Books – February 09

G.G. Fickling – Honey West
Roger Lowenstein – When Genius Failed
Roger Lowenstein – Origins of the Crash

Honey West was a cheezy mystery series (“the nerviest, curviest PI in LA!”) that was made into a cheezy TV series, which I’ve read was not bad. I thought the books would be entertaining, but it was just not very good. The story goes with any excuse for Honey to slip into a “disguise” that involves a bikini and nearly every other scene involves her losing or destroying her clothes somehow. Which would be fine, except it’s a book. With no pictures. Also, the mystery itself was silly and made little sense. So, a real skipper. I guess the TV show might be good, depending on how good the star looked in a bikini.

The two Lowenstein books are fairly mind-boggling. As with Liar’s Poker, you can see many seeds of our current economic crisis and many of the names involved, and marvel at how much they get away with, then and now. When Genius Failed, about the rise and fall of Long-Term Capital Management was, I thought, the more interesting of the two — it focuses on a set of interesting characters and follows them all the way through. And maybe more importantly, it has the structure of a classic Greek tragedy, in which the protagonists are brought down by their own hubris (and they are brought down; though on wall street, just because you’ve caused one of the largest meltdowns in history and wiped out your own personal fortune doesn’t mean you won’t be living it up again in a few years, as soon as you find some new suckers).

For me one of the most interesting things in this book though was reading about the math at the center of it all — the whole company is based on a mathematical theory that is so obviously flawed, I can’t believe how far they carried it. The basic problem is that it’s all based on models of the market. But, like all models, the model has a few simplifying assumptions to make the math work. But in this case, the assumptions are (or should be) very obviously bad — they assume first that securities have an inherent level of riskiness that doesn’t change and second that the state of every security is independent of every other. This is very very wrong, which should have been obvious at least to the math whizzes or the guys with years of wall street experience. But hey that good ol fashioned hubris; it will get you every time.