It was in Las Vegas that Eisman and his associates' attitude toward the US bond market hardened into something like its final shape. The question lingering at the back of their minds ceased to be, do these bond market people know something we do not? It was replaced by, do they deserve merely to be fired, or should they be put in jail? Are they delusional, or do they know what they're doing?
On the surface, these big Wall Street firms appeared robust; below the surface, Eisman was beginning to think, their problems might not be confined to a potential loss of revenue. He'd go to meetings with Wall Street CEOs and ask them the most basic questions: "They didn't know their own balance sheets."
I now have a new hero to worship. His name is Steve Eisman. He is a total prick. Whenever he opens his mouth in public, his two associates Vincent Daniel and Danny Moses, sink down in their seats in anticipation of him saying something truly outrageous and true.In this book Lewis details how a few skeptical oddball guys figured out that the subprime mortgage market was the scam of the century and tried desperately to call attention to what was happening. The fact that they got unbelievably rich in the process is really secondary to the story of corruption, greed and stupidity by Wall Street bankers, the ratings agencies Moodys and S&P, the SEC, and the American homeowners.
The subprime mortgage market was miniscule during the 1990's. Steve Eisman, Michael Burry, and 3 guys named Charlie Ledley, Jamie Mai, and Ben Hockett operating out of a garage with $1 million, figured out independently from each other that as the 2000's progressed an immense bubble of bad debt was being created. The question was how could they take advantage of their discovery.
Eisman had a disdain for the companies in the subprime mortgage industry because he knew they were taking advantage of ignorant poor people. Household Finance was peddling these misleading loans and the CEO sold out to HSBC before the disaster struck. Eisman said, "It was engaged in blatant fraud. They should have taken the CEO out and hung him up by his f*cking testicles. Instead they sold the company and the CEO made a hundred million dollars." After this he made it his life's mission to expose the fraud in this market.
Vinny Daniel was Eisman's analyst and Danny Moses was his trader. Vinny was from Queens and trusted no one. Eisman described him as "Very dark." He dug into the transaction details and fed the info to Steve. Danny didn't trust anyone on Wall Street.
When a Wall Street firm helped him to get into a trade that seemed perfect in every way, he asked the salesman, "I appreciate this, but I just want to know one thing: How are you going to f*ck me?"
Heh-heh-heh, c'mon, we'd never do that, the trader started to say, but Danny, though perfectly polite, was insistent. "We both know that unadulterated good things like this trade don't just happen between little hedge funds and big Wall Street firms. I'll do it, but only after you explain to me how you are going to f*ck me." And the salesman explained how he was going to f*ck him. And Danny did the trade.
Eisman and his colleagues did real due diligence on the market. They flew around the country, attended subprime conferences and grilled CEOs and the ratings agencies. Lewis detailed these efforts in the book:
Moses actually flew down to Miami and wandered around neighborhoods built with subprime loans to see how bad things were. "He'd call me and say, "Oh my God, this is a calamity here,' " recalls Eisman. All that was required for the BBB bonds to go to zero was for the default rate on the underlying loans to reach 14 percent. Eisman thought that, in certain sections of the country, it would go far, far higher.
The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done. Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism. For instance, he knew that the big Wall Street investment banks took huge piles of loans that in and of themselves might be rated BBB, threw them into a trust, carved the trust into tranches, and wound up with 60 percent of the new total being rated AAA.
But he couldn't figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds. "I didn't understand how they were turning all this garbage into gold," he says. He brought some of the bond people from Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and UBS over for a visit. "We always asked the same question," says Eisman. "Where are the rating agencies in all of this? And I'd always get the same reaction. It was a smirk." He called Standard & Poor's and asked what would happen to default rates if real estate prices fell. The man at S&P couldn't say; its model for home prices had no ability to accept a negative number. "They were just assuming home prices would keep going up," Eisman says.
As an investor, Eisman was allowed on the quarterly conference calls held by Moody's but not allowed to ask questions. The people at Moody's were polite about their brush-off, however. The C.E.O. even invited Eisman and his team to his office for a visit in June 2007. By then, Eisman was so certain that the world had been turned upside down that he just assumed this guy must know it too. "But we're sitting there," Daniel recalls, "and he says to us, like he actually means it, "I truly believe that our rating will prove accurate.' And Steve shoots up in his chair and asks, "What did you just say?' as if the guy had just uttered the most preposterous statement in the history of finance. He repeated it. And Eisman just laughed at him."
"With all due respect, sir," Daniel told the C.E.O. deferentially as they left the meeting, "you're delusional."
This wasn't Fitch or even S&P. This was Moody's, the aristocrats of the rating business, 20 percent owned by Warren Buffett. And the company's C.E.O. was being told he was either a fool or a crook by one Vincent Daniel, from Queens.
Eisman, Daniel, and Moses then flew out to Las Vegas for an even bigger subprime conference. By now, Eisman knew everything he needed to know about the quality of the loans being made. He still didn't fully understand how the apparatus worked, but he knew that Wall Street had built a doomsday machine. He was at once opportunistic and outraged.