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After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead [Hardcover]

Alan S. Blinder
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Book Description

31 Oct 2013

With bracing clarity, Blinder shows us how the U.S. financial system, which had grown far too complex for its own good-and too unregulated for the public good-experienced a perfect storm beginning in 2007. When America's financial structure crumbled, the damage proved to be not only deep, but wide. It took the crisis for the world to discover, to its horror, just how truly interconnected-and fragile-the global financial system is.

The second part of the story explains how American and international government intervention kept us from a total meltdown. Many of the U.S. government's actions, particularly the Fed's, were previously unimaginable. And to an amazing-and certainly misunderstood-extent, they worked. The worst did not happen.

Blinder offers clear-eyed answers to the questions still before us, even if some of the choices ahead are as divisive as they are unavoidable. After the Music Stopped is an essential history that we cannot afford to forget, because one thing history teaches is that it will happen here again.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (31 Oct 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594205302
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594205309
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.5 x 4.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 137,566 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"The Wall Street Journal" "[Blinder] is a master storyteller... ["After the Music Stopped"] is one of the best books yet about the financial crisis." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times" "Highly readable... Mr. Blinder draws on the work of many... reporters in his account. But if large portions of "After the Music Stopped" feel familiar, the book nonetheless benefits from its wide-angle perspective, as well as from its vantage point in time, now that it's possible to assess the fallout of decisions that were being made on the run by White House and Treasury officials under extraordinary pressures. It also benefits from Mr. Blinder's clear-eyed prose and nimble gifts as an explainer -- gifts that sometimes approach those of Bill Clinton, when it comes to making complicated economic issues and policies understandable to the lay reader. Direct and concise, Mr. Blinder tells it as he sees it." "Financial Times" "Blinder's book deserves its likely place near the top of reading lists about the crisis. It "is" the best comprehensive history of the episode... A riveting tale." The New Republic" "For a reader wondering how we got here, and why the people in charge have seemed, often, to be so chary of stringing up the culprits, or tearing down the system, Blinder's book - not least because his fair-minded approach and pragmatic mindset evokes that of America's current regulators - gives us an invaluable insight." USA Today" "What does all the knowledge mean to generalist readers? A lot, actually. Blinder is no defender of his economist colleagues or other former and current insiders who caused so much damage - or, at minimum, failed to see the collapse on the horizon. He writes clearly - as well as lots of journalists. That combination makes the book a worthy addition to the literature." "Seattle Times" "If you want to get between the covers with your favorite econ nerd this season, I recommend Alan Blinder'sk

About the Author

Alan S. Blinder is the Gordon S. Rentschler Memorial Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University and the vice chairman of the Promontory Interfinancial Network, a financial services firm based in Arlington, Virginia. He served as the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors from 1994 to 1996 and was a member of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers. He writes a regular monthly op-ed column for "The Wall Street Journal" and appears frequently on PBS, CNBC, CNN, Bloomberg TV, and elsewhere.

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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Painstakingly Thorough 12 Mar 2013
By Athan
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Bought the book, unpacked it and noticed the endorsement from Bill Clinton on the cover. "Oh no," I thought to myself. "A Clinton whitewash." Entertained thoughts of putting it up for sale, but in the end I decided what on earth, Blinder's worth reading.

And so it proved.

I've read the lot. From Kaletsky to Krugman, from Stiglitz to Shiller, and what they all have in common is an angle; an axe to grind. Blinder, you feel, has written this book as a mere starting point. He just wants to get the facts documented as they happened. And he's not out to cover his tracks either. He does not spare his former masters any punches. The Clinton administration's misdeeds could very easily have been shoved under the carpet, since that presidency ended a good seven-eight years before the crash, but there's mention of both the "well-publicised drives to increase homeownership -including by relatively low-income families" (p. 59) and of the Clinton Treasury having been on the wrong side on the regulation of financial derivatives (p.279).

