Monday, April 19, 2010

The Big Short

In the rarefied world of the bond traders on Wall Street they were the outsiders, oddballs even.

It included an incredibly smart and gifted man with one working eye and an undiagnosed case of Asperger syndrome who didn’t like to deal with people. In fact, you could say he didn’t like people at all. He gave up a career as a neurologist in order to spend untold hours each day sitting alone in an office staring cockeyed into a computer screen following the financial markets.

The group also included two men in their early thirties with no real ambition or direction who teamed up with a man who was a derivative trader but quit because he feared that the world was headed to a path of self destruction and he wanted to be prepared.

Then there was a former bond trader who had an amazing ability to outlandishly insult the “Masters of the Universe” at anytime or anyplace when he felt the person was either: wrong, a liar, or corrupt. He not only couldn’t help himself but he enjoyed it. He along with two other persons, with their own quirks who understood how “The Street” operated and wanted no part of it, joined forces.

None of these people knew one another or even knew of each others existence. But in addition to being outsiders, they had a few other things in common: They all started hedge funds. They all saw the insanity and breakdown of the home mortgage market and how the subsequent repackaging of these worthless pieces of paper into new investment "instruments" was taking down the financial markets around the world. And they bet against it and won.

Their stories are told by Michael Lewis in the book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. With Friday’s announcement by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission that it has filed a civil fraud suit against Goldman Sachs, I couldn’t think of a better time to recommend the book.

The book combined a character-driven narrative with analysis of how the bond market nearly took down the world’s economy. It’s funny and sad. But for me it mostly induced anger at how innocent Americans were conned into buying mortgages they could never pay off, how the Wall Street investment banks bundled these mortgages into bonds and repackaged them again into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and how the risk of these investment vehicles was hidden from those who bought them.

It would have been one hell of a tale, except that it’s all true.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Solidarity with Poland

I’ve exchanged a few emails with my friends in Poland during the past few days and they are experiencing a sadness that runs deep and familiar for a people who have experienced an insurmountable amount of suffering during the 20th Century.
The past suffering was the result of occupation—first Germany and then Russia. Their country was destroyed during World War II following the German occupation, but it was the people, sleeping in tents, in many cases with nothing but hand tools and renderings of the original buildings, who rebuilt their cities to come as close as possible to the buildings that were destroyed—an attempt to keep their culture and heritage.

Then along came the Soviets with their own brutal form of Socialist oppression, shutting off Poland from the world and imposing their will on a people still struggling from the aftermath of World War II.

My relationship with Poland is that I was the first U.S. journalist to attend Amberif, the trade show for the Amber trade. I visited the fair twice. It is held in the port city of GdaƄsk, one of the cities destroyed and rebuilt after World War II. It is also home of the Polish Solidarity movement, which eventually led to the overthrow of the Soviet occupation.

I was there to cover an event for a jewelry trade magazine. What I got was so much more. I was welcomed with open arms by the trade fair organizers and the artists and craftsmen who turn this unusual material into objects of beauty and works of art. I was exposed to the history and culture of this northern Polish city on the Baltic Sea. But mostly I learned about the struggles of the people, many of whom lived through much of the country’s sad history. I also saw a rebirth and optimism as the city and country has, again, opened itself to the world.
One of worst acts of the Soviet regime was a massacre of nearly 22,000 of the Polish “intelligentsia,” including doctors, lawyers, scientists and military leaders. It was an attack that the Russians denied for years, blaming it on the Germans, but the Polish people and their leaders spent years trying to shed a light on this story. Commonly known as the Katyn Massacre, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the Russians admitted their guilt, more than 50 years after the event took place.

It is with profound sorrow that Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Maria, and 88 others, again among Poland's best and brightest, were killed on a plane to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, not far from the site. Many on board were leaders of the struggle to bring the truth of Katyn to the world.
The first time the intelligentsia was killed through a savage act of war and occupation. This time, it was a bad decision.
One friend wrote:

All the people who were killed the day before yesterday were politically involved in revealing the truth about the tragedy in Katyn that happened 70 years ago… On the plane, there were also the families of those who were killed in Katyn in 1940. There was also the over 90-year old Polish president Kaczorowski - who during the communist times was the emigrant president of Poland in London (because Poland had the second, unofficial government during Soviet Union, since we never agreed to be completely dependent on Russians). Imagine - so many years he survived, with Russians chasing after him, and now, when the work of his life was about to be successful, he was killed.

Another wrote:
Some tell that we are sad nation. Katyn was one of the reasons and now it takes more victims. It is so sad and symbolic. Most people in the plane were fighting for years for memory of this massacre - and it became death fight. But the world knows now.

I am crying.

Monday, April 5, 2010


In less than an hour the Philadelphia Phillies will open the 2010 baseball season against the Washington Nationals in the nation’s capital. President Barack Obama will throw the first pitch for the sellout crowd on a beautiful spring day. Roy Halladay the newly acquired ace will get starting honors for the 2009 National League champs.

Roy Halladay

Opening Day means a lot of things. Most importantly it means the true beginning of spring, even though the weather doesn’t always comply. It’s also the beginning of another epic story that will last for 162 games during the season and, if lucky, playoffs and World Series games. It’s a story that will have twists and turns and sub plots, with almost all of it unfolding on the field on a daily basis. Baseball remains one of the things that unite us a nation. In honor of this day I present to you the world’s greatest baseball song every written, “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” by the late, great Steve Goodman.