Michael Lewis, who made a considerable splash in 1989 with Liar's Poker, his memoir of a couple of years with Salomon Brothers as a bond salesman, has collected between hard covers what he has been doing since then: financial journalism for the likes of Manhattan, inc. and The New Republic, among others.
In The Money Culture (Norton, 282 pp., $19.95), Mr. Lewis displays all the virtues that made Liar's Poker a bestseller. He is literate, with a background in art history, rather than business. He writes very clearly and explicitly about matters that are otherwise pretty murky for most readers. And he writes with a great deal of mordant wit.
He explains the money culture of his title: "The age old Anglo-European taboo of handling money was shoved offstage by the sheer force of events in the financial world" in the 1980s. "It had all begun with seemingly dry and boring changes in technology, financial regulation, and levels of debt in America, but it ended with a revolution in everyday commercial behavior."
Mr. Lewis divides his collection into three sections, New World, Old World, and Other World, meaning Japan. His subjects range from profiles of "Eddie the Chop House Boy," a rogue broker and scam artist, to Michael Milken, Mary Cunningham, and Donald Trump -- the madcap cast of the 1980s.
Which means The Money Culture suffers the malady of most collections of journalism; a lot of the material is dated, and in a few years, readers will need battalions of footnotes to make their way through its pages.
It also suffers from what I might call a "Manhattan, inc.-Clay Felker" problem. Mr. Felker, for those who don't know about him, created New York magazine from the wreckage of the New York Herald Tribune's old Sunday magazine in the 1960s. He also helped create Manhattan, inc. His hallmark is a certain graphic-packed slickers.
This style makes for an eye-catching magazine, but it does not make for particularly good writing. Too many of the pieces collected here are too short and too shallow. Just as Mr. Lewis appears to be hitting his stride, you turn the page and are caught up short to see the end of the story.
Every author probably wishes for such criticism -- that his readers say "Keep going!" Mr. Lewis writes with grace, but also with sense. Consider, for example, "Franky's Longest Mile." The story deals with a chubby little bond trader who one day claimed he could run a mile in under eight minutes. Eventually, the whole trading floor has bets on him, and we head out to the track to watch Franky.
Along the way, Mr. Lewis pauses to make a few commonsensical observations. "It seems that no one can wait to impose his own sense of moral propriety upon the saga of Wall Street in the Eighties. You can almost hear journalists thinking as they write: Greedy people always pay the price for their avarice. Or: The proud must fall. That sort of thing. But Wall Street and its people simply do not belong in conventional morality tales. The only moral on Wall Street is that there is no moral."
He continues, "There was nothing inevitable about the fall of Drexel. The firm had the simple misfortune of owning of pile of bonds that collapsed .... Now it's true that God works in mysterious ways. But no one has ever accused him of rigging the bond market."
Or consider this, on the savings and loan disaster, in "How Wall Street Took the S&Ls For a Ride." He writes, "No doubt many Americans believe that most of the money has been squandered by crooked savings and loan executives on private air fleets, California beach houses, trips to Paris, and blue-prints for branches on the moon. As the losses mount, however, the corruption theory starts to leak (it's not easy, even for a Texan, to embezzle $180 billion).
"The truth is that a lot of the money was lost legally by crazy gamblers -- and a big chunk of that found its way into the pockets of the Wall Street bond traders and salesmen who encouraged the S&Ls to gamble like lunatics in the first place. There are $900,000 houses in Connecticut with two BMWs out back that have been paid for by their 29-year-old owners courtesy of the savings and loan crisis. And the beauty of its is that in milking the S&Ls, the 29-year-olds did nothing illegal."
He goes on to explain how this was done, using the example of one Minnesota thrift and its big-time purchases of mortgage securities.
He Resorts to the Pig-Bladder
But The Money Culture is not all sober reconsideration of the scene by any means. Sometimes, Mr. Lewis plays for effects, such as the fine burlesque "Taken for a Ride on the Customer's Yacht." (Mr. Lewis loves the expression, "take for a ride," and in his oeuvre, I have found it at least 156 times. Come to think of it, it is the perfect expression for what happens to many, many 'investors.') Mr. Lewis writes about a cruise he took after seeing an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal -- "Financial Seminar at Sea: Explore the Amazon with Louis Rukeyser."
Evelyn Waugh could not have done better with something like this. Our author arrives at the ship, and recalling the warnings of colleagues that the Rukeyser show, "Wall Street Week," is "for old people," finds his fellow travelers a decrepit lot: "These were not the sort of old people who inspire cries of 'My! They get around for their age!' or 'I hope I do as well as that when I'm 75!' These were the sort of old people who make one ask, 'Are they breathing?'"
Mr. Lewis writes that he did not intend to put these articles between hard covers, "but I don't intend to apologize for them either. After all, this is how I make my living these days." And good luck to him.
I'd save him a spot at the bar any time.