enough, was the analysis of subprime lending that should have been done before the loans were made: Which poor Americans were likely to jump which way with their finances? How much did home prices need to fall for these loans to blow up? (It turned out they didn’t have to fall; they merely needed to stay flat.) The default rate in Georgia was five times higher than that in Florida even though the two states had the same unemployment rate. Why? Indiana had a 25 percent default rate; California’s was only 5 percent. Why?

Moses actually flew down to Miami and wandered around neighborhoods built with subprime loans to see how bad things were. “He’d call me and say, ‘Oh my God, this is a calamity here,’ ” recalls Eisman. All that was required for the BBB bonds to go to zero was for the default rate on the underlying loans to reach 14 percent. Eisman thought that, in certain sections of the country, it would go far, far higher.

The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.

But he couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. “I didn’t understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold,” he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. “We always asked the same question,” says Eisman. “Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I’d always get the same reaction. It was a smirk.” He called Standard & Poor’s and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn’t say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. “They were just assuming home prices would keep going up,” Eisman says.

As an investor, Eisman was allowed on the quarterly conference calls held by Moody’s but not allowed to ask questions. The people at Moody’s were polite about their brush-off, however. The C.E.O. even invited Eisman and his team to his office for a visit in June 2007. By then, Eisman was so certain that the world had been turned upside down that he just assumed this guy must know it too. “But we’re sitting there,” Daniel recalls, “and he says to us, like he actually means it, ‘I truly believe that our rating will prove accurate.’ And Steve shoots up in his chair and asks, ‘What did you just say?’ as if the guy had just uttered the most preposterous statement in the history of finance. He repeated it. And Eisman just laughed at him.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Daniel told the C.E.O. deferentially as they left the meeting, “you’re delusional.”
This wasn’t Fitch or even S&P. This was Moody’s, the aristocrats of the rating business, 20 percent owned by Warren Buffett. And the company’s C.E.O. was being told he was either a fool or a crook by one Vincent Daniel, from Queens.

A full nine months earlier, Daniel and Moses had flown to Orlando for an industry conference. It had a grand title—the American Securitization Forum—but it was essentially a trade show for the subprime-mortgage business: the people who originated subprime mortgages, the Wall Street firms that packaged and sold subprime mortgages, the fund managers who invested in nothing but subprime-mortgage-backed bonds, the agencies that rated subprime-mortgage bonds, the lawyers who did whatever the lawyers did. Daniel and Moses thought they were paying a courtesy call on a cottage industry, but the cottage had become a castle. “There were like 6,000 people there,” Daniel says. “There were so many people being fed by this industry. The entire fixed-income department of each brokerage firm is built on this. Everyone there was the long side of the trade. The wrong side of the trade. And then there was us. That’s when the picture really started to become clearer, and we started to get more cynical, if that was possible. We went back home and said to Steve, ‘You gotta see this.’ ”

Eisman, Daniel, and Moses then flew out to Las Vegas for an even bigger subprime conference. By now, Eisman knew everything he needed to know about the quality of the loans being made. He still didn’t fully understand how the apparatus worked, but he knew that Wall Street had built a doomsday machine. He was at once opportunistic and outraged.

Their first stop was a speech given by the C.E.O. of Option One, the mortgage originator owned by H&R Block. When the guy got to the part of his speech about Option One’s subprime-loan portfolio, he claimed to be expecting a modest default rate of 5 percent. Eisman raised his hand. Moses and Daniel sank into their chairs. “It wasn’t a Q&A,” says Moses. “The guy was giving a speech. He sees Steve’s hand and says, ‘Yes?’”

Would you say that 5 percent is a probability or a possibility?” Eisman asked.

A probability, said the C.E.O., and he continued his speech.

Eisman had his hand up in the air again, waving it around. Oh, no, Moses thought. “The one thing Steve always says,” Daniel explains, “is you must assume they are lying to you. They will always lie to you.” Moses and Daniel both knew what Eisman thought of these subprime lenders but didn’t see the need for him to express it here in this manner. For Eisman wasn’t raising his hand to ask a question. He had his thumb and index finger in a big circle. He was using his fingers to speak on his behalf. Zero! they said.

“Yes?” the C.E.O. said, obviously irritated. “Is that another question?”

“No,” said Eisman. “It’s a zero. There is zero probability that your default rate will be 5 percent.” The losses on subprime loans would be much, much greater. Before the guy could reply, Eisman’s cell phone rang. Instead of shutting it off, Eisman reached into his pocket and answered it. “Excuse me,” he said, standing up. “But I need to take this call.” And with that, he walked out.