Blinder has done his level best to produce an honest, meticulous account of the crisis. That is by far the strongest part of the book. He starts with seven causes of the crash. Most accounts concentrate on one or two, but he gives us a long, if prosaic, list:
1. the bubbles in housing and housing-related debt,
2. leverage,
3. lack of regulation, especially of shadow banking,
4. disgraceful practices in subprime lending,
5. complexity,
6. the poor incentive structure and inflated significance of rating agencies,
7. compensation-related incentives and Other People's Money.
As you can see, he keeps it simple and he keeps it all within the realms of finance.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is the first book I have read on the recent "financial criss" and I found it to be easy to read, thorough and highly insightful. Without being an expert on the crisis, I found the book to be extremely thorough in its analysis and it covers very interesting areas from the background and causes of the crisis to the response of the government and private sector as well as outlining a "roadmap" on how future crisis can be avoided.

Mr Blinder's writing is jargon-free, explains concepts in easy terms, does not assign blame to one partilcular party and outlines balanced and sensible recommendations on the future of Finance.

I would highly recommend the book to anyone who wants an easy-to-read and thorough analysis of the last five years of economic turmoil that has savaged the world.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mess that brought us the Great Recession 16 April 2014
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Clear and entertainingly written. The best account and analysis of the mess
I've found. Good reading even if you are not an economist.
Ken Hunter
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Patrick
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a very clear account of the causes of the banking crisis in the US. The author avoids 'banker bashing', and sets out the nature of the problems very well. His general conclusion is that the measures taken by the US government and the Federal Reserve did work well, or at least as well as any likely alternative. But he is skeptical about attempts to force banks to hold more capital than they currently have, and points out the costs of this.
All in all, this is a very good book, that explains some complex, but important, issues.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  141 reviews
111 of 121 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding - 27 Jan 2013
By Loyd E. Eskildson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
We still haven't recovered from the recent financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Numerous books have been written about these events. Why another one? Blinder brings both great credibility (Princeton Professor of Economics, former Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board) and a new focus on the 'why' rather than the 'what' of the crisis and response. His intent is to provide the 'big picture,' instead of detailing who said what to whom when.

Blinder's 'supershort version' is that the U.S. financial system had grown far too complex and fragile for its own good, and had far too little regulation for the public good. It then experienced a perfect storm during 2007-09 that started with the bursting of the housing bubble, then followed by a 'bond bubble' implosion that was probably more devastating. The stock market also collapsed, turning many 401(k)s into '201(k)s.'

Blinder tells us that all modern economies rely on credit-granting mechanism to nourish the rest of the system, the U.S. more than most. What had been far too much credit turned into vastly too little. Congress then expanded the social safety net and enacted large-scale fiscal stimulus programs, the Federal Reserve dropped interest rates to the floor, created incredible amounts of liquidity, and took over AIG insurance. The result, per Blinder, was a modestly happy ending; however, he gives our macroeconomic performance post-Fall 2008 an F.

Why? Total jobs losses were just under 8.8 million, over a period during which we should have added about 3.1 million more, created a cumulative job deficit of about 12 million by 2/2010. Then the job deficit rose even higher in 2010-11 as job creation fell short of the 125,000/month required to keep up with population growth. By 8/2012 total employment was only back to 4/2005 levels - zero net growth over a period exceeding seven years.

In an average month during 1948-2007, less than 13% of the unemployed were jobless for over 6 months; by 4/2010, it was over 45%, and only slightly less today. Read GDP decline in 5 of the 6 quarters of 2008 and the first half of 2009 - the worst performance since the 1930s.

Blinder does not believe the housing boom/bust was a major factor in our poor recent economic performance.Residential construction normally comprises about 4% of GDP (4.5% in 2000), hit 6.3% in 2005:4, then started falling. Spread over the five years, this 'boom' added just 0.3% to the overall GDP growth rate. Home prices peaked in 2006 or 2007, depending on the measure used. Spending on new homes then fell to less than half this peak. Two or three years passed between the start of the decline in housing construction and the serious decline in the overall economy. During 2006-07 real GDP rose at a 2.3% annual rate and unemployment barely budged. Instead, Lehman Brothers' failure on 9/15/2008 kicked off the crisis.

