Michael Lewis has a gift for explaining technology and finance through oddball characters and quirky humor. In Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, the author of Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, Panic and The Big Short regales us with his adventures in what he calls "financial disaster tourism."
Lewis' reporting takes him to the struggling European countries of Iceland, Ireland and Greece, whose debt problems have been much in the news lately. He also visits Germany, whose potential to bail out its neighbors is Europe's last best hope, and returns, finally, to his native California, where high fixed labor costs and federal and state budget cuts have forced many municipalities into crisis.
Lewis segues from Icelandic fishermen-turned-bankers to savvy Greek monks and Irish real estate speculators as he tracks the financial follies that imperil Europe's economic stability. Borrowing money one couldn't pay back, it turns out, was not just an American disease; it was an epidemic that infected much of the Western Hemisphere, with adverse economic effects that are still being felt both here and abroad. Following the twists and turns of Boomerang, adapted from Lewis' recent articles in Vanity Fair, it's sometimes hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
AARP Bulletin spoke to Lewis about the book.
Q. What were the origins of 'Boomerang'?
A. I was working on The Big Short, about the subprime crisis in America. It was right after Lehmann Brothers failed and the U.S. government stepped in and basically said, "No more banks are going to fail." You could see the same sort of thing happening around the world, banks everywhere being backstopped by their governments. And I knew that the United States banking system, big as it was, was actually small compared to our economy. The U.S. could afford to bail out the banks, as miserable as it was to do it. Other countries could not. What did that mean? In other countries, the credibility of the countries was going to be called into question.
Q. Can you be specific?
A. If you take all the assets in the banks in the United States and divide it by the size of the gross domestic product, you get 20 percent. In Iceland, it was 800 percent. So the country was incapable of bailing out its banks.
Q. You describe yourself as a "financial disaster tourist." What does such a tourist look for?
A. He is looking at societies through the prism of money and the way they handle the temptation of money.
Q. You focus on three failing economies, Iceland, Ireland and Greece. What do they have in common?
A. What unifies these stories is the credit bubble. From there, they diverged pretty wildly. They each had different things they wanted to do with money.
Q. For instance?
A. Iceland wanted to create a global financial center in Iceland. They wanted to cease doing what they did for a living, which was fish, and become bankers. Almost overnight, the culture was transformed. The impulse was to conquer the world outside Iceland. The story they told themselves was essentially, "We are suited to be tycoons."
Q. What about the Irish?
A. The Irish took the money and turned inwards with it. The Irish frenzy was entirely focused on Irish real estate. What they wanted to do was to gain control of their own land, which is an atavistic impulse because their history with England left them dispossessed. They created a fantastic real estate bubble.