Michael Lewis: Pitch perfect
He's the best-selling author who brings the world of finance dazzlingly alive. And now the book he wrote that changed baseball has been turned into an acclaimed movie
Stephen Foley is a former Associate Business Editor of The Independent, based in New York. He left in August 2012. In a decade at the paper, he covered personal finance, the UK stock market and the pharmaceuticals industry, and had also been the Business section's share tipster. Between arriving with three suitcases in Manhattan in January 2006 and his departure, he witnessed and reported on a great economic boom turning spectacularly to bust. In March 2009, he was named Business and Finance Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards.
Saturday 19 November 2011
The first thing you need to know about Michael Lewis is that he is everywhere.
The author of Liar's Poker and Moneyball is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming his blood funnel into anything that smells like a money-making story.
If it is inappropriate to paraphrase Rolling Stone magazine's infamous depiction of Goldman Sachs to describe Lewis, that is only because the piece wasn't written by him. The ink from this alternative squid is also highly lucrative; Lewis pens made-for-Hollywood stories the way a Major League Baseball slugger might turn out home runs.
Just look around. Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as the number-crunching baseball coach Billy Beane, profiled by Lewis in his bestseller from eight years ago, is opening in UK cinemas next Friday. It has already grossed $72m in North America and is a hot tip for honours at the Academy Awards.
Meanwhile, a film version of Liar's Poker is in the works, with Lewis himself on scriptwriting duty. And it is still only last year that Sandra Bullock picked up her Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side, the American football movie adapted from Lewis's 2006 book.
Talking of books, The Big Short, by common consent the only intelligible account of the 2008 sub-prime mortgage meltdown, came out in paperback earlier this year. Lewis, though, is already halfway through promoting the follow-up, a collection of his essays on the eurozone crisis called Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. This book drops in on Greek monks who act like Enron executives, and Germans who are obsessed with faecal matter, in an attempt to explain the origins of the financial disaster.
And, with his focus now firmly on the disintegration of the financial system he described in Liar's Poker, his further prognostications on banking and the euro appear in magazine and online columns almost weekly. These are proffered at a reputed fee of $10 per word, a multiple of what the rest of the profession gets paid (as every profile writer must jealously report).
It is a long time since Lewis worked on the grotesque, testosterone-sodden trading floor of Salomon Brothers, germinating the idea of the explosive exposé that would become Liar's Poker. His trader buddies found it utterly mystifying that he gave up the huge bonuses for the writer's life, but it is all very clear now. As an author, he has become "that most revered of species" which he wrote every bond trader aspired to be: "a Big Swinging Dick".
If the critical hullabaloo in the US is anything to go by, Moneyball stakes a claim to be the best sports movie ever made – and that is something you would not be expecting if all you knew is that it is about statistics and the economics of baseball. Billy Beane's Oakland Athletics team found itself hopelessly outgunned, financially, by rivals such as the New York Mets who could pay top dollar for the best players. Instead, he turned to the newfangled science of sabermetrics, which used computer analysis of players' statistics to identify the ideal make-up of a team, and discovered that traditional talent scouts overlooked many potentially useful players. Oakland signed these players up on the cheap and went on to win more consecutive games than any team in history.
Michael Lewis arrived on the scene midway through that winning streak, seized by the realisation that what was going on at Oakland was the same thing that happened on a Salomon Brothers bond-trading desk every day: arbitrage, spotting the difference between what everyone else thought a player was worth and what clever ol' you had worked out he was really worth.
Lewis is a tough man to categorise. "Business writer" doesn't fully capture the breadth of the subjects he has covered since Liar's Poker came out in 1989. The 12 books since have ranged over presidential politics (Trail Fever, 1997), internet technology (The New New Thing, 1999) and fatherhood (Home Game, 2009), as well as finance. Far better to think of Lewis as a biographer. He is able to tell lively, vivid tales on dry, opaque subjects like baseball statistics and high yield bond trading because he illuminates them through the stories of extraordinary individuals, mavericks, oddballs and misfits almost to a man.
