Capital Sins

Capital Sins

Péchés Capitaux, le Roman de la Crise Financière
[Capital Sins, the Novel of the Financial Crisis]
By Sophie Gherardi
Bernard Grasset, Paris, 2009

The seven deadly sins (capital vices), according to Saint Thomas Aquinas: superbia/pride, avaritia/greed, luxuria/lust, invidia/envy, gula/gluttony, ira/wrath, acedia/ sloth.

A short review of “Péchés Capitaux” in Les Echos, seriously piqued this former banker’s interest; an exchange of a couple brief emails with Sophie Gherardi – deputy editor at La Tribune and former editor in chief at Le Monde – whetted it, and the reading of this unique little book wholly satisfied my expectations.

The book grew out of a series of articles – in the form of short stories or vignettes – that ran in France’s La Tribune last year. Gherardi felt the need to organize “the whirlpool of events” surrounding the financial crisis as it unfolded through 2007-2009 “in order to better understand – and make understood – the sequence of events – and to better know – and make known – the actors.” The result is a portrait gallery of scoundrels – and a few heroes – interspersed with a few landscape studies. The book’s conceit is an unusual one: while it sticks to the known facts with respect to the public aspects of each episode (“dates, figures, and economic data”); it also allows itself to “screenwrite”: to imagine the internal dialogues of various well-known actors, to invent characters from whose perspective the actual facts are related, to bring the characters to life by imagining flashbacks and dialogue, performing thought experiments and adopting a multiplicity of voices. While the technique is perhaps unexpected from a professional journalist, it has been used to wonderful effect to produce an accessible, as well as delightful, history of key financial crisis events that continue to unfold – and the deeper ramifications of which are yet to be fully revealed – but have already proven to represent a rupture in the course of private and public history. The book also includes a quite useful chronology from February 7, 2007, to September 25, 2009, and a brief (French) bibliography.

Book cover for Capital Sins.

One of the principle pleasures of this little book is Gherardi’s pure and limpid style, her deft treatment of morally charged issues. If Voltaire were to write about today’s financial crisis, there might be a bit more sting, but no more elegant turns of phrase and clarity. The Enlightenment, “Les Lumières” – literally, “the Lights” – in French, occurred during the darkest days of the Ancien Régime, a period not wholly unlikely our own, characterized by runaway cronyism, state-sanctioned monopolies, huge disparities in wealth, massive scams, an inflammatory press and highly variable access to the justice system. It is somehow wholly fitting that Gherardi adopt a style so like that of an 18th century “Light” to illuminate the wholly underinvestigated aspect of he financial crisis: the personal and societal moral failures to which her title makes allusion and without which there could have been no financial crisis. Adopting a literary format enables Gherardi to explore the great question, “What were they/we thinking?” Not infrequently, her response – unthinkable from a mainstream American journalist – is class based: key mistakes are ascribed to personal and institutional social climbing, Thorstein Veblen’s “emulation,” what a religious moralist might characterize as a toxic mixture of envy, pride, moral laziness and greed.

The format allows for some true poetry. Some samples of the delicious epigrammatic chapter headings and subtitles in “Capital Sins” include:

What Have You Done, Ben Bernanke?

In which the president of the US Federal Reserve observes that he has provoked a disaster. And attempts to redeem himself by saving insurance giant AIG. (A chapter in which Gherardi also refers to the “reactor core meltdown,” the full phrase vividly reminding the reader where “meltdowns” occur and pumping up the metaphor’s explanatory power and reach)

Run on Northern Rock

In which British finance rediscovers what a bank run is and in which the Labor government proves its reputation for competence wrong and ends up resigning itself to nationalizing a big bank.

Iceland Sinks at Sea

In which one observes that a little, bitty country cannot transform itself into a big, fat, hedge fund without risk.

And Trichet Becomes Unconventional

In which the president of the European Central Bank busts out of the mold. In an unprecedented crisis, he proves agile and inventive.

Putin and the Battle of the Ruble

In which Russia’s Prime Minister defends the ruble by applying Kutuzov’s tactic when confronted with the Grande Armée. But, unlike Napoleon, speculators win right down the line.

Other chapters are devoted to Angelo Mozilo and Countrywide; Jérôme Kerviel and Société Générale; Richard Fuld and Lehman Brothers; Henry Paulson and the TARP; Barack Obama getting tarred by the TARP; Warren Buffet saving Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff and his victims; Hu Jintao and the G-20. The subprime problem’s move to Europe during the summer of 2007, the Fortis bankruptcy, a forced European meeting of the minds in October 2008, that black October (but not for everyone) on the stock market, how Natixis was sustained well past its freshness date, UBS getting caught by the US IRS and a final look at finance’s bonus hunters round out the themes around which individual chapters are created.

Inevitably for such a book, more recent events throw new light on the episodes Gherardi recounts. Far more surprising is how well her analysis – based on profoundly perceptive readings of character in addition to a strong grasp of the known facts and relevant technical details – hold up: the new revelations about Lehman Brothers are wholly consistent with her portrayal of Dick Fuld; her portrayal of Obama – his hands tied and feet forever stuck in the mud of the TARP he supported four months before his inauguration – has proven prescient. When all the memoirs and the histories have been written, the psychological, moral and social insight of Sophie Gherardi’s 20 little moral tales will keep them as fresh and timeless as Aesop – or La Fontaine’s – fables.

Grasset provided a reviewer copy of “Péchés Capitaux.”