Seven key weaknesses predated and contributed greatly to the ensuring financial mess. 1)Inflated asset prices, especially housing. 2)Excessive leverage. 3)Lax financial regulation - both in terms of what the law didn't regulate (eg. no one was responsible for the national mortgage market or protecting gullible consumers) and how poorly regulators performed their duties. 4)Disgraceful banking practices in mortgage lending. 5)Crazy unregulated securities and derivatives built on those bad mortgages. 6)Abysmal performance of statistical rating agencies. 7)Perverse compensation systems that created incentives to go for broke. Summarizing - errors and frauds by private companies and individuals, combined by government's hands-off policy that limited aid to corporations did us all in. A backlash against TARP's overgenerous bailouts and failure to prosecute corporate leaders was then directed against government activism, Obama, Congress - especially Democrats, Keynesian economics, and the Federal Reserve.

Blinder then reviews some of the most common prescriptives for preventing recurrence. Glass-Steagall (GS) would not have succeeded. U.S. banking problems mostly didn't come from investment banking, but from high leverage combined with poor lending practices. Nor would GS have prevented the shenanigans at Bear Stearns, AIG, Countrywide, etc. Blinder also rules out actions directed against 'Too Big to Fail' (TBTG). These would force large U.S. firms to either deal with scores of modest-sized banks or large ones based overseas. Instead, he proposes a systemic risk regulatory federal agency that (hopefully) would have seen the dodgy mortgages, the questionable AAA ratings for securities built on those mortgages, the hug risk concentrations on and off banks' balance sheets, and the fact that a single insurance company (AIG) was on the sell side of an inordinate share of CDs issued and lacked the capital to back them.

Reducing allowable leverage would reduce profitability. Volker has proposed banning FDIC-insured banks from proprietary trading. Blinder, however, points out that it's difficult in practice to distinguish trading for the bank's own account and market-making for a client. Hedging (good) can be distinguished from gambling (bad) only by knowing a bank's entire portfolio, if even then. Should a giant non-bank investment house with a huge trading book be allowed to go under ala Lehman? 'Not very appealing,' per Blinder. Meanwhile, we now have six federal regulatory agencies and 100 more at the state level (bank and insurance). Overlap and gaps are a problem.

Derivatives are another target for reform proposals. Blinder points out that they can be used to hedge or gamble, and an insurer can go bankrupt, dragging others down. Perhaps their most obvious flaw comes with customized OTC products and their bringing opacity, higher trading costs, and richer profits for investment banks - the latter creating large profits and resistance to change.

Hedge funds have been another source of ire. However, Blinder contends they helped mitigate the housing/bond bubbles via short-selling that pushed prices down, they typically use less leverage (managers are owners with a great deal of their own money at risk), none were seen as TBTF, and none received government assistance. So why push greater regulation? Because if the Volcker Rule was adopted the shift in trading might make some hedge funds TBTF.

How to fix the ratings agencies - assign issuers randomly to ratings agencies (Sen. Frankel).

ARMs were not the major cause of mortgage defaults, except in the early days of the crisis when rates rose. The Federal Reserve's subsequent efforts to lower rates then either stopped upward resets or lowered rates. Job losses and other economic setbacks were a much bigger problem.

