In the fall of 1987, I took a break from grad school to work as a stockbroker. Between the time I passed my certification exams and the time I started working, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 22.6% in a single day - the largest daily percentage drop in history. My career as a stockbroker was short-lived, but I gained a lesson in the risks of working in the investment world and it sparked my interest in the inner workings of Wall Street.
Former investment banker William Cohan has followed this world much more closely than I have and he used his knowledge to write his 2009 book "House of Cards", which tells the story of the collapse of Bear Stearns - a once-successful investment firm that failed and was sold cheaply to JP Morgan Chase in 2008.
Part 1 details the final days of Bear Stearns. BS was once the fifth-largest firm on Wall Street and its stock price closed at $171.51 per share in January 2007; but it was sold to JPMC for just $2 per share 14 months later.
The next section recounts the history of the firm and the significant people contributing to its growth and fighting for power within the organization.
The final section brings together the first two parts by focusing on the actions of individuals in the months leading up to Bear's collapse.
There were many reasons for Bear's downfall and there is plenty of blame to go around. The restrictions on lending had recently been relaxed and the US government encouraged banks to lend money to lower-income families - families that previously could not qualify for a mortgage. The greed of bankers took over as they began making high-risk loans, then selling those loans to investors. As property values fell, securities backed by mortgages on those properties also lost value. Many people defaulted on their mortgages causing further strain.
It did not help that a manager of one of Bear's funds repeatedly lied to his investors - understating the fund's investments in high-risk securities by an order of magnitude.
The book could have been shorter, but Cohan chose to go into detail about the histories, personalities, and eccentricities of many of the Bear executives. It helps to understand the egos (and sometimes the hubris) of the decision-makers who lead the company down this path.
Cohan shines a light on the fragility of the entire industry. Because so much of the securities industry is based on confidence, companies will often overstate their optimism and hide bad news in order to maintain higher prices. Conversely, once investors lose faith, they begin to abandon an investment or fund or firm and the collapse can accelerate rapidly.
Of course, Bear Stearns was not the only casualty of the subprime mortgage crisis. 2008 saw a major upheaval in the entire financial industry, resulting in the failure or weakening of several firms. In his epilogue, Cohan gives a brief account of the fall and bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, which occurred a few months after Bear Stearns's collapse.
2008 was a disastrous year for Wall Street and contributed to a national recession. The question remains: can we avoid a similar disaster in the future? The book does not answer this question.