[In the next 7 postings I'm going to publish an article from Michael Lewis in Nov 11, 2008 in Portfolio.com]
Steve Eisman entered finance about the time I exited it. He’d grown up in New York City and gone to a Jewish day school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard Law School. In 1991, he was a 30-year-old corporate lawyer. “I hated it,” he says. “I hated being a lawyer. My parents worked as brokers at Oppenheimer. They managed to finagle me a job. It’s not pretty, but that’s what happened.”
He was hired as a junior equity analyst, a helpmate who didn’t actually offer his opinions. That changed in December 1991, less than a year into his new job, when a subprime mortgage lender called Ames Financial went public and no one at Oppenheimer particularly cared to express an opinion about it. One of Oppenheimer’s investment bankers stomped around the research department looking for anyone who knew anything about the mortgage business. Recalls Eisman: “I’m a junior analyst and just trying to figure out which end is up, but I told him that as a lawyer I’d worked on a deal for the Money Store.” He was promptly appointed the lead analyst for Ames Financial. “What I didn’t tell him was that my job had been to proofread the documents and that I hadn’t understood a word of the fucking things.”
Ames Financial belonged to a category of firms known as nonbank financial institutions. The category didn’t include J.P. Morgan, but it did encompass many little-known companies that one way or another were involved in the early-1990s boom in subprime mortgage lending—the lower class of American finance.
The second company for which Eisman was given sole responsibility was Lomas Financial, which had just emerged from bankruptcy. “I put a sell rating on the thing because it was a piece of shit,” Eisman says. “I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to put a sell rating on companies. I thought there were three boxes—buy, hold, sell—and you could pick the one you thought you should.” He was pressured generally to be a bit more upbeat, but upbeat wasn’t Steve Eisman’s style. Upbeat and Eisman didn’t occupy the same planet. A hedge fund manager who counts Eisman as a friend set out to explain him to me but quit a minute into it. After describing how Eisman exposed various important people as either liars or idiots, the hedge fund manager started to laugh. “He’s sort of a prick in a way, but he’s smart and honest and fearless.”
“A lot of people don’t get Steve,” Whitney says. “But the people who get him love him.” Eisman stuck to his sell rating on Lomas Financial, even after the company announced that investors needn’t worry about its financial condition, as it had hedged its market risk. “The single greatest line I ever wrote as an analyst,” says Eisman, “was after Lomas said they were hedged.” He recited the line from memory: “ ‘The Lomas Financial Corp. is a perfectly hedged financial institution: It loses money in every conceivable interest-rate environment.’ I enjoyed writing that sentence more than any sentence I ever wrote.” A few months after he’d delivered that line in his report, Lomas Financial returned to bankruptcy.
Eisman wasn’t, in short, an analyst with a sunny disposition who expected the best of his fellow financial man and the companies he created. “You have to understand,” Eisman says in his defense, “I did subprime first. I lived with the worst first. These guys lied to infinity. What I learned from that experience was that Wall Street didn’t give a shit what it sold.”
Harboring suspicions about people’s morals and telling investors that companies don’t deserve their capital wasn’t, in the 1990s or at any other time, the fast track to success on Wall Street. Eisman quit Oppenheimer in 2001 to work as an analyst at a hedge fund, but what he really wanted to do was run money. FrontPoint Partners, another hedge fund, hired him in 2004 to invest in financial stocks. Eisman’s brief was to evaluate Wall Street banks, homebuilders, mortgage originators, and any company (General Electric or General Motors, for instance) with a big financial-services division—anyone who touched American finance. An insurance company backed him with $50 million, a paltry sum. “Basically, we tried to raise money and didn't really do it,” Eisman says.
Instead of money, he attracted people whose worldviews were as shaded as his own—Vincent Daniel, for instance, who became a partner and an analyst in charge of the mortgage sector. Now 36, Daniel grew up a lower-middle-class kid in Queens. One of his first jobs, as a junior accountant at Arthur Andersen, was to audit Salomon Brothers’ books. “It was shocking,” he says. “No one could explain to me what they were doing.” He left accounting in the middle of the internet boom to become a research analyst, looking at companies that made subprime loans. “I was the only guy I knew covering companies that were all going to go bust,” he says. “I saw how the sausage was made in the economy, and it was really freaky.”
Danny Moses, who became Eisman’s head trader, was another who shared his perspective. Raised in Georgia, Moses, the son of a finance professor, was a bit less fatalistic than Daniel or Eisman, but he nevertheless shared a general sense that bad things can and do happen. When a Wall Street firm helped him get into a trade that seemed perfect in every way, he said to the salesman, “I appreciate this, but I just want to know one thing: How are you going to screw me?”
Heh heh heh, c’mon. We’d never do that, the trader started to say, but Moses was politely 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 screw me. And the salesman explained how he was going to screw him. And Moses did the trade.
Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. “Steve’s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,” Daniel says. “Because he’ll say ‘Explain that to me’ 30 different times. Or ‘Could you explain that more, in English?’ Because once you do that, there’s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they’re talking about. And a lot of times, they don’t!”