Thursday, September 09, 2010

Review: ECONned

ECONned was written by the founder of Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith, a well-known economics blogger. I read it every day, and those of you who've been following my reader or buzz stream probably have read one or two articles sourced from Yves.

This was a tough book to read, not just because the subject material is dense, but because frequently I got really mad at the institutions involved and had to put it down so that I could calm down a bit. Smith attacks the various institutions that led up to the massive financial debacle that we are still suffering from today.

First, she attacks the economics profession, for in its search of beautiful mathematical models for the economy, ignored many basic problems as long as the mathematics looked good. For instance, when Mandlebrot showed that prices followed the Levy distribution, rather than the normal or log-normal distribution, the economics profession chose to disregard his results:
The problem with Mandelbrot's work, however, was it threatened the entire edifice of not simply financial economics, but the broader efforts to use formulas to describe economic phenomena. Levy distributions didn't merely have difficult math; that might have been an intriguing challenge. There wasn't even a way to calculate Levy's "alpha" reliably, although Fama's efforts with market data did show that it was less than two, which confirmed the fear that the distributions were not normal.

She then attacked deregulation and the accounting scams within the big wall street firms which allowed traders to book profits for in advance of when they were realized, leading to the predictable gaming of the system and results. Then you got to read about what Alan Greenspan did not do, and how keeping interest rates low really sparked the housing bubble. Lest you think Smith is a liberal, Obama's democratic administration doesn't fare any better: Geithner, in particular comes off looking mendacious and incompetent.

The writing is clear and competent. You'll read about CDOs, subprime, and how loans get securitized at a level far deeper than you'll see in The Big Short, for instance. Having said that, don't expect there to be human interest stories like the one in The Big Short. This is by far a dryer and more expansive book. If The Big Short is the Hollywood story with the happy ending, ECONned is the gritty independent documentary film determined to show you all the grimy details behind the story. Finishing the book is almost certain to leave you depressed about the future of finance in the USA, and with a deep distrust of the financial industry, mixed with a little bit of envy at the chutzpah it has displayed in thoroughly gaming the system and successfully bribing politicians and its regulators into going along with the best interests of the incredibly wealthy financiers.

If you have the stomach for this, this is a highly recommended read.
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