Lewis has managed to inveigle his way into the lives of so many of his characters – to possess them, even, in the way a fiction writer might possess his creations – yet he seems to have made no enemies of any of them along the way. Undoubtedly, it is Lewis's Southern charm. Perhaps also the enduring boyish good looks.
Michael Lewis was the first of three children born, in 1960, to the corporate attorney Thomas Lewis and community organiser Diana Monroe Lewis, New Orleans aristocracy. He had a privileged upbringing and a good education. Lewis studied art history at Princeton University, where he was a member of the elite Ivy Club (and mightily annoyed not to have become its president), before going on to a postgraduate course at the London School of Economics.
His move into the City of London was natural enough, the result of sitting next to the wife of a Salomon Brothers managing director at a posh dinner, but Lewis had always fancied himself as a writer. Pleased with his 150-page Princeton thesis on Donatello, he asked his tutors what they thought of his style, only to be put out when they told him, "Never try to make a living as a writer."
And that was how it was looking at one point. The New Orleans Times-Picayune rejected for publication his first submission, about what happened when he organised for 15 neighbours to order deliveries from 15 pizza restaurants and watched a race unfold.
But then there were the horrors of Salomon Brothers. Traders barely saw a difference between the high-stakes chance games they played among themselves (Liar's Poker was the name of one such game) and the multimillion-pound bets they were placing in the markets. Managers would hurl phones at subordinates for the hell of it. The cigar-chomping chief executive John Gutfreund ruled by fear. It would all make for a better book, Lewis decided, than it would a career.
And so Lewis set about making himself a better writer, a writer capable of becoming Wall Street's and the City of London's most searing critic. At 5.15pm, after close of trading at Salomon, he would decamp to the offices of Business magazine. Its editor, Stephen Fay, became a mentor, as did Michael Kinsley of The New Republic in the US, both of whom published Lewis's anonymous exposés of life on the trading floor and helped him to hone his writing for Liar's Poker.
Colleagues at Business remember him in the preppy uniform of the American upper-middle class, white shoes up on the desk, regaling them with tales of society parties and high-end restaurants. His self-confidence was enormous; such was his charm that few people wanted to call it arrogance. "He was very conscious of his own worth," one early editor recalls, politely.
At times he has had to defend himself from catty profilers elsewhere in the media. A Vanity Fair hatchet job entitled "All that glitters" emphasised his privilege and his luck, and aired the grievances of ex-lovers, prompting some rueful reflection. His second marriage (to the model turned business writer Kate Bohner), he is fond of saying, was punishment for his first (to his college sweetheart). Lewis married former MTV presenter Tabitha Soren in 1997 and they have two daughters and a son.
Liar's Poker was meant to be a searing indictment of a crazed culture that couldn't last, except that for the following 20 years it not only lasted but got more and more out of control. Each autumn, the new intake of trainees at the giant investment banks could be seen on the Tube or the New York subway reading Lewis's book, not as a warning but as a how-to guide.
The Big Short was billed as a sequel; perhaps it was a corrective. Boomerang, too, takes the bankers to task. More such tales will be forthcoming, Lewis promises, and more searing magazine articles about Goldman and the rest. Lewis is, and will remain, everywhere. Vampire squids fighting.
A life in brief
Born: 15 October 1960, New Orleans.
Family: Father was a corporate lawyer and his mother a community activist. Married twice previously, he wed former MTV reporter Tabitha Soren in 1997 with whom he has two daughters and one son.
Education: BA in art history, Princeton, 1982; MSc in economics from London School of Economics in 1985.
Career: He joined Salomon Brothers' training programme before working as a bond salesman in its London office. He resigned to become a financial journalist and wrote Liar's Poker (1989). Went on to write 14 non-fiction books including The Blind Side, Moneyball and Boomerang.
He says: "I've found the financial system financially and morally unsustainable for a long, long time."
They say: "A writer to watch." Tom Wolfe, author
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