I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay

I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay

by John Lanchester

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For most people, the reasons for the sudden collapse of our economy still remain obscure. I.O.U. is the story of how we came to experience such a complete financial disaster, starting with the magical proliferation of credit that led to an explosion of lending on the global and local landscapes of banking and finance. Viewing the crisis through the lens of politics, culture, and contemporary history—from the invention and widespread misuse of financial instruments to the culpability of subprime mortgages—Lanchester deftly draws conclusions on the limitations of financial and governmental regulation, capitalism’s deepest flaw, and most important, on the plain and simple facts of human nature where cash is concerned.

With newly updated, superbly written reportage, Lanchester delivers a shrewd perspective and a digestible, comprehensive analysis that connects the dots for expert and casual reader alike. Part economic primer, part fiscal and historical analysis, I.O.U. is an eye-opener of a book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439169872
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 01/05/2010
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 928,843
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John Lanchester is the author of the novels The Debt to Pleasure, Mr. Phillips, and Fragrant Harbor; and a memoir, Family Romance. He is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Observer, and The Daily Telegraph, among others. Among several other prizes, including the Whitbread and Hawthornden Awards, Lanchester was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt


  • Annie Hall is a film with many great moments, and for me the best of them is the movie’s single scene with Annie’s younger brother, Duane Hall, played by Christopher Walken, the first of his long, brilliant career of cinema weirdos. Visiting the Hall family home, Alvy Singer—that’s Woody Allen—bumps into Duane, who immediately shares a fantasy:

    “Sometimes when I’m driving . . . on the road at night . . . I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The . . . flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.”

    It’s Alvy’s reply which makes the scene: “Right. Well, I have to—I have to go now, Duane, because I, I’m due back on the planet Earth.”

    I’ve never shared Duane Hall’s wish to turn across the road into the oncoming headlights. I have to admit, though, that I have sometimes had a not-too-distant thought. It’s a thought which never hits me in town, or in traffic, or when there’s anyone else in the car, but when I’m on my own in the country, zooming down an empty road, with the radio on, and everything is moving free and clear, as it hardly ever is with today’s traffic, but when it is, I sometimes have a fleeting thought, one I’ve never acted on and hope I never will. The thought is this: what would happen if I chose this moment to put the car into reverse?

    When you ask car buffs that, the first thing they do is to give you a funny look. Then they give you another funny look. Then they explain that what would happen is that the car’s engine would basically explode: bits of it would burst through other bits, rods would fly through the air, the carburetor would burst into fragments, there would be incredible noise and smell and smoke, and you would swerve off the road and crash with the certainty of serious injury and the high probability of death. These explanations are sufficiently convincing that I find that the thought of putting the car into reverse flits across my mind only very temporarily, for about half a second at a time, say once every two or three years. I’m sure it’s something I’ll never do.

    For the first years of the new millennium, the whole planet was zooming along, doing the equivalent of seventy on a clear road on a sunny day. Between 2000 and 2006, public discourse in the Western world was dominated by the election of George W. Bush, the attacks of 9/11, the “global war on terror” and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But while all that was happening, something momentous was taking place, not quite unnoticed but with bizarrely little notice: the world’s wealth was almost doubling. In 2000, the total GDP of Earth—the sum total of all the economic activity on the planet—was $36 trillion.I By the end of 2006, it was $70 trillion. In the developed world, so much attention was given to the bust in dot-com shares in 2000—“the greatest destruction of capital in the history of the world,” as it was called at the time—that no one noticed the way the Western economies bounced back. The stock market was relatively stagnant, for reasons I’ll go into later, but other sectors of the economy were booming. So was the rest of the planet. An editorial in The Economist in 1999 pointed out that the price of oil was now down to $10 a barrel, and issued a solemn warning: it might not stay there: there were reasons for thinking the price of oil might go to $5 a barrel. Ha!

