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on June 21, 2004
I picked up this book as it is highly popular among investment bankers. I am not an investment banker and do not intend to be one but I was keen to find out what makes Wall Street special. The book not only satisfied my curiosity but also was pleasantly amusing.
The author traces the glorious and gloomy times of Salomon Brothers, a big financial enterprise in which he worked long enough to be able to tell this tale and become a rich man. He explains some financial innovations of Salomon brother's in lay man's terms, which makes this book very readable for all.
The author's self-deprecating humor and his vivid analysis of the people he came across in his organization make the account entertaining.
Whether or not the author's opinions on technical matters in this book are meritorious-I am not qualified to say. If you are a finance novice and curious to find out about life in that universe, you will find this book worthwhile.
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on May 26, 2004
This is the author's coming of age story, set in the world of investment banking in the 1980s. As a growth and wisdom book, it's pretty good, but it's really a non-fiction version of Tom Wolf's Bonfire of the Vanities. Of course what makes it interesting is that Michael Lewis came of age by successfully trading bonds for Solomon Brothers.
Among other aspects of the firm, LP describes Solomon's Mortgage Bonds department, its influence over the savings and loans, and the effect of Fed Chairman Paul Volker's 1981 decision to let interest rates float. Lewis does a brilliant job of explaining how this lead to S&L's selling their mortgages in order to fund investments in higher yield securities.
Here's the catch: Liar's Poker appeared before the S&L debacle but it laid out all the signs needed to predict the disaster to come.
Much of the hand wringing over S&Ls in the early 90's could maybe have been avoided if the warnings given in this book had been acted upon. To be fair, the warnings are clear but they are implicit. Lewis never actually projects the current state of the S&L industry into the future, even if he does mention that the basic problem with mortgages (short term funding of long term loans) is not solved.
Good read.
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on March 20, 2011
It is an enjoyable read. It should be no surprise to people who have read other books by Michael Lewis, that he tells a story with humor and is just a great storyteller in general. Poker's Liar is another one of those books. Though sometimes I get the impression that he goes over the top or exaggerates in the language he uses in this book. All in all I would still recommend it, though I enjoyed "The Big Short" more, this one is still pretty good. The book takes you inside the organizational culture of an Investment Bank "Salomon Brothers", which Michael Lewis had worked, as a Bond Salesmen. The book is quite descriptive, interesting and really gives you a feel of what it is like to be a Bond trader or salesmen at that firm during the 1980s, however it is not very informative if you are looking to learn some Finance from reading this book.
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I read this book back when it was a best seller. Lewis gives us a great insight into the world of Salomon Brothers. In the 1980s Salomon Brothers and their bond traders were at the top Wall Street. The head of Salomon, John Gutfreund was considered the King of Wall Street. John Meriwether the chief bond trader, was the master of the universe. Early in the book Gutfreund challenges Meriwether to a million dollar game of liar`s poker.You become instantly gripped, by what is happening at Salomon Brothers. The message that Lewis is trying to relay, is that Wall Street was growing into a monster. Years later, Meriwether was involved with a multi billion dollar failure at Long Term Capital Management.
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on November 15, 2002
In short, reading Michael Lewis' account of his tumultuous two-year stint at Salomon Brothers in the mid-1980s delivers all the pleasure and enjoyment of reading good pulp fiction. Lewis is -- much to my surprise, I must admit -- an extremely talented writer with a gift for metaphor and the art of character description and analysis.
One of the endearing things about this book, I think, is that it is laced with a certain self-deprecating tone. Lewis' basic thesis (although I don't think he really believes it) is that the the most glaring sign of Salomon's impending demise was that it started hiring people such as himself. Despite many self-effacing comments, however, Lewis points out repeatedly that he was the highest paid -- and thus best producing -- young bond salesman at Salomon during his tenure and seeks to assure the reader that he isn't some scorned ex-employee who couldn't hack the perils of life on the trading floor.
Lewis dedicates a few chapters to explaining the rise of the mortgage trading desk at Salomon and the junk bond market under Michael Milken at Drexel Burnham, although neither have much to do with Lewis' career as a government bond salesman in Salomon's London Office. Did the author think this gave proper perspective and background to the telling of his personal story or was it an effort to pad out an already short piece of work? Probably a bit of both, is my guess.
In sum, if you approach this book (as I did) as a roman a clef, with all the exaggerations and artistic license associated with fiction, rather than a legitimate memoir, you'll probably get a lot more enjoyment out of it. It is funny, fast-paced, often incredible -- and will quickly expunge any thoughts you once had of being an investment banker, no matter how high the salaries might be.