Blinder contends the mortgage default crisis could have been prevented by $200+ billion in federal lending, per the 1930s model provided by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC). It paid off existing home mortgages and replaced them with new ones with less onerous terms; financing came from the Treasury and the open markets. Despite 20% still defaulting, the HOLC made a small profit overall before it was terminated. We overbuilt about 1.75 million houses prior to the collapse, and since then underbuilt about 3 million - thus, a similar program today would have been digestible. Unfortunately, government leaders were too timid (possibly scared off by negative reactions to TARP), ideologically opposed, and/or bureaucratic.
48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enlightening, Entertaining, Outstanding 29 Jan 2013
By Joseph Fichera - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An economist who speaks English! This is a rare person, one who can connect with the rest of us and give us an insider's but big picture perspective. Michael Lewis and Alan Blinder are two sides of the same coin. They enlighten and entertain on finance. Blinder is the scholar but don't hold that against him; it's what makes this a must read.

This book explains what really happened to us and why in the financial crisis. All of us know the crisis. Many can discuss it at the "cocktail party, shaking of the head" level of discourse, but few us can discuss the "why-did-they-do-it" or know what lies ahead for us next time. We think it too complicated or too much inside baseball to take the time to figure it out.

Blinder has done this work for us in an entertaining yet scholarly way that we can believe. It's not 24-hour news cycle hype nor a dumbed down HBO movie script.

The narrative is an easy read through a difficult subject. It is better and more entertaining than for example Michael Lewis's "Big Short" (though Lewis is a Princetonian as well and probably took a course from Blinder) in part because Blinder takes us on a journey through the origins and responses to the ENTIRE financial crisis. Along the way, he asks the questions we would ask and then answers them in a down to earth prose.

Before writing this review, I looked at the expert reviews. The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and even the Cleveland Plain Dealer described this book as the "best" account of what happened and why. While everyone has opinion on some aspect of the account, there is a consensus that Blinder presents the information in the best possible way for the rest of us and offers the most comprehensive discussion. The Washington Post said something I rarely see "Alan Blinder is a national treasure...He invariably sees what's really going on and has a gift for explaining it without being blinded by party or ideology." Then you have Bill Clinton saying " "If you want to understand every aspect of our economic crisis--how we got into it, how we escaped a depression, why we haven't fully recovered, and what we have to do now--read this book. It's a masterpiece--simple, straightforward and wise." Turn off CNBC and Fox; pick up Blinder. The PBS Nightly Business report did a good interview which you can watch here [...]

As I read through the chapters, I found myself not needing to stop and consider what I just read. The prose flows in a way that is almost conversational as the sordid story unfolds. It is as if the expert is there with me and understands I need an example from my life to make the exposition real to me.

Each chapter is divided into subsections and sub-headers to guide us though the narrative that is not a fluid sequence of a + b + c but more complex. Yet, the complexity is dealt like weaving a fabric. Each piece fits together and it is only until the end you realize that you have just completed something complicated. It seemed so simple as you went through it. And this is where I have an "AHA" moment. So THAT is what was going on. How did I get there? Blinder walked me through it...and i didn't even realize it.

In the end, Blinder gives a set of seven prescriptions for dealing with the next crisis. He clearly is an optimist and believes that enlightenment can change behavior. I'm not so sure. For example he didn't really address how the crazy compensation systems he identified up front will change. Greed still exists. If bankers pay cash up front for taking long-term risks, I doubt much changes. Yet that is something insidious. Blinder can't be expected to give us all the solutions.

"After the Music Stopped" is a great read to help the rest of us understand what happened. Then, what will be, will be, que sera sera. Read this book; understand. Make your own contribution, whether with friends at that cocktail party, at the office, online or in the solitude of the voting booth.
124 of 150 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An objective but narrowly-focused postmortem of the financial collapse 27 Jan 2013
By Alan F. Sewell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The financial collapse of 2008 and the ongoing anemic recovery is such a politically-charged issue that it is difficult to find anyone who can analyze it objectively.

Free market Conservatives are trying to spin it as a financial collapse brought on by TOO MUCH government regulation. Their spin is: "The government, through its Community Reinvestment Act, wrecked the economy by forcing banks to loan money to minorities. Now the government is debilitating the banks by imposing the Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations on them." Of course free market Conservatives will never admit of the possibility that the banks may have failed because they were insufficiently regulated and that MORE government oversight, not less, is the correct solution.

