October 7, 2011 10:09 pm

Boomerang

Michael Lewis’s whistlestop tour of Europe’s debt crisis, from Athens to Iceland

No question about it, Michael Lewis meets some extraordinary characters in his excursions through the barely controlled madness that is modern international finance. The author of scary but amusing bestsellers such as The Big Short and Liar’s Poker, Lewis devotes his latest book to the ever more alarming debt crisis that might either destroy the euro and the European Union or, somehow, propel a quantum leap in economic union.

In Iceland he meets a trawler captain who gave up fishing to work in the currency trading department of Landsbanki, a bank that collapsed in 2008. Freely admitting that he had no financial training, the fisherman confides to Lewis with a laugh: “I never had any respect for bankers ... To this day one of my favourite phrases is: never trust a banker.”

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In the opposite corner of Europe, Lewis spends time with the abbot of a Greek monastery who has a sharper eye for business. On the basis of a supposed 14th-century donation by a Byzantine emperor, the abbot persuades the government to recognise his monastery’s claim to a lake in northern Greece. The abbot then exchanges the lake for some prime government real estate and makes a fortune for the monastery’s restoration – until the outraged authorities freeze its assets.

Back in north-western Europe, Lewis gets to know Morgan Kelly, an economics professor at University College Dublin. For years he ploughed a quiet furrow, publishing papers on topics such as “The Economic Impact of the Little Ice Age”, until he came to appreciate that Ireland’s property bubble and overextended banks threatened a national catastrophe.

Perhaps the most remarkable personality Lewis encounters, however, is not a European but a Texan. Kyle Bass is a hedge fund manager who concluded years ago that the developed world’s financial boom was fuelled by people borrowing money they would not repay. Bass owns a Hummer vehicle plastered with bumper sticker messages such as “God Bless Our Troops, Especially Our Snipers”. He has just invested in 20m nickel coins, worth $1bn, because he suspects the US government will debase the dollar and he will hit pay dirt.

Bass says of the debt crisis: “I think this is something we need to go through. It’s atonement. It’s atonement for the sins of the past.” This quasi-religious interpretation of a man-made economic disaster is curiously similar to what one might hear from German policymakers, furious at Greek cheating and impatient with Italian procrastination.

What one might hear less often in Berlin is a confession of how the reckless lending and investment practices of certain German banks contributed to the debacle. “Other countries used foreign money to fuel various forms of insanity. The Germans, through their bankers, used their own money to enable foreigners to behave insanely ... They lost massive sums, in everything they touched, from US subprime loans to Greek government bonds,” observes Lewis.

One disappointment is that he does not offer a convincing account of how German financiers, well-educated, prudent and respectable in their private lives, could make such mistakes. He quotes a Wall Street trader as saying: “You work with Germans, and – I can’t emphasise this enough – they are not natural risk takers. They are genetically disposed to fucking it up.”

As an explanation of how German banks spread contagion through Europe, such superficial assertions about supposed national character traits leave much to be desired. The reality is that the post-1945 German banking sector has been so fragmented and dominated by public sector banks that scope for domestic profit is limited. This tempted banks into speculative foreign adventures and by 2008 some were deep in trouble.

The book’s second flaw is that it is essentially a collection of five articles published in Vanity Fair between April 2009 and the present day. Lewis is a good, stylish writer and his judgments on the financial crisis and Europe’s stumbling efforts to overcome it are generally sound. But the book cries out for an organising theme and Lewis does not provide one.

This is especially noticeable in the book’s final chapter, which concentrates not on Europe’s emergency but on chaos in California’s public finances. Lewis interviews Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former state governor, as well as Chuck Reed, mayor of San Jose. Reed comments ruefully: “I did a calculation of cost per public employee. We’re not as bad as Greece, I don’t think.”

It would surely not have taken much effort for Lewis to develop this point for his book and evaluate the extent to which California does or does not resemble Greece. A comparison of the US federal government’s financial health with that of the eurozone would have offered other fruitful lines of inquiry. Instead, one has the impression that the publishers rushed the book into print – so quickly, in fact, that it lacks an index. A pity, because Lewis is undoubtedly a writer more skilled than most at providing lucid, entertaining expositions of complicated financial subjects.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe Editor

Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour, by Michael Lewis, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 213 pages

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