Halfway through a cranky discussion with the Observer on New York real estate development, Tom Wolfe turned with relish to the topic of the ongoing financial panic. The enthusiasm was understandable from an author who wrote an epic novel, Bonfire Of The Vanities, psychologically centered on Wall Street. First thing to understand, according to Wolfe: Investment banks like Lehman Brothers hire losers, "real second-raters" from "the bottom of the barrel" who couldn't get on at hedge funds. Of course they set your money on fire! Second thing to understand: Even these incompetents might have made do if it weren't for the evils of information technology:
The whole thing, starting with the subprime, is the fault of the computer. I was just talking to a banker the other day, and not that long ago, 20 years ago, an investment banking house, let’s say, Lehman Brothers, when it got a package of mortgages, they would go through every mortgage, every single one, and they’d throw out the ones that just seemed absurd, they just wouldn’t accept them. Things used to arrive on paper. Today things arrive on a screen, and a screen is back lit, and one of the biggest pains in the neck is trying to read something dully written and complicated on a computer screen. It will drive you nuts—I mean, try it sometime.
It's actually true that the financial crisis was caused in part by certain Collateralized Debt Obligations and other complex, devil's brew financial vehicles whose risk could only be assessed — or claimed to be assessed, really — using computer models and whose contents were poorly understood if examined in the first place. But the proper response to an investment you don't understand is to refrain from buying it, not to blame the tool that made it possible.
After all, as Wolfe should know, investment banks only started caring about boring old home mortgages when computer technology made it possible to quickly bundle and sell them on the global market. And good luck running a hedge fund without heavy use of computers and the internet.
Furthermore — wait, why are we seriously arguing finance with a novelist? Isn't there something else we can talk about, Tom?
Did I mention to you I’m pimping out my cars?