    By July 2008 the price of oil had risen to $147.70 a barrel, and as a result the oil-producing countries were awash with cash. From the Arab world to Russia to Venezuela, the treasury departments of all oil-producing countries resembled the scene in The Simpsons in which Monty Burns and his assistant, Smithers, pick up wads of cash and throw them at each other while shouting “Money fight!” The demand for oil was so avid because large sections of the developing world, especially India and China, were undergoing unprecedented levels of economic growth. Both countries suddenly had a hugely expanding, highly consuming new middle class. China’s GDP was averaging growth of 10.8 percent a year, India’s 8.9 percent. In fifteen years, India’s middle class, using a broad definition of the term meaning the section of the population who had escaped from poverty, grew from 147 million to 264 million; China’s went from 174 million to 806 million, arguably the greatest economic achievement anywhere on Earth, ever. Chinese personal income grew by 6.6 percent a year from 1978 to 2004, four times as fast as the world average. Thirty million Chinese children are taking piano lessons. Two-fifths of all Indian secondary school boys have regular after-school tuition. When you have two and a quarter billion people living in countries whose economies are booming in that way, you are living on a planet with a whole new economic outlook. Hundreds of millions of people are measurably richer and have new expectations to match. So oil is up, manufacturing is up, the price of commodities—the stuff which goes to make stuff—is up, the economy of (almost) the entire planet is booming. Who knows, optimists think, with the global economy growing at this rate, we can perhaps begin to think seriously about meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development goals, such as halving the number of hungry people, and of people whose income is less than $1 a day, by 2015.1 That seemed utopian at the time the goals were set, but with the world $34 trillion richer, it suddenly looked as if this unprecedented target might be achieved.

    And then it was as if the global economy went out one day and decided it was zooming along so well, there’d never be a better moment to try that thing of putting the car into reverse. The result . . . well, out of what seemed to most people a clear blue sky, the clearest blue sky ever, there was a colossal wreck. That left an awful lot of people wondering one simple thing: what happened?

    I’ve been following the economic crisis for more than two years now. I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found. While I was beginning to work on it, the British bank Northern Rock blew up, and it became clear that, as I wrote at the time, “If our laws are not extended to control the new kinds of super-powerful, super-complex, and potentially super-risky investment vehicles, they will one day cause a financial disaster of global-systemic proportions.” I also wrote, apropos the obvious bubble in property prices, that “you would be forgiven for thinking that some sort of crash is imminent.” I was both right and too late, because all the groundwork for the crisis had already been done—though the sluggishness of the world’s governments, in not preparing for the great unraveling of autumn 2008, was then and still is stupefying. But this is the first reason why I wrote this book: because what’s happened is extraordinarily interesting. It is an absolutely amazing story, full of human interest and drama, one whose byways of mathematics, economics, and psychology are both central to the story of the last decades and mysteriously unknown to the general public. We have heard a lot about “the two cultures” of science and the arts—we heard a particularly large amount about it in 2009, because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the speech during which C. P. Snow first used the phrase. But I’m not sure the idea of a huge gap between science and the arts is as true as it was half a century ago—it’s certainly true, for instance, that a general reader who wants to pick up an education in the fundamentals of science will find it easier than ever before. It seems to me that there is a much bigger gap between the world of finance and that of the general public and that there is a need to narrow that gap, if the financial industry is not to be a kind of priesthood, administering to its own mysteries and feared and resented by the rest of us. Many bright, literate people have no idea about all sorts of economic basics, of a type that financial insiders take as elementary facts of how the world works. I am an outsider to finance and economics, and my hope is that I can talk across that gulf.

    My need to understand is the same as yours, whoever you are. That’s one of the strangest ironies of this story: after decades in which the ideology of the Western world was personally and economically individualistic, we’ve suddenly been hit by a crisis which shows in the starkest terms that whether we like it or not—and there are large parts of it that you would have to be crazy to like—we’re all in this together. The aftermath of the crisis is going to dominate the economics and politics of our societies for at least a decade to come and perhaps longer. It’s important that we try to understand it and begin to think about what’s next.