The Democrats, too, have been silent because they are as much tied in with corrupt financial interests as the Republicans. The Democrats recruit their Secretaries of the Treasury from the big banks the same as the Republicans do, and they rely every bit as much as Republicans on the New York financial institutions for campaign contributions and organization. Thus, the Democrats have refrained from taking any sort of "blame the banks" line. They HAVE led the effort to impose very modest regulations on the banks like Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley, but have otherwise hoped that the financial crisis will die down quickly before it tarnishes THEIR reputations.

As much as the Republicans and Democrats yell and scream at each other in public, they are as united as a band of brothers in hushing up discussion of the financial collapse. They do not want people to realize that BOTH parties are tools of the financial interests that led the economy to the brink of ruin.

Thus, what is needed is an objective, non-partisan look at the financial crisis with a view towards making the necessary reforms to minimize the possibility of another financial collapse. Although author Alan Blinder advises Democratic administrations, his many articles in business journals have always seemed to me to be driven more by an objective search for truth than partisanship.

Blinder explains his objective in writing the book:

============
Another aspect of the crisis motivates this book: Even today, despite numerous works on the crisis-- some of them excellent-- most Americans remain perplexed by what hit them. They have only a limited understanding of what the U.S. government did, or failed to do, on their behalf-- and, more important, why. They also harbor several major misconceptions. In consequence, the Tea Party movement erupted in 2009, voters "threw the rascals out" in the elections of 2010, Occupy Wall Street exploded in 2011, economic issues were central to the hotly contested election in 2012, and trust in government is still scraping all-time lows.

More concretely, I want to provide answers to the following three critical questions:

How Did We Ever Get into Such a Mess? The objective here is not to affix blame...but rather to highlight and analyze the many mistakes that were made so we don't repeat them again.

What Was Done to Mitigate the Problems and Ameliorate the Damages-- and Why?

Did We "Waste" the Financial Crisis or Did We Put It to Good Use?
============

Because I earn much of my livelihood investing in properties and real estate investment trusts, I was near dead-center of this crisis as it developed through 2007 to the present. Although I agree with much of Blinder's take, I also come to different conclusions on some points:

Blinder says:

=======
My point here is not to argue that bankers were foolish-- especially since the bursting of the bond bubble caught so many other people by surprise, too. In fairness, no one should have been expected to foresee accurately the truly unprecedented collapse of the residential mortgage market. It was bigger than your worst nightmare.
=======

I disagree. The bankers WERE foolish not to see the bubble coming. In 2006 and 2007 real estate prices were rising as much as 50% in SIX MONTHS in areas like Orlando. I saw "trouble" everywhere in the real estate market in Florida and got to work paying off my mortgage BEFORE the financial collapse hit. On a lark my wife and I toured an open house in Bradenton, Florida back in 2006. The homebuilder assured me that he would put me in touch with one of his banker buddies who would loan me $750,000 to buy a newly constructed house. This was about three times the amount a responsible lender would have loaned. I also saw first-hand several corrupt real estate transactions whereby mortgage originators, banks, real estate agents, and homebuilders illegally colluded to inflate property values above fair value in order to extract money from the deal and spread it around among themselves as kickbacks.

ANYBODY who was involved in real estate in 2006 and 2007 should have known with dead certainty that the industry was corrupt to the gills. The big banks and loan companies piled into the locally-originated corruption and propagated it with CDO's that were levered 30 to 1 and failed as soon as the first couple of homeowners became delinquent in their loans. They knew EXACTLY what they were doing and simply chose to ignore the irresponsible risk they were taking with their customers' money. Actually, there were some mid-size banks who understood exactly what was going on and refused to have any part of it. My regional bank in Florida did not lower its lending standards when every other mortgage company did, and as a result they claim not to have suffered any excess of failed loans during the collapse. If they understood what was going down, then others, especially the biggest and supposedly most savvy banks, could have seen it IF THEY HAD WANTED TO SEE IT. Unfortunately, the bankers' lust for excessive bonuses incentivized them to ignore the warning signs of pending collapse.

