Too Big to Fail (Review)

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Too Big To Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington
Fought to Save the Financial System–and Themselves

Andrew Ross Sorkin, 2009
640 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June 2011

Even at 600 pages, Too Big to Fail is too hard to put down. On the surface, it's about a very few—very rich—men, who talk on their cells incessantly, fly the world in their private jets, check balance sheets, and ante up a billion bucks when asked to do so.

But they happen to be saving the world from collapse. We all know the ending: the world was saved. But how close we came to the precipice makes for a riveting tale.

Sorkin writes about the months after the sale of the Bear Stearns brokerage firm, up through the collapse of Lehman Brothers...and, finally, to "the bailout," or what government officials prefer to call "TARP"—Troubled Asset Relief Program. It was a desperate time, one which turned conventional politics on its head. Both parties—voting against their deepest-held beliefs—nearly nationalized the banks (say Republicans) or subsidized the wealthy (say Democrats).

What makes the story such fun—oh, yes, it's fun!—are portraits of outsized personalities—brilliant, driven men and women, who get where they've gotten by grueling work schedules, mentors, cut-throat infighting, alliances, and stunnning betrayals.

In the days leading up to the bailout, we're privvy to blow-by-blow accounts of these titans as they clash, curse, plead on bended knee, and wretch over toilet bowls. Finally, reluctantly, politicians, government officials, and bankers forge an agreement.

There are no particular villains but plenty of arrogance, blindness, and irresponsibility to go around. There are, however, heroes—Henry Paulson and his team at Treasury; Timothy Geitner, then head of NY-Federal Reserve; and Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chairman.

This is an ambitious undertaking for any book club. But if you're up to it, Too Big Too Fail is an extradorinary tale...about how close, how very close, we came to a total global meltdown.

There's no Reading Guide...but there is a very good HBO film (2011) with William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, and Billy Crudup.


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