    I. GDP, which will be mentioned quite a few times in this story, sounds complicated but isn’t: it’s nothing more than the value of all the goods and services produced in an economy. GDP per capita, measuring each individual’s piece of the country’s pie, is the standard measure of prosperity.

  • Table of Contents

    Introduction 1

    1 The ATM Moment 7

    2 Rocket Science 45

    3 Boom and Bust 81

    4 Enter the Geniuses 111

    5 The Mistake 133

    6 Funny Smells 169

    7 The Bill 213

    Epilogue 233

    Acknowledgments 251

    Sources 253

    Notes 257

    Index 263

    What People are Saying About This

    From the Publisher

    "A fine introduction to the latest financial frenzy, with a suitable degree of outrage." —-The Wall Street Journal

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    I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
    jj39 More than 1 year ago
    This book is undoubtedly the most informative of the "WHY" books and articles being published today about the world economic mess. Not only is it full of precisely explained facts but it is also full of metaphors that will have tears rolling down reader faces. *One such metaphor is about deregulation and how the lifeguards (regulators)secretly poured blood into the water because they wanted to liven up the action with sharks. *A casino attitude created the most destructive tool of all, the credit default swap or CDS. The metaphor used by the author on CDSs is one of using the invention of seat belts as the opportunity to take up drunk driving. *Derivatives, products derived from real things (as in mortgages), are projected by banksters to have a greater value assigned to the derivative than to the underlying real thing (the mortgages). The summary metaphor on derivatives is a classic: "In an ideal world, one populated by vegetarians, Esperanto speakers, and fluffy bunny wabbits, derivatives would be used for one thing only: to reduce risk." Instead, derivatives wildly increased risk. *Think about the cozy relationships between banks and states after 1989 (the fall of the Berlin wall) and you will see why the Japanese economy was changed into a comatose onlooker of global growth. *The US banking sector has become so rich and powerful that it has excessive influence on US government policy....as in banks "too big to fail." This is why the zombie banks run by banksters have continued to be propped up by the government. *The free market theory apparently has become a secular religion even though the rules governing markets were never handed down on stone tablets. Human beings create markets and human error destroys markets. Readers who want a clear understanding of the problems in the world economy will gain insights from "IOU." A terrific book! Julia Hughes Jones, author of The Secret History of 'Weeds' or What Women Need To Know About Their History.
    willyvan More than 1 year ago
    This is an outstandingly good introduction to our current economic plight. Writer John Lanchester explains the crisis in simple and humorous terms. The banks' larger profits and bonuses came not because they were doing anything better, but just because they were making bigger bets. Between 1986 and 2006, the average return per year on banking shares rose from 2 per cent to 16 per cent. Andrew Haldane, of the Bank of England, explained, "Since 2000, rising leverage fully accounts for movements in UK banks' ROE [return on equity] - both the rise to around 24% in 2007 and the subsequent fall into negative territory in 2008." Lanchester points out, "If we had joined the euro and our mortgages were tied to those groovily low euro interest rates, money would have been even cheaper, and credit even more easily available, so the housing bubble would have been even bigger, and the crash correspondingly crashier. (Two examples of countries where that happened: Ireland and Spain.)" Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan admitted, "The consequent surge in global demand for US subprime securities by banks, hedge, and pension funds supported by unrealistically positive rating designations by credit agencies was, in my judgment, the core of the problem." Lanchester observes, "the credit crunch was based on a climate (the post-Cold War victory party of free-market capitalism), a problem (the sub-prime mortgages), a mistake (the mathematical models of risk) and a failure, that of the regulators." As he notes, "the process of lending is no longer driven the legitimate desire of poor-but-reliable people to own a house, but is instead a manufactured process driven by capital which is set loose looking for people to sign up loans. An epidemic began of what has come to be known as 'predatory lending': mortgage lenders doing everything they could to sign up borrowers at higher-than-ordinary, sub-prime interest rates, so that the debt they created could then be pooled and securitized and sold on as tranches of various grades of CDO [collateralized debt