Friday, December 27, 2013

73. In Fed We Trust by David Wessel

Borrowed from a friend, this one was quite an unlikely read for me. My finance background generally makes me too vary of books written about an event, with the perfect gift of hindsight. Too many articles occupy my browser and mail space, inspecting, dissecting and criticising every decision made by the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank, the Securities Regulator, other Financial or Regulatory bodies including the Stock Exchanges themselves. Some of such criticisms and doomsday scenario do occasionally come true, but on the virtue of a broken clock being right twice in a day, than anything else. It would perhaps be prudent to put a disclaimer here declaring myself to be part of this ecosystem.

Anyway, it was with some trepidation that I read this book, half expecting it to be a blind bashing of every decision the Fed did make in the period 2007-10, a bad period for us finance professionals, my entry into the corporate world itself being ill-timed following this great meltdown. Many of such fears were greatly misplaced though, if anything, David Wessel has celebrated Bernanke in his work; you see, criticising a financial decision maker is too easy and infinitely more tempting that giving credit for a job well done.

The book carefully takes us through the years, giving us a glimpse of the Greenspan era, the appointment of Bernanke himself, and then the roller-coaster ride of the sub-prime crises, the events leading upto Lehmann, the events post Lehmann, the curious cases of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the reorganisation of the entire Investment Banking sectors, as we knew it. The book also took me through the world of multiple regulators in US and how financial institutions go cherry-picking for the most lenient one, a problem acutely faced in India, and a problem I fear will only worsen till fixed.

The book recognises and evaluates Bernanke, the Academician, using theories learnt from his lifelong study of the Great Depression, experimenting with all the tools available with the Fed, creatively creating a few new ones, when the old ones didn't seem to be up to the task.

Personally, I have and have had mixed feelings about the way the Panic was handled. While fully appreciating that the steps taken by Bernanke and his team were critical and absolutely necessary, I remain unconvinced if the Moral Hazard issue couldn't have been handled better. While I do believe that saving those banks from bankruptcy was critical, whether protecting shareholders' value and golden parachutes for the executives should have been part of the deal, well, I remain unconvinced.

The book touched upon many things I knew, many more that I thought I knew and exposed me to even more things I didn't.


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