Eisman’s willingness to be abrasive in order to get to the heart of the matter was obvious to all; what was harder to see was his credulity: He actually wanted to believe in the system. As quick as he was to cry bullshit when he saw it, he was still shocked by bad behavior. That night in Vegas, he was seated at dinner beside a really nice guy who invested in mortgage C.D.O.’s—collateralized debt obligations. By then, Eisman thought he knew what he needed to know about C.D.O.’s. He didn’t, it turned out.

Later, when I sit down with Eisman, the very first thing he wants to explain is the importance of the mezzanine C.D.O. What you notice first about Eisman is his lips. He holds them pursed, waiting to speak. The second thing you notice is his short, light hair, cropped in a manner that suggests he cut it himself while thinking about something else. “You have to understand this,” he says. “This was the engine of doom.” Then he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a “particularly egregious” C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA. These bonds could then be sold to investors—pension funds, insurance companies—who were allowed to invest only in highly rated securities. “I cannot fucking believe this is allowed—I must have said that a thousand times in the past two years,” Eisman says.

His dinner companion in Las Vegas ran a fund of about $15 billion and managed C.D.O.’s backed by the BBB tranche of a mortgage bond, or as Eisman puts it, “the equivalent of three levels of dog shit lower than the original bonds.”

FrontPoint had spent a lot of time digging around in the dog shit and knew that the default rates were already sufficient to wipe out this guy’s entire portfolio. “God, you must be having a hard time,” Eisman told his dinner companion.

“No,” the guy said, “I’ve sold everything out.”

After taking a fee, he passed them on to other investors. His job was to be the C.D.O. “expert,” but he actually didn’t spend any time at all thinking about what was in the C.D.O.’s. “He managed the C.D.O.’s,” says Eisman, “but managed what? I was just appalled. People would pay up to have someone manage their C.D.O.’s—as if this moron was helping you. I thought, You prick, you don’t give a fuck about the investors in this thing.”

Whatever rising anger Eisman felt was offset by the man’s genial disposition. Not only did he not mind that Eisman took a dim view of his C.D.O.’s; he saw it as a basis for friendship. “Then he said something that blew my mind,” Eisman tells me. “He says, ‘I love guys like you who short my market. Without you, I don’t have anything to buy.’ ”

That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them. Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. “They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,” Eisman says. “They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans. But that’s when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”

This particular dinner was hosted by Deutsche Bank, whose head trader, Greg Lippman, was the fellow who had introduced Eisman to the subprime bond market. Eisman went and found Lippman, pointed back to his own dinner companion, and said, “I want to short him.” Lippman thought he was joking; he wasn’t. “Greg, I want to short his paper,” Eisman repeated. “Sight unseen.”

Eisman started out running a $60 million equity fund but was now short around $600 million of various ­subprime-related securities. In the spring of 2007, the market strengthened. But, says Eisman, “credit quality always gets better in March and April. And the reason it always gets better in March and April is that people get their tax refunds. You would think people in the securitization world would know this. We just thought that was moronic.”

He was already short the stocks of mortgage originators and the homebuilders. Now he took short positions in the rating agencies—“they were making 10 times more rating C.D.O.’s than they were rating G.M. bonds, and it was all going to end”—and, finally, the biggest Wall Street firms because of their exposure to C.D.O.’s. He wasn’t allowed to short Morgan Stanley because it owned a stake in his fund. But he shorted UBS, Lehman Brothers, and a few others. Not long after that, FrontPoint had a visit from Sanford C. Bernstein’s Brad Hintz, a prominent analyst who covered Wall Street firms. Hintz wanted to know what Eisman was up to. “We just shorted Merrill Lynch,” Eisman told him.

“Why?” asked Hintz.

“We have a simple thesis,” Eisman explained. “There is going to be a calamity, and whenever there is a calamity, Merrill is there.” When it came time to bankrupt Orange County with bad advice, Merrill was there. When the internet went bust, Merrill was there. Way back in the 1980s, when the first bond trader was let off his leash and lost hundreds of millions of dollars, Merrill was there to take the hit. That was Eisman’s logic—the logic of Wall Street’s pecking order. Goldman Sachs was the big kid who ran the games in this neighborhood. Merrill Lynch was the little fat kid assigned the least pleasant roles, just happy to be a part of things. The game, as Eisman saw it, was Crack the Whip. He assumed Merrill Lynch had taken its assigned place at the end of the chain.

