In 2007, Michael Lewis laughed off concerns about derivatives and excessive leverage

I enjoyed Michael Lewis' recent Daily Show interview about his new book, The Big Short. Lewis summarized the crisis nicely and mocked the ignorance of most of the banking world, saying they hid the risk so well they fooled even themselves.

But Lewis faltered when he said almost no one saw the financial crisis coming. Lewis said “A very small handful of investors, I mean, ten to twelve, made a giant bet against [subprime mortgages]” and virtually everyone else on Wall Street was “dumb money”:

“They [financial institutions] figured out there’s an awful lot of money to be made lending money to people who shouldn’t be lent money. And when you do that, you create lots of risk. And the only way you get that risk out [of your firm] and get other people to take it is to disguise it. So they got really good at disguising the risk, and they got so good they disguised it from themselves, they fooled themselves.

Lewis apparently fooled himself too because, in January 2007, Bloomberg reporter Michael Lewis wrote an entire article — titled “Davos Is for Wimps, Ninnies, Pointless Skeptics” — complaining about all the foolish worry at Davos over excessive risk-taking and derivatives contracts:

It’s become almost obligatory for the world’s most important economic people, at the beginning of each year, to travel joylessly to the base of a Swiss ski slope and worry…. Davos is where people with no talent for risk-taking gather to imagine what actual risk-takers might do. Davos Man needs to sit in judgment; Davos Man needs to brood. So great is this need that he will brood about virtually anything, no matter how little he knows about it.

Ah, Michael? How much did you know about derivatives or bank leverage ratios in 2007? You sat in judgment of many of the world’s top financial experts and mocked them for their ignorance when, it turns out, they were right and you were wrong. Look at the insiders whose worry you mocked:

“The system is becoming very complex. The risk of some crisis happening is rising,” says Nouriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics. “The world isn’t pricing risk appropriately,” says Steven Rattner, co-founder of Quadrangle Group. “Excessive borrowing and risk-taking,” intones Juergen Stark, chief economist for the European Central Bank.

“The last time we talked,” says William Rhodes, senior vice chairman of Citicorp Inc. (in case you didn’t hear him the first time), “I mentioned we’re going to get some adjustments some time in the future. So this is a time to be prudent.”

..So why do these people waste so much of their breath and, presumably, thought, with their elaborate expressions of concern? Even if these global financial elites knew something useful that you and I don’t — that, say, 50 hedge funds were about to go under and drag with them half the world’s biggest banks along with a third of the Third World — they would be unlikely to do anything about it.

Lewis especially mocked Davos' concerns about explosive growth in (completely unregulated) derivative contracts:

Derivatives seem to be this year’s case in point. Davos had hardly been up and groaning about the dangers of being alive before Bloomberg News reported what appears to be the general Davosian view: “The surging demand for derivatives is making financial markets more vulnerable to any slowdown in the global economy.”

The piece came with supporting quotes from European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet, Bank of China Vice President Zhu Min and the deputy chief of India’s planning commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia — but not a worrisome fact in sight. None of them seemed to understand that when you create a derivative you don’t add to the sum total of risk in the financial world; you merely create a means for redistributing that risk. They have no evidence that financial risk is being redistributed in ways we should all worry about. They’re just — worried.

But the most striking thing about the growing derivatives markets is the stability that has come with them.

Now, I realize we all make mistakes. Most of us occasionally make really, really big mistakes. Perhaps we even publicly ridicule everyone else for making a serious mistake when, in fact, they’re right and we’re wrong.

But, if we make a huge mistake, laugh at others for being wiser and more prudent, and later write about how stupid “everyone” was for making the mistake we made, that’s intellectually dishonest. Lewis complained very publicly that the world’s financial experts were idiots for worrying about leverage and derivatives… then he turned around several years later and pretended only a handful of brilliant investors saw the crisis coming while everyone else was blind to the dangers. Which Michael Lewis should we believe?

Lewis should express humility and contrition for so falsely slamming those concerned about leverage and derivatives. His opinion matters, especially when he is writing for Bloomberg. And he should stop pretending that only a handful of people saw the crisis coming because he himself told us otherwise just a few years ago.

Posted by James on Thursday, March 18, 2010