In the past few months, we've been riveted and disgusted by the exploits of scamsters like Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford (characters who, if they didn't exist, would have to be invented by Tom Wolfe). It's both easy and convenient to hold them up as the ultimate symbols of the just-ended boom. But we shouldn't. While there was some crime in the mortgage industry, law-abiding, respectable, upstanding citizens caused the overwhelming majority of financial losses suffered thus far. Skeezy money managers and mobbed-up boiler rooms didn't create the economic catastrophe. It was visited on us by firms in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500—companies that trace their origins back to the 1800s, run by graduates of Yale and Harvard. The people who blew up the system weren't anarchists. They were members of the club: central bankers and private-equity honchos, hedge-fund geniuses and Ph.D. economists, CEOs and investment bankers. And the (overwhelmingly legal) con they perpetuated on themselves, their colleagues, their shareholders and creditors, and, ultimately, on us taxpayers makes Madoff's sins look like child's play.
That's one of the central arguments of my book, Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation, which has just been published as an e-book. (You can buy a digital version, for the Kindle or Sony Reader, or an audio version. Readers interested in seeing a PDF of the first chapter or learning about a paper version should send an e-mail to: email@example.com)
My book explains how during the late, great credit bubble, an Era of Cheap Money devolved into an Era of Dumb Money, and then into an Era of Dumber Money. The culture of Wall Street and the rise of the shadow banking system spawned reckless, largely unregulated lending, borrowing, and trading, a financial culture that preferred short-term fees to long-term gains, and that confused liquidity (access to other people's money) with cash on hand. Looking back, the investors who believed the stories told by Madoff and Stanford—that they could deliver steady, positive, market-beating returns in any type of climate, despite the manifest failure of virtually every other money manager to do so—were obviously foolish. But our best financial minds also spun tales and theories with great assurance, making seemingly irrational and unprecedented activity seem completely sensible. And we bought them.