There was only one thing that bothered Eisman, and it continued to trouble him as late as May 2007. “The thing we couldn’t figure out is: It’s so obvious. Why hasn’t everyone else figured out that the machine is done?” Eisman had long subscribed to Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, a newsletter famous in Wall Street circles and obscure outside them. Jim Grant, its editor, had been prophesying doom ever since the great debt cycle began, in the mid-1980s. In late 2006, he decided to investigate these things called C.D.O.’s. Or rather, he had asked his young assistant, Dan Gertner, a chemical engineer with an M.B.A., to see if he could understand them. Gertner went off with the documents that purported to explain C.D.O.’s to potential investors and for several days sweated and groaned and heaved and suffered. “Then he came back,” says Grant, “and said, ‘I can’t figure this thing out.’ And I said, ‘I think we have our story.’ ”

Eisman read Grant’s piece as independent confirmation of what he knew in his bones about the C.D.O.’s he had shorted. “When I read it, I thought, Oh my God. This is like owning a gold mine. When I read that, I was the only guy in the equity world who almost had an orgasm.”

On July 19, 2007, the same day that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the U.S. Senate that he anticipated as much as $100 billion in losses in the subprime-mortgage market, FrontPoint did something unusual: It hosted its own conference call. It had had calls with its tiny population of investors, but this time FrontPoint opened it up. Steve Eisman had become a poorly kept secret. Five hundred people called in to hear what he had to say, and another 500 logged on afterward to listen to a recording of it. He explained the strange alchemy of the C.D.O. and said that he expected losses of up to $300 billion from this sliver of the market alone. To evaluate the situation, he urged his audience to “just throw your model in the garbage can. The models are all backward-looking.

The models don’t have any idea of what this world has become…. For the first time in their lives, people in the asset-backed-securitization world are actually having to think.” He explained that the rating agencies were morally bankrupt and living in fear of becoming actually bankrupt. “The rating agencies are scared to death,” he said. “They’re scared to death about doing nothing because they’ll look like fools if they do nothing.”

On September 18, 2008, Danny Moses came to work as usual at 6:30 a.m. Earlier that week, Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy. The day before, the Dow had fallen 449 points to its lowest level in four years. Overnight, European governments announced a ban on short-selling, but that served as faint warning for what happened next.

At the market opening in the U.S., everything—every financial asset—went into free fall. “All hell was breaking loose in a way I had never seen in my career,” Moses says. FrontPoint was net short the market, so this total collapse should have given Moses pleasure. He might have been forgiven if he stood up and cheered. After all, he’d been betting for two years that this sort of thing could happen, and now it was, more dramatically than he had ever imagined. Instead, he felt this terrifying shudder run through him. He had maybe 100 trades on, and he worked hard to keep a handle on them all. “I spent my morning trying to control all this energy and all this information,” he says, “and I lost control. I looked at the screens. I was staring into the abyss. The end. I felt this shooting pain in my head. I don’t get headaches. At first, I thought I was having an aneurysm.”

Moses stood up, wobbled, then turned to Daniel and said, “I gotta leave. Get out of here. Now.” Daniel thought about calling an ambulance but instead took Moses out for a walk.

Outside it was gorgeous, the blue sky reaching down through the tall buildings and warming the soul. Eisman was at a Goldman Sachs conference for hedge fund managers, raising capital. Moses and Daniel got him on the phone, and he left the conference and met them on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We just sat there,” Moses says. “Watching the people pass.”

This was what they had been waiting for: total collapse. “The investment-banking industry is fucked,” Eisman had told me a few weeks earlier. “These guys are only beginning to understand how fucked they are. It’s like being a Scholastic, prior to Newton. Newton comes along, and one morning you wake up: ‘Holy shit, I’m wrong!’ ” Now Lehman Brothers had vanished, Merrill had surrendered, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were just a week away from ceasing to be investment banks. The investment banks were not just fucked; they were extinct.

Not so for hedge fund managers who had seen it coming. “As we sat there, we were weirdly calm,” Moses says. “We felt insulated from the whole market reality. It was an out-of-body experience. We just sat and watched the people pass and talked about what might happen next. How many of these people were going to lose their jobs. Who was going to rent these buildings after all the Wall Street firms collapsed.” Eisman was appalled. “Look,” he said. “I’m short. I don’t want the country to go into a depression. I just want it to fucking deleverage.” He had tried a thousand times in a thousand ways to explain how screwed up the business was, and no one wanted to hear it. “That Wall Street has gone down because of this is justice,” he says. “They fucked people. They built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience.”