I also disagree with Blinder's assertion:

================
The years 2000 and 2007, especially the latter, are not ancient history. Ask yourself what could possibly have changed so fundamentally about the U.S. labor market in six years to consign us to permanently higher unemployment? My answer is straightforward: nothing. There is not a single reason to believe that we cannot get back to within shouting distance of 5 percent unemployment again.
================

Because Blinder is an academic he may be out of touch with the real world of employment. Our balance-of-trade deficits indicate that approximately 4.6 million jobs have permanently been lost due to offshoring manufacturing to China and another 1 million have been lost due to the relocation of American factories into Mexico after NAFTA. Those 5.6 million jobs are dead and buried, and the Americans who did them are permanently removed from the labor force.

There have also been massive waves of mergers and acquisitions whose primary purpose is to "improve efficiency" by eliminating jobs. The very concept of "job" has changed. A "job" used to mean career employment from around age 22 to age 65. Today it means sporadic employment followed by long periods of layoffs and permanent removal of many workers from the labor force at age 50 due to involuntary early retirement.

All of this jobs destruction by "offshoring, downsizing, rightsizing, early retirement, work force reduction, elimination of redundancy" started in the mid 1980s when vulture capital funds began using junk bonds to finance search-and-destroy missions against American companies and their employees. Labor force participation peaked in 1998, a full decade before the onset of the Great Recession in 2008. After 1998 the largest American corporations were elmininating jobs faster than the smaller, faster-growing companies were able to create them.

Thus we had Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan lowering interest rates to near-zero to try to solve an EMPLOYMENT problem. The offshoring of American industry removed opportunities to invest in growing the economy the right way by expanding the means of employment by building AMERICAN factories that employ AMERICAN workers

We therefore began a diversion of capital away from productive industry and into excessive real estate speculation at precisely the time when the American workers were losing their jobs and therefore the means to pay for the mortgages on inflated property values. The financial institutions chose to put their heads in the sand and ignore the fundamental economic deficiencies. They chose to profiteer and pay themselves extravagant bonuses until the real estate speculations blew up in their faces and rendered them insolvent. At that point they ran to the government for bailouts with taxpayer money.

This book thoroughly explains the NARROW fault in the economy, which has to do with too many people being loaned too much money to buy too much over-priced real estate on too much leverage. It thoroughly explains the poisons that the financial industry cooked up via credit default swaps (CDS's), collateralized debt obligations (CDO's), and "crazy compensation schemes" that paid mortgage originators and bankERS to lend money to non-creditworthy applicants. And no, they did NOT make these loans because "the government forced us to lend money to minorities." They made them because they didn't care whether the loans were paid back as long as they hustled their bonuses from loan origination fees.

However, it fails to address what I see as the BROADER problem, which is the targeted destruction of American employment by "offshoring, downsizing, rightsizing, early retirement, workforce reduction, elimination of redundancy." The economy isn't going to "bounce back" to full employment as rapidly as Blinder expects, because the capacity of the American economy to employ every job seeker who desires employment has been diminished and may not come back in our lifetimes.
54 of 66 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, fairly comprehensive, but unconvincing in policy prescriptions 18 Feb 2013
By Glenn Corey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The current financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 and that, in my opinion, hasn't seen its last down leg will be written about for decades to come, and so no single book should be regarded as the final word. Such a complex, devastating, and multifaceted event is probably too complicated for one person to understand, and so a variety of viewpoints should be sought out. While I'm no expert on the whole matter, either as regards theoretical issues impacting the event or empirical evidence supporting one or another theory, I have read a few books about the crisis and can at least say that I've reached a point where I can identify what makes sense and what doesn't (at least to me). Alan Blinder's book is probably one of the better books I've read by what I consider establishment economists (those who work at a major university, have had extensive high-level experience in government, or basically support a Keynesian approach to economics). I confess that, despite my best attempts to approach all books without prior judgment, I expected to like the book a lot less than I did.

