Friday, August 30, 2019

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis (author), Dylan Baker (narrator)

Simon & Schuster Audio, ISBN 9781442341265, October 2011

Published in 2011, when the financial crisis was still fairly fresh in everyone's mind and we had not yet reached as much recovery as we eventually achieved, this is in some respects a look into the past. Yet none of Lewis's observations from his travels through a developed world still reeling from that crisis seem to have been proven truly false. Each country got into trouble in the world of essentially free money in the madness of 2003-2008 by following its own weaknesses and temptations.

Greece was the only country he visited where the financial industry had nothing directly to do with the country's financial collapse. They were honest, they were responsible, and they could not impose honesty and responsibility on a government that took taking bribes for just doing their jobs for granted, people who saw no reason not to evade taxes, and an entire culture seemingly arranged around facilitating financial irresponsibility. When the financial problems started to show themselves, the new finance minister discovered that no one really had any idea what the government's deficit was--and as he started digging out the real numbers, the truth was horrifying.

In Iceland, it seems ludicrous to say and yet has a bizarre plausibility, that the men have a very macho, risk-taking culture that goes along with centuries of open ocean fishing being the main national source of income, and the women have a much more pragmatic, practical culture grounded in keeping everything working on land while the men were away fishing. And the two cultures didn't interact much. When the men discovered, in the era of free money, that they could stop fishing and get fantastically rich with offshore investments built on practically nothing, they weren't discussing these wonderful, exciting new ventures with the women who might have encouraged them to think about the lack of any real basis for the wealth and the consequences of it blowing up on them.

He also visits and analyzes Ireland and California, but in some ways the most interesting country is Germany. There were no wild and crazy investments in Germany. There were no wild and crazy investments in Germany. But careful, responsible German banks bought up unbelievable amounts of US securitized subprime loans. They had in some respects the greatest exposure of all. They didn't break any laws; they followed all the rules. These were, after all, AAA-rated securities, so they were completely risk-free, right? The German bankers check all the boxes, followed all the rules, and never really thought, certainly never asked, what those AAA-rated US real estate securities really contained. And Germany, to a great extent, was left holding the bag.

It's a fascinating story with some interesting revelations I hadn't been aware of before. It's a really good listen.


I bought this audiobook.

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