Truth to tell, there wasn’t a whole lot of hand-wringing inside FrontPoint either. The only one among them who wrestled a bit with his conscience was Daniel. “Vinny, being from Queens, needs to see the dark side of everything,” Eisman says. To which Daniel replies, “The way we thought about it was, ‘By shorting this market we’re creating the liquidity to keep the market going.’ ”

“It was like feeding the monster,” Eisman says of the market for subprime bonds. “We fed the monster until it blew up.”

About the time they were sitting on the steps of the midtown cathedral, I sat in a booth in a restaurant on the East Side, waiting for John Gutfreund to arrive for lunch, and wondered, among other things, why any restaurant would seat side by side two men without the slightest interest in touching each other.

There was an umbilical cord running from the belly of the exploded beast back to the financial 1980s. A friend of mine created the first mortgage derivative in 1986, a year after we left the Salomon Brothers trading program. (“The problem isn’t the tools,” he likes to say. “It’s who is using the tools. Derivatives are like guns.”)

When I published my book, the 1980s were supposed to be ending. I received a lot of undeserved credit for my timing. The social disruption caused by the collapse of the savings-and-loan industry and the rise of hostile takeovers and leveraged buyouts had given way to a brief period of recriminations. Just as most students at Ohio State read Liar’s Poker as a manual, most TV and radio interviewers regarded me as a whistleblower. (The big exception was Geraldo Rivera. He put me on a show called “People Who Succeed Too Early in Life” along with some child actors who’d gone on to become drug addicts.) Anti-Wall Street feeling ran high—high enough for Rudy Giuliani to float a political career on it—but the result felt more like a witch hunt than an honest reappraisal of the financial order. The public lynchings of Gutfreund and junk-bond king Michael Milken were excuses not to deal with the disturbing forces underpinning their rise. Ditto the cleaning up of Wall Street’s trading culture. The surface rippled, but down below, in the depths, the bonus pool remained undisturbed. Wall Street firms would soon be frowning upon profanity, firing traders for so much as glancing at a stripper, and forcing male employees to treat women almost as equals. Lehman Brothers circa 2008 more closely resembled a normal corporation with solid American values than did any Wall Street firm circa 1985.

The changes were camouflage. They helped distract outsiders from the truly profane event: the growing misalignment of interests between the people who trafficked in financial risk and the wider culture.

I’d not seen Gutfreund since I quit Wall Street. I’d met him, nervously, a couple of times on the trading floor. A few months before I left, my bosses asked me to explain to Gutfreund what at the time seemed like exotic trades in derivatives I’d done with a European hedge fund. I tried. He claimed not to be smart enough to understand any of it, and I assumed that was how a Wall Street C.E.O. showed he was the boss, by rising above the details. There was no reason for him to remember any of these encounters, and he didn’t: When my book came out and became a public-relations nuisance to him, he told reporters we’d never met.

Over the years, I’d heard bits and pieces about Gutfreund. I knew that after he’d been forced to resign from Salomon Brothers he’d fallen on harder times. I heard later that a few years ago he’d sat on a panel about Wall Street at Columbia Business School. When his turn came to speak, he advised students to find something more meaningful to do with their lives. As he began to describe his career, he broke down and wept.

When I emailed him to invite him to lunch, he could not have been more polite or more gracious. That attitude persisted as he was escorted to the table, made chitchat with the owner, and ordered his food. He’d lost a half-step and was more deliberate in his movements, but otherwise he was completely recognizable. The same veneer of denatured courtliness masked the same animal need to see the world as it was, rather than as it should be.

We spent 20 minutes or so determining that our presence at the same lunch table was not going to cause the earth to explode. We discovered we had a mutual acquaintance in New Orleans. We agreed that the Wall Street C.E.O. had no real ability to keep track of the frantic innovation occurring inside his firm. (“I didn’t understand all the product lines, and they don’t either,” he said.) We agreed, further, that the chief of the Wall Street investment bank had little control over his subordinates. (“They’re buttering you up and then doing whatever the fuck they want to do.”) He thought the cause of the financial crisis was “simple. Greed on both sides—greed of investors and the greed of the bankers.” I thought it was more complicated. Greed on Wall Street was a given—almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed.