To his credit, Blinder is critical of virtually all the major culprits, though he is rather soft in his criticisms of the Federal Reserve (the Fed)and the federal government. He tends to minimize the role that the Fed had in creating the crisis in the first place. This is not surprising for a former high-ranking Fed official. In addition, he seems to relegate moral hazard to a secondary or even tertiary cause or factor in the crisis, whereas I think it plays a primary role, not just because of the recent bailouts but because of the message that has been conveyed for several decades by the Fed that the big banks and their profits will always be safe. I believe this is one of the main reasons why executives and other workers at large financial firms are given such huge bonuses: they know they'll be bailed out if things get really ugly, so why keep the cash on hand. The executives themselves may not understand this at a conscious level, but the Fed's message over the decades has been clear. Indeed, The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve makes a pretty good case that one of the main reasons the Fed was founded in the first place was to ensure profits for the big banks. And after the rescue of, I think, Continental Illinois bank in the 1980s, that book cites none other than former Fed chairman Paul Volcker as saying that saving the big banks was one of the main reasons the Fed was created.

Blinder cites some facts that did, I admit, surprise me. For example, in the end TARP (Trouble Assets Relief Program) netted a small profit for the American taxpayer. In addition, he suggests that the Fed's keeping interest rates so low for so long can't be a main cause of the housing bubble since England, for example, also had a housing bubble in the midst of interest-rate increases by that country's central bank. Such facts did, as I said, surprise me. At this point, I don't know what to make of them, except that they do seem to poke a hole in some criticisms of low interest rates advanced by libertarian economists/thinkers. Until I read Blinder's book, I had bought into those criticisms.

However, I don't believe Blinder is a big-picture kind of thinker. I say this because he looks for the causes of the current crisis in more recent events and doesn't seem to give much thought to the cumulative effects of certain policies. For example, what have the effects been of taking the U.S. off the gold standard, as a first step by FDR and then definitively by Nixon in 1971? By severing the link between gold and the dollar, Nixon unleashed forces that could ultimately lead to the complete devaluation of the dollar. After all, the average lifespan of fiat currencies (and why should they die at all?) is around 100 years. Look at a chart of the dollar. It starts losing serious value around 1898 when we entered the Spanish American war and then continues its irrevocable and earnest decline after 1913, the year the Fed was founded. Doesn't look like a good record of fighting inflation to me. What are the effects of Fed policies over the past century? Blinder doesn't address this issue.

Blinder also doesn't address the issue of what it means to have the world's de facto reserve currency as the U.S. does, what that has meant for Americans' standard of living, and what losing that status could mean for us in the future. Likewise, Blinder doesn't look at legislation, such as the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, that undoubtedly led to the housing bubble in the early to mid-2000s. That legislation, together with a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 1992 that suggested that lending policies of banks were inherently racist, coupled with threats by the Clinton Justice Department to file suit against lenders who evinced race-based lending policies (the report was later shown to be based on flimsy evidence), directly contributed to the run-up in housing prices, but Blinder does not even mention it. He must be aware of it, but for whatever reason, it doesn't fall within his radar. Another major issue completely ignored by Blinder is a central feature of our banking system: fractional reserve banking (FRB). The long-term, cumulative effects of fractional reserves are truly perverse; personally, I see no difference between FRB and counterfeiting. However, the effects of FRB are long term and so take a while to be felt. Finally is the inflation threat. Blinder seems to believe government statistics on inflation that show it to be minimal. But, as John Williams at ShadowStats has shown, government inflation models of today are not what they were in the 1980s, which weren't what they were in the first half of the 20th century. If they were, then the government would be showing inflation running at a much higher rate than it currently reports. I don't know if Blinder is deliberately skipping over Williams' work, but he doesn't question government-derived statistics on inflation (or unemployment).

