Showing posts with label Lehman Brothers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lehman Brothers. Show all posts

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Ghost of Christmas Past: Merry films of Lehman's Fall

I have no family in the UK, so I always exhibit strange behaviour on Christmas day. Last year I wondered around the City of London and took photos of empty bank offices, after which I attended a wedding of two Occupy protesters on the steps of St. Paul's cathedral. This year I wandered around Brixton and took photos, including one of the Space Invader mosaic above the chicken & chips shop on Coldharbour Lane, before going home to watch THREE whole films on the fall of Lehman Brothers.


Lehman has always held a special place in my heart because I had two interviews there in 2008, mere weeks before it collapsed. I sat up on the 36th floor and was questioned by men whose job it was to ascertain the robustness of my character. One of them said "you may have heard things in the press about us being in the shit, but these are the exaggerations of melodramatic journalists". A week later I was having another interview there, but little did I know that they were in the midst of negotiations with the Korea Development Bank, trying to convince them to inject much-needed capital in the bank. The MD interviewing me was a little distracted, though in my naive state, I wrote it off as normal MD-like behaviour, rather than the product of him being at a bank on the verge of crumbling.

The action behind the scenes leading up to final Lehman implosion is fascinating. Perhaps most striking is just how arbitrary the process was. In one dramatic weekend the US treasury secretary Hank Paulson hauled the CEOs of America's top banks into the New York Fed, and said, in a nutshell, "I bailed out Bear Stearns, now you guys must bail out Lehman". The negotiations hinged on whether Goldman, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and a few other banks could agree to take on Lehman's bad assets in order to induce Bank of America or Barclays to buy the rest of Lehman. The famous twist in the tale comes when Merrill Lynch's John Thain cuts a private deal with Bank of America to save Merrill instead of Lehman. This leaves Barclays as the only possible suitor, but the deal runs into trouble with the UK regulators, leaving Lehman to collapse, only to be picked up by Barclays anyway at a much cheaper price. These are the basic events focused on by the three films I watched. To help you take your pick, I've given each film a rating below:

Film 1: The Last days of Lehman (2009)

A crap made-for-TV film if ever there was, but worth a brief watch to see the awesome James Cromwell playing Hank Paulson. Cromwell incidentally plays the Nazi eugenics doctor in the incredible series American Horror Story, and seems equally at home with both characters. It's debatable whether Hank Paulson can be compared to a genocidal scientist, but he certainly has helped to create financial monsters. In the final analysis, Cromwell saves an otherwise dismal cast of buffoon-like characters, and drags the film's rating up to 5.5/10.

Film 2: Too Big to Fail (2011)
This film portrays the same events as the Last Days of Lehman, only it does with much more style. William Hurt pulls a great performance of Hank Paulson, but the highlight of the film for me was Paul Giametti playing Ben Bernanke. The guy who plays Goldman Sach's CEO Lloyd Blankfein is also very entertaining. It's based on the book of the same name by Andrew Ross Sorkin, who himself appears as a journalist in the film. It's light on technical detail of what was going on, but is overall pretty well acted and scripted, giving a reasonably realistic human face to the key players. I give this one 7/10.

A quality BBC documentary with some heavy hitters being interviewed, including Bob Diamond and Gordon Brown, plus several of the main players during the fall of the bank. It's the traditional talking-heads style, so no great prizes for innovation, but it gives a solid account of the chaotic Lehman balls-up. I reckon it earns 7.5/10, maybe even 8 if you've had a few whiskeys.

Suitpossum does Youtube
In conclusion, I've decided to launch a little Youtube Channel to showcase some of these videos. I'm thinking of calling it Suitpossum's Guide to Global Finance channel. It doesn't have much on it yet, but I'll be making useful playlists, and maybe even creating my own videos. Exciting times.

Thursday, 7 April 2011


In 2008 I embarked on an unusual experiment in gonzo urban anthropology. I left the world of radical left-wing academia, and went to London with two goals in mind. Goal one: To break into the financial sector at the heart of one of the most powerful centres of the global economy and to see first-hand how it worked, to learn by doing, not by reading. Goal two: To shatter the complacent intellectual comfort zone I’d found myself in, and to learn to move in and out of different worlds like a chameleon. It was an exercise in critical thought, backed by real action.

That’s how I found myself on the 36th floor of the Lehman Brothers offices in Canary Wharf, four weeks before the company collapsed, and how I found myself in the subsequent financial crisis, trying to pitch esoteric inflation derivatives, property derivatives, and longevity derivatives, aboard a mad raft with an oddball crew of old rogues and young rats, fighting against the odds to stay afloat. It’s a pretty interesting story, and I hope to tell it some time.

In the mean time, I’m completely broke, in a room in Brixton, with a pile of business cards and a stack of ideas, most of which don’t add up. Sometimes I help unusual people to get to grips with conceptually challenging things, like what the financial system might be. I look at how financial concepts might be channeled creatively, through the fledgling world of social and environmental finance, and consider why all this might matter in issues of social and environmental justice.

Sometimes I look at bizarre curiosities, like new currencies and new units of time, Islamic finance, Hawala systems and financial crime. I delve into the way the financial sector tries to reconcile our views of the future in the present.

Sometimes I hang out with people who call themselves anarchists, but who are mostly just concerned about a world they perceive as offering them nothing but bland complacency and treadmill materialism. They hack conventions and set up bases in old abandoned buildings, but are still daunted by the seemingly intractable, impenetrable and arcane financial structures around them. I urge them to try engage more, to spend less time throwing rocks at things, and more time subverting their own preconceptions. They look at me weirdly, but I think there’s a lot to be said for a new activist philosophy.

I play a lot of guitar. I once busked on the New York Underground. I have a pricing model on my hardrive that can tell you what rate to charge for a bet on how long people live for. I lifted it from an investment bank, and one day, when I learn to use it, I'm going to create a rock 'n roll financial opera.

I once went to a fancy university, got an MPhil in Development Studies, wrote some papers. Sometimes I hang out with development people and talk trade policy, agricultural subsidies, and NGOs. Other times I hang out with finance peeps, and talk about things like sugar and carbon.