But I didn’t argue with him. For just as you revert to being about nine years old when you visit your parents, you revert to total subordination when you are in the presence of your former C.E.O. John Gutfreund was still the King of Wall Street, and I was still a geek. He spoke in declarative statements; I spoke in questions.

But as he spoke, my eyes kept drifting to his hands. His alarmingly thick and meaty hands. They weren’t the hands of a soft Wall Street banker but of a boxer. I looked up. The boxer was smiling—though it was less a smile than a placeholder expression. And he was saying, very deliberately, “Your…fucking…book.”

I smiled back, though it wasn’t quite a smile.

“Your fucking book destroyed my career, and it made yours,” he said.

I didn’t think of it that way and said so, sort of.

“Why did you ask me to lunch?” he asked, though pleasantly. He was genuinely curious.

You can’t really tell someone that you asked him to lunch to let him know that you don’t think of him as evil. Nor can you tell him that you asked him to lunch because you thought that you could trace the biggest financial crisis in the history of the world back to a decision he had made. John Gutfreund did violence to the Wall Street social order—and got himself dubbed the King of Wall Street—when he turned Salomon Brothers from a private partnership into Wall Street’s first public corporation. He ignored the outrage of Salomon’s retired partners. (“I was disgusted by his materialism,” William Salomon, the son of the firm’s founder, who had made Gutfreund C.E.O. only after he’d promised never to sell the firm, had told me.) He lifted a giant middle finger at the moral disapproval of his fellow Wall Street C.E.O.’s. And he seized the day. He and the other partners not only made a quick killing; they transferred the ultimate financial risk from themselves to their shareholders. It didn’t, in the end, make a great deal of sense for the shareholders. (A share of Salomon Brothers purchased when I arrived on the trading floor, in 1986, at a then market price of $42, would be worth 2.26 shares of Citigroup today—market value: $27.) But it made fantastic sense for the investment bankers.

From that moment, though, the Wall Street firm became a black box. The shareholders who financed the risks had no real understanding of what the risk takers were doing, and as the risk-taking grew ever more complex, their understanding diminished. The moment Salomon Brothers demonstrated the potential gains to be had by the investment bank as public corporation, the psychological foundations of Wall Street shifted from trust to blind faith.

No investment bank owned by its employees would have levered itself 35 to 1 or bought and held $50 billion in mezzanine C.D.O.’s. I doubt any partnership would have sought to game the rating agencies or leap into bed with loan sharks or even allow mezzanine C.D.O.’s to be sold to its customers. The hoped-for short-term gain would not have justified the long-term hit.

No partnership, for that matter, would have hired me or anyone remotely like me. Was there ever any correlation between the ability to get in and out of Princeton and a talent for taking financial risk?

Now I asked Gutfreund about his biggest decision. “Yes,” he said. “They—the heads of the other Wall Street firms—all said what an awful thing it was to go public and how could you do such a thing. But when the temptation arose, they all gave in to it.” He agreed that the main effect of turning a partnership into a corporation was to transfer the financial risk to the shareholders. “When things go wrong, it’s their problem,” he said—and obviously not theirs alone. When a Wall Street investment bank screwed up badly enough, its risks became the problem of the U.S. government. “It’s laissez-faire until you get in deep shit,” he said, with a half chuckle. He was out of the game.

It was now all someone else’s fault.

He watched me curiously as I scribbled down his words. “What’s this for?” he asked.

I told him I thought it might be worth revisiting the world I’d described in Liar’s Poker, now that it was finally dying. Maybe bring out a 20th-anniversary edition.

“That’s nauseating,” he said.

Hard as it was for him to enjoy my company, it was harder for me not to enjoy his. He was still tough, as straight and blunt as a butcher. He’d helped create a monster, but he still had in him a lot of the old Wall Street, where people said things like “A man’s word is his bond.” On that Wall Street, people didn’t walk out of their firms and cause trouble for their former bosses by writing books about them. “No,” he said, “I think we can agree about this: Your fucking book destroyed my career, and it made yours.” With that, the former king of a former Wall Street lifted the plate that held his appetizer and asked sweetly, “Would you like a deviled egg?”

Until that moment, I hadn’t paid much attention to what he’d been eating. Now I saw he’d ordered the best thing in the house, this gorgeous frothy confection of an earlier age. Who ever dreamed up the deviled egg? Who knew that a simple egg could be made so complicated and yet so appealing? I reached over and took one. Something for nothing. It never loses its charm.

No comments: