Tag Archives: Michael Lewis

More on Iceland and the Financial Crisis

Michael Lewis writes vividly about Iceland, fishing, and its financial crisis in his Vanity Fair article Wall Street on the Tundra:

Iceland’s de facto bankruptcy—its currency (the krona) is kaput, its debt is 850 percent of G.D.P., its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance—resulted from a stunning collective madness. What led a tiny fishing nation, population 300,000, to decide, around 2003, to re-invent itself as a global financial power? In Reykjavík, where men are men, and the women seem to have completely given up on them, the author follows the peculiarly Icelandic logic behind the meltdown.

Fishermen, in other words, are a lot like American investment bankers. Their overconfidence leads them to impoverish not just themselves but also their fishing grounds. Simply limiting the number of fish caught won’t solve the problem; it will just heighten the competition for the fish and drive down profits. The goal isn’t to get fishermen to overspend on more nets or bigger boats. The goal is to catch the maximum number of fish with minimum effort. To attain it, you need government intervention.

This insight is what led Iceland to go from being one of the poorest countries in Europe circa 1900 to being one of the richest circa 2000. Iceland’s big change began in the early 1970s, after a couple of years when the fish catch was terrible. The best fishermen returned for a second year in a row without their usual haul of cod and haddock, so the Icelandic government took radical action: they privatized the fish. Each fisherman was assigned a quota, based roughly on his historical catches. If you were a big-time Icelandic fisherman you got this piece of paper that entitled you to, say, 1 percent of the total catch allowed to be pulled from Iceland’s waters that season. Before each season the scientists at the Marine Research Institute would determine the total number of cod or haddock that could be caught without damaging the long-term health of the fish population; from year to year, the numbers of fish you could catch changed. But your percentage of the annual haul was fixed, and this piece of paper entitled you to it in perpetuity.Even better, if you didn’t want to fish you could sell your quota to someone who did. The quotas thus drifted into the hands of the people to whom they were of the greatest value, the best fishermen, who could extract the fish from the sea with maximum efficiency. You could also take your quota to the bank and borrow against it, and the bank had no trouble assigning a dollar value to your share of the cod pulled, without competition, from the richest cod-fishing grounds on earth. The fish had not only been privatized, they had been securitized.

It was horribly unfair: a public resource—all the fish in the Icelandic sea—was simply turned over to a handful of lucky Icelanders. Overnight, Iceland had its first billionaires, and they were all fishermen. But as social policy it was ingenious: in a single stroke the fish became a source of real, sustainable wealth rather than shaky sustenance. Fewer people were spending less effort catching more or less precisely the right number of fish to maximize the long-term value of Iceland’s fishing grounds. The new wealth transformed Iceland—and turned it from the backwater it had been for 1,100 years to the place that spawned Björk. If Iceland has become famous for its musicians it’s because Icelanders now have time to play music, and much else. Iceland’s youth are paid to study abroad, for instance, and encouraged to cultivate themselves in all sorts of interesting ways. Since its fishing policy transformed Iceland, the place has become, in effect, a machine for turning cod into Ph.D.’s.

Thanks to Arijit Guha for the pointer.

Willful ignorance and the financial crisis

Journalist and former bond trader, Michael Lewis (author of classic book Liar’s Poker) writes in Portfolio magazine on The End of Wall Street’s Boom and how finance runs on willful ignorance:

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable. Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled from finance.

At some point, I gave up waiting for the end. There was no scandal or reversal, I assumed, that could sink the system.

Then came Meredith Whitney with news. Whitney was an obscure analyst of financial firms for Oppenheimer Securities who, on October 31, 2007, ceased to be obscure. On that day, she predicted that Citigroup had so mismanaged its affairs that it would need to slash its dividend or go bust. It’s never entirely clear on any given day what causes what in the stock market, but it was pretty obvious that on October 31, Meredith Whitney caused the market in financial stocks to crash. By the end of the trading day, a woman whom basically no one had ever heard of had shaved $369 billion off the value of financial firms in the market. Four days later, Citigroup’s C.E.O., Chuck Prince, resigned. In January, Citigroup slashed its dividend.

I called Whitney again and asked her, as I was asking others, whom she knew who had anticipated the cataclysm and set themselves up to make a fortune from it. There’s a long list of people who now say they saw it coming all along but a far shorter one of people who actually did. Of those, even fewer had the nerve to bet on their vision. It’s not easy to stand apart from mass hysteria—to believe that most of what’s in the financial news is wrong or distorted, to believe that most important financial people are either lying or deluded—without actually being insane. A handful of people had been inside the black box, understood how it worked, and bet on it blowing up. Whitney rattled off a list with a half-dozen names on it. At the top was Steve Eisman.