It seems almost achingly quaint to recall those warm and hazy days when "banker" was a synonym for sobriety and propriety -- a time when those who worked in finance, as well as those who reported on it, believed that a pinstriped suit connoted one thing and a chalk stripe something else entirely.
Anyone who still retains such antique illusions will lose them in fewer than 10 pages into "House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street," William D. Cohan's masterfully reported account of the collapse of Bear Stearns, the investment banking house whose implosion a year ago this month signaled the beginning of the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Cohan, a former senior investment banker who has turned into one of our most able financial journalists, is the author of 2007's "The Last Tycoons," a highly regarded history of Lazard Frères & Co., Wall Street's most storied investment bank. In this new book, he deploys not only his hands-on experience of this exotic corner of the financial industry but also a remarkable gift for plain-spoken explanation. That's essential, because it may be that only quantum physics defies the descriptive powers of ordinary language quite so completely as the derivatives markets whose meltdowns have devastated Wall Street.
The other great strength of this important book is the breadth and skill of the author's interviews. Essentially, with pauses for needed explanation, he has used them to construct a staccato narrative of the frantic 10 days in March of 2008 that began with the first doubts about Bear Stearns' liquidity and ended when the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury forced the firm to sell itself at a fire-sale price to JP Morgan Chase. That and the subsequent bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch, the collapse of insurance giant AIG and the virtual incapacitation of much of the banking sector, including behemoths Bank of America and Citibank, marked the end of Wall Street's second Gilded Age and the onset of the current global financial crisis.
Essentially, then, what Cohan has given us is a day-by-day, conversation-by-conversation account of a financial debacle equivalent to the failure of Credit Anstalt, the Vienna bank whose default signaled the globalization of the Great Depression.