Fool’s Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe

By Gillian Tett | Free Press | $26, 304 pages

I can’t imagine there’s a better vehicle to tell the story of credit derivatives—the financial instruments that laid the groundwork for the financial crisis—than the one Gillian Tett uses in Fool’s Gold. The author, a top reporter and columnist for the Financial Times, views the whole mess through the prism of a single company: JPMorgan Chase. As Tett sees it, the firm essentially invented the credit derivative, proselytized for it, and then avoided most of the excesses it enabled, only to watch it send the entire industry into a free fall.

That Tett has written a readable book about credit-default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, asset-backed securities, and so on, is itself an accomplishment (though it ain’t exactly beach reading). But she has a good story here, too, taking us inside the genesis of the crisis. It all began at a Boca Raton hotel in 1994, where a rambunctious crew of idealistic bankers broke noses, threw bosses into the pool, and conceptualized the financial product that would cause the near-destruction of the world economy a little more than a decade later. It’s fascinating to follow this crew over the next fifteen years, as they navigate the shoals created by their own invention.

As with so many inventions, though, the idea of the credit-default swap wasn’t truly invented by the J.P. Morgan crew—they were just the first to fully realize its potential. A credit-default swap is essentially an insurance contract purchased to protect against (or speculate on) the possibility that an entity will default on its payment obligations. If you lend money to Company X but want to hedge your risk, you buy a CDS from Company Y protecting against the possibility of a collapse at Company X.

According to the gospel of financial innovation, these instruments dispersed risk throughout the economy, making the system more secure. But they also had perverse consequences, which the industry surely must have foreseen. For instance, if you loan somebody money and insure yourself against the risk that he won’t be able to pay you back, you have less incentive to make sure he can, you know, pay you back.

Tett describes the thinking of Blythe Masters, one of the key creators of CDS, on separating risk from lending: “Doing so would overturn one of the fundamental rules of banking: that default risk is an inevitable liability of the business…. For the first time in history, banks would be able to make loans without carrying all, or perhaps even any, of the risk involved themselves.”

Therein lies the genesis of the bubble, along with the easy-money policies of the Federal Reserve. Allowing banks to offload risk enabled them to lend more and more money at a pace the economy wasn’t able to absorb. Meanwhile, collateralized debt obligations were turbo-boosted: the banks had a new incentive to push mortgage companies for more loans, so they could shovel them off to hungry investors and reap the giant fees.

From the beginning, J.P. Morgan saw serious flaws in the mortgage securitization racket, and mostly avoided it, despite serious temptation as the market poured buckets of money into competitors in 2005 and 2006. It beggars belief that Morgan’s bankers were the only ones smart enough to see through the scheme. But Tett makes clear the competitive pressures that kept nearly everyone else “dancing,” in the infamous words of Citigroup’s ex-CEO Chuck Prince.

She’s also good on the decades-long run-up to the explosion in credit derivatives, and her catalog of regulatory missteps is cringe-inducing. In 1987, for example, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates derivatives like corn futures, proposed to regulate the precursors to CDS. It was promptly slapped down by the financial lobby. (A decade later, CFTC head Brooksley Born fought a heroic but losing battle to regulate CDS themselves.)

Bill Clinton, taking office in 1993, had campaigned on “an anti-Wall Street stance,” and would have presumably kept the industry on a short leash. But he folded when “faced with the formidable lobbying power of Wall Street,” and would later empower anti-regulatory characters like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.