Chris Walker reviews 'Barbarians of Wealth - Protecting yourself from Today's Financial Attilas', by Sandy Franks and Sara Nunnally, €24, Wiley, 428pp
There was a time any educated person could pick up a history book and understand it. Now, too often, professors write dense tomes, apparently aimed at impressing their employers, colleagues or even enemies. This makes one welcome a book that gives banker bashing a long view. Sandy Franks and Sara Nunnally seek to equate the "modern barbarians of wealth" with what they claim are their historical counterparts. Thus we are given Hank "the Hun" Paulson, Alan "the Great" Greenspan, etc.
But, sadly, these comparisons are stretched, at best. The elastic snaps completely when they start comparing Attila's mass executions and plundering with Paulson's "smash and grab raid of 700bn dollars, allegedly to rescue the financial system". Do the authors really believe Hank the Hun stashed the Tarp fund in his Swiss bank account?
The core of the book is quite good enough not to need this approach. The authors both work for Taipan Publishing, a Baltimore-based investment publishing house. They have a keen eye for a good yarn and are clearly very widely read (the number of authors and reports cited is breathtaking). There is some investment advice, (though this amounts to little more than the current fashionable chant 'buy precious metals and Norway'), and their style is fluid and highly readable. The story they have to tell - analysing the causes of the recent economic collapse - is a darned good one.
The failures of the US authorities are chronicled in excruciating detail. Central to this was the easy-money policy Alan Greenspan enacted in response to the "tech wreck". He continued this for far too long, which "caused a speculative frenzy" in the housing market, with values jumping from $11trn to $21trn in just six years.
It also ushered in an extraordinary explosion in the credit derivatives market, which ballooned from $127trn to a mind-boggling $864trn by 2008. It was the fatal coupling of these two markets to create what Warren Buffet called "financial weapons of mass destruction", which came to threaten the entire global financial system. As Bill Goss said, our modern shadow banking system "craftily dodges the reserve requirements of traditional institutions and promotes a chain letter, pyramid scheme of leverage, based in many cases on no reserve cushion whatever".
The failure of the authorities to understand what was going on, let alone do anything about it, was extraordinary. Greenspan is quoted admitting racing from one policy meeting to another - "I never had time to sit back and think about all this". I am afraid he really should have made the time. The authors sum up that "relaxed regulators created an environment for Wall Street fat cat bankers to bend rules, overlook safety nets and push derivatives to their limits".
The credit rating agencies, Moody's and Standard & Poor's, are ridiculed for failing to spot any of the last decade's disasters, including Enron, WorldCom and AIG. Employee emails make shocking reading. One wrote: "We never questioned the information we were given … these errors made us look either incompetent at credit analysis or like we sold our soul to the devil". Indeed. The authors point out that millions lost their pensions in consequence of these failings, and they are rightly incensed quoting another employee, who writes: "Let's hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters."
The ladies really pick speed when they turn their attention to their main targets - the "captains and the kings" of Wall Street. Several institutions are openly attacked. Goldman Sachs, a company "capable of dirty investment deeds", is lampooned for its role in sub-prime mortgages, disastrous dotcom IPOs and the recent "tricky" derivatives trades that "masked the Greek debt just long enough to screw us all over". Goldman declared its best-ever quarterly profit of $3.4bn, shortly after it had been bailed out with $10bn of taxpayers' money. Merrill Lynch is branded Goldman's "evil twin". It was here where star analyst Henry Blodget was pushing the shares of corporate clients to pension funds, while simultaneously admitting in emails they were "junk", "crap" and "a disaster". We are reminded that $4bn of bonuses for top executives were rushed through before the Bank of America take-over was finalised (though after $25bn of taxpayers' money had been injected).
The "brotherhood of banks" is shown to be a very close-knit tribe indeed and one that linked Wall Street and Washington. At the moment of crisis, it was Hank Paulson, the former chief executive of Goldman, who as Treasury Secretary bailed out Wall Street, including Goldman. All three of his successors at Goldman followed him into government. This tribalism is shown to explain the disastrous repeal of the Glass-Steagall act in 1997. This act had been put in place at the height of the Great Depression in 1933 to separate investment banking from retail banking. Robert Kuttner testified to the Senate that, "since the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act … super banks have been able to re-enact the same kind of structural conflicts of interest that were endemic in the 1920s - lending to speculators, packaging and securitising credits and then selling them off wholesale, or retail, and extracting fees at every step along the way". Wall Street apparently spent $200m lobbying for this repeal.
All this is gripping stuff and really does not need the dubious historical observations wrapped around it. OK, I'm interested to learn that Attila the Hun died of a nosebleed, but does this belong here? As Franks and Nunnally admit, they are constantly "getting ahead of themselves". There are spuriously accurate conversions - one of Attila's attacks cost the Roman Empire "$107.6m" (note the point 6!). Then there are some guffawingly awful errors - most noticeably the reference to the "beheading" of the sun King Louis XIV. He died in his bed, ladies.
The best one can say of the historical comparisons is they describe a time when "whole generations were swept away by the madness of kings, in a single hour". Now that does sound familiar.
Christopher Walker is a writer on current affairs and investment issues. He was previously a senior executive in the asset management industry and has experience of strategy, portfolio management and building businesses.