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on June 18, 2002
A well-written book that exposes the "Money-is-God" attitude of Wall Street. From the profane, fat, slovenly, polyester-wearing traders that stuff their mouths all day long, to the frat-boy Ivy League trainees who heave paper-wads at the Salomon directors speaking in the training classes, one gets a highly accurate picture of the inside of a Wall Street investment banking firm.
I was particularly amused by two anecdotes; the author had his first encounter with Salomon Brothers when he was seated next to the wife of a Salomon director at a St. James Palace dinner hosted by the Queen Mother. Of course, as close as she would get to the guests would be to stroll out of the room followed by her trained Corgi dogs who genuflect every 15 seconds. Perhaps insulted by the Queen Mother's indifference at her presence, the director's wife shouted out, "Hey Queen, nice dogs you have there!" after she passed. The second amusing anecdote occurs when the author is interviewed several times but not offered a job. Eventually a friend tells him that Salomon does not actually offer someone a job. Consequently, the author calls up the firm and says, "I accept the position", upon which he is welcomed as a new member of Salomon Brothers.
The book also exposes the dirty little secret that Wall Street makes its money by entering into adversarial relationships with their clients. The author refers to this as "taking the other side of the fool". Specifically, Wall Street attempts to keep spreads on securities artificially wide in order to pocket that spread, for which they were ultimately busted by the SEC and heavily fined. They also hype stocks that they know are garbage because they have investment banking relationships with those companies (Merrill Lynch was just busted for this by the state of New York and heavily fined). Also, the investment banking fees they charge their clients to raise capital are grossly excessive, but their clients are too naive to understand this, or perhaps more accurately do not even care.
Ultimately, the decline of the company that is chronicled in the book provides the following insight; even though Salomon always tried to hire the best and the brightest, this "talent" was eventually negated by the incompetence that arises from any hierarchical organization. That is to say, the brilliance of the few is always neutralized by the incompetence of the many inherent in the corporate structure.
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on March 22, 2002
If he didn't describe it with such wry, amused detachment, Michael Lewis' chronicle of his time at Salomon Brothers during the 1980s could easily be mistaken for a modern installment of Dante's inferno. Each day on the trading floor, as computers blinked and eager brokers barked into the phone, bright young people yielded to siren call of greed. Personal destruction was the goal of the game, as Darwinism ran rampant and the strong metaphorically devoured the weak as a matter of course.
Somehow Lewis avoids turning this often disturbing display of human baseness into a morality play. His sense of humor is most likely what allowed to him survive, and even succeed, during his time in the lion's den. In "Liar's Poker", he uses it to great effect, painting vivid portraits of the colorfully flawed egoists who drove the bond market into excess and chaos. For all their blustering, Lewis reveals many of the redoubtable players in the bond game to be sad and insecure, and avoids the temptation to pass judgement on them.
It's no wonder that Lewis finally answered his calling in journalism, because he displays amazing skill here, and not only as a writer and observer of the human condition. He's equally adept at ferreting out facts, analyzing them, and presenting them to lay readers in an entirely comprehensible way. In the course of his rollicking story, he manages to deliver a pretty detailed lesson on the basics of finance, the bond market, and the ways it impacts our daily lives.
As a neophyte himself when he went into investment banking, Lewis seems to tutor the reader even as he's learning some of the basics himself. He explains how the bond market drama of the eighties began with the adoption of a new operating system by the fed, targeting money supply growth instead of interest rates. This caused bond prices to swing wildly and created a window of opportunity for traders in the heretofore backwater bond market to reap huge sums in arbitrage. At the same time, consumer and government debt skyrocketed, creating a enormous demand for fixed income products.
Many of the big shots, "or "Big Swinging...", as Lewis often
refers to them, happened to be in the right place at the right time. Luck definitely played a large part in making many of them legends. As for Lewis himself, he emerges as one of the luckiest of all, escaping with a rich experience, the material for a terrific book, and maybe even his soul.
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on September 28, 2001
This book, and Predators Ball, really started the boom in financial writing as it pertains to what it is like to actually work on Wall Street. Having spent 3 years working for 2 different firms in research I can say that some very interesting people work on Wall Street. Some are very average people with phenomenal work ethic whereas some are quite comparable to people out of the Wild West.