Where Blinder is most at odds with my way of thinking is in his prescriptions for dealing with the situation. After arguing that one of the factors that contributed to the financial crisis was a lack of enforcement of regulation (regulation that was already in place), Blinder advocates more regulation, without explaining how that regulation would have any better chance of being enforced than the regulations that supposedly would have mollified the effects of the current crisis had they been enforced. When Harry Markopoulos, author of No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller, first notified the Federal Reserve about Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, there was already enough regulation in place to stop Madoff in his tracks, and his investors would have lost only $3 billion at that point. By the time regulators got around to enforcing the law, Madoff had $50 billion in investors' money. Thus, the problem was not with a lack of regulation but a lack of enforcement. Blinder doesn't explain how new regulation would necessarily be enforced.

One minor aspect of the book I had a problem with was the style. Blinder tries to combine a scholarly, learned tone (and he is clearly at ease with his subject matter - a big plus of the book) with a chummy, colloquial one. Sometimes this grated on my nerves, and in one instance it makes Blinder look rather foolish. The title of Chapter 8 is "Stimulus, Stimulus, Wherefore Art Thou, Stimulus," an obvious echo of Juliet's "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo" from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." The first thing to note here is that in the original, there is no comma before the last "Romeo" because Juliet is not talking to Romeo; it's a monologue. The second, and more important, thing to note is that "wherefore" is an archaic word that means "why," not "where." Juliet is saying "Why does your name have to be Montague" (of all families in the world, why do you have to be the son of my father's mortal enemy?)? Blinder's use of "wherefore" thus makes no sense. I think he meant to say "stimulus, stimulus, where are you," because so far, the stimulus that the government promised hasn't materialized, but he seems to be ignorant of the real meaning of "wherefore." (Doesn't Blinder have any friends in the English Department at Princeton?) It's a minor point, I know, but it makes Blinder's attempt at showing off his erudition look silly.

All in all, I consider this book a worthwhile read, though by no means the final word. The bibliography and notes are also very good. However, Blinder seems (forgive me) blind to his own underlying assumptions, and if you don't know that it's possible to look at some very basic issues very differently from how Blinder regards them, you might not understand that Blinder is making an assumption at all but just stating the facts. But Blinder's general view is along the lines of the dominant one in the media and in policy circles, so it is likely to be praised as clear and even-handed, even wise. I recommend reading it alongside other books, though, for a broader understanding of the ongoing financial and economic crisis.
25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A DETAILED, COMPREHENSIVE ANALYSIS OF THE WORST ECONOMIC CRISIS IN AMERICAN HISTORY!" 26 Jan 2013
By Geraldine Ahearn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Professor and Wall Street Journal Columnist Alan S. Blinder chronicles an intelligent and informative account of how the Financial Crisis happened, what it did to global economy, why it has not yet fully recovered, and much more. As an economical expert, the author provides a concise narrative of the Financial Crisis, and the lessons learned from the horror it caused for America and global. Alan S. Blinder explains the steps the government took to fight it, and what we must do to repair it. The author delivers reasons why it happened in 2007, the damages on the housing bubble bursting, and other devastating reasons why America's financial institution crumbled. In addition, the author explains how we managed to escape a depression, why we are still fighting to recover, and what it will take to reconstruct it. The scary thought is that four years after the nightmare, we realize who the major culprits were as the problem began in the U.S., but we also learned why we didn't have a total melt-down. We are reminded that such a disaster could happen again, and more important, we need to know how to treat a fragile global system to prevent future damage. Alan S. Blinder explains how economics and politics interacted, creating a huge mess for America and global, how to fully recover, and what the crisis means for the future. Brilliant, educational, and highly recommended!
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