Anyone who is considering going into the financial services industry in trading, sales or research should read this. I tell you to read it because it does describe how cut throat the business is and it does provide some entertaining insightful look at characters in the industry. Liar's Poker provides a good top down look at the characters and process of Wall Street. This book, in particular, focuses on the rise of Soloman Brothers and its trading.
Other books of interest would be John Train's Money Masters and New Money Masters (2 different books) that discusses the world's best portfolio managers and traders. Both are excellent reading.
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on September 9, 2001
In many ways, it is not clear what sort of book Lewis intends to write. At times, it is a memoir, at times simple gossip, and in others a guide to how the street works. It is a testimony to Lewis' skills as a journalist that he largely succeeds in each of this tasks, giving clear explanations of both the rise of the mortage market and Milken's revolutionary ways with junk bonds, while managing to capture the surprising undercurrents of life in a Wall Street investment firm. It is, needless to say, not pretty -- and Lewis cynically (though honestly, I think) captures the petty interests and conflicts of interest that dominate the trading floor. I am not sure where to put my money now, but I am certainly keeping it away from those banks! There are, however, some unexpected heroes in the book. Lew Raineri's hard charging mortage desk, a bastion of old fashioned ideals (which is itself a good and a bad thing), is portrayed in loving and often hilarious detail, despite the lack of first hand experience, while Michael Milken's junk bond antics are singled out for special appreciation. These choices may seem suspect now -- Raineri's success didn't outlive the competition and Milken is now widely regarded as a villain, but Lewis' perspective has the advantage of capturing the time in which these views were developed. As history, it is fascinating if not always correct.
The final pages of the book depict, somewhat artificially, Salomon Brothers as it grapples with a take over bid. The action, while dramatic, seems more like a pretense for a big finish than the climax of the story Lewis is telling. The market went on, and so did Salomon brothers. But Lewis left, and his reasoning is unclear. He was certainly successful, and stood to be more so. His stated reasons seem unsatisfying, and the distance between his experiences during the book and his reluctance to share more intimate details of the forces that compelled his decision ultimately renders the conclusion unsatisfying.
This is a small complaint, however, and the book is certainly worth reading. Look for When Genius Failed for an update on some of the characters of Liar's Poker. It follows John Meriwether's ultimately unsuccessful attempts to revolutionize options trading and proves a compelling sequel (of sorts) to this book.
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on December 23, 2000
This is the true story of a former Salomon Bros. bond saleman during the free wheeling mid 80's when they ruled the roost until their abrupt collapse.
Much of the book is both hilarious and cautionary--and often for the same reason. The excesses of the cut throat and weird culture at Salomon and their "screw the customer" mantra (and action) if it conflicted with Salomon's perceived interests yield a not often seen inside view of the goings on. I should also point out here that the customers were wealthy individuals and institutions. A customer with 20 million dollars to deal with (in the mid-80's) was small potatoes. In fact, they were the ones that Salomon let loose their fledging traders on (this was a learn on the job job), since it wasn't considered of very great import if they "blew them up", i.e., caused them to lose most of their money.
Any business book that's actually readable stands out. And this one more than most. It's not only readable but quite cynically humorous. Since many of the reviews describe the very positive qualities of the book, let me mention some of its deficiencies, as I saw them.
First, the author underplays his abilities. While directly depicting himself as not very good at his career, in fact it's quite clear he was an excellent salesman. This isn't so important in itself, but it is represents a tone in the book that to me indicates that the author was more into it and the Salomon culture than he writes and from which he tries to ethically distance himself.
Additionally, most of the individuals (and the corporate culture) were so extreme that I would have liked to know what they were like and the lives they led away from work. One thing I would definitely be curious about is to what extent their cut throat and sleazy work behavior carried over into their personal lives. Were they solid pillars of the community (many of them were more than wealthy) or were they as much sleaze bags off the camera as well as on. Or, since it would probably be a mixed bag, how did they divide in general along these lines.
This is one respect in which I think Tracy Kidder's _Soul of a New Machine_ is better, in addtion to Kidder's more natural language flow.
But, I don't mean to appear negative. I really enjoyed the read, again finding it both amusing and cautionary.
While reading it I remembered what a friend of mine who married wealth ("I married her only for her money," he confessed to me as she stood beside him) and then increased it. I had visited him in the early 80's. "If you ever need a bond salesman call Mr. X. He's completely honest." His wife seriously nodded in agreement.
I, obviously naive, thought this a curuous remark. Why wouldn't he be honest? In general. But also when he depends on your repeat business.
My friend was right, and this book will show you why.
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