obligations]." The USA has 250,000 mortgage brokers, mostly unlicensed and unregulated. So, "we arrived in the bizarre position in which poor people struggling to pay back their mortgages had miraculously produced the world's most secure financial instruments. This was a fortunate conclusion to reach for both the banks which made money issuing the CDOs and the rating agencies which made money assessing them." Goldman Sachs "went from having to end its status as an investment bank and take federal support, in September 2008, to declaring all-time record profits - with bonuses to match - in July 2009. The bank which would have gone under without government help, and had to borrow $10 billion from the taxpayer, was less than a year later setting aside $16.8 billion in pay, bonuses and benefits for itself." In sum, it was "a huge unregulated boom in which almost all the upside went directly into private hands, followed by a gigantic bust in which the losses were socialized." The OECD rates British banks the 44th safest in the world, six places behind Botswana. Canada's banks are the world's safest, because they are regulated, and this has been good for growth - Canada's incomes have risen by 11 per cent a year since 2004. Lanchester proposes, "The change should be that, if a bank (broadly defined) receives any taxpayers' money, the existing shareholders are (broadly speak
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This book is well written, fast-paced and on target. I bought the ebook version, which is terrific: I can access it easily on my iPhone and share relevant passages with friends and colleagues. Lanchester is a gifted writer who weaves the story of the economic crisis with strands of cultural literacy, history and even emotion. I recommend this book to anyone who wonders, "what the heck happened?" and "what in the devil is a derivative?" Now, thanks to this book, we can all know the answers.
    rbartholomew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The 2008 financial crisis from a British point of view, well explained in plain language.
    rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Short, readable, and not very deep book on the financial crisis, though he¿s quite mad at the bankers and writes engagedly and enragedly about the stupidity of the risk analysis they undertook. A British perspective makes this different from many of the financial crisis books I¿ve read; Britain is the closest to the U.S. in ideology¿both bank-related and homeownership-related¿in Europe, so the similarities are quite striking.
    KeithAkers on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The strong point of this book was that it had a very good explanation of all those complicated financial instruments, the CDOs and derivatives and things. It showed that there was originally a rational purpose for them but that they are just being used for no particular purpose except speculation. It's really odd that the people who wrote all of these bad mortgages were immediately selling them to other willing buyers, with the thought that they had gotten rid of risk by spreading it out. Interestingly, there is very little about peak oil or resource depletion issues, which in my mind is driving the whole credit bubble (see Jeff Rubin, Gail Tverberg, Chris Martenson, etc. on this subject). I think he would acknowledge that this is an issue, and equally interesting, the last sentence of the book does just that: "In a world running out of resources, the most important ethical, political, and ecological idea can be summed up in one simple word: 'enough.'" It would have been nice to see a discussion of this, although if he had devoted a lot of attention to this subject, it would have been a substantially different book.
    Clif on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    From time to time I like to read about the recent financial collapse in an effort to try to understand what happened. This book is written by an author who normally writes novels, so he knows how to explain things very simply. In the early part of the book it was so simple that I thought it might insult my intelligence. But my mind got stretched soon enough. He used simple fictional examples to try to illustrate how each new financial instrument worked. I think I almost understand now what derivatives are, but don't ask me to explain it.When it's all over and we look back on what happened, it's a case where all the profits from the boom years went into private hands, and when things went bust it was public money (taxpayers) that cleaned up the mess. It's anything but fair. Looking to the future the author says that we will probably look back on the 20 years prior to the financial collapse as the golden years because our future economy will be weighted down paying off the rescue payments. Even if the resulting national debts are not paid off, the lingering burden of paying the interest costs will limit public spending in other areas.It¿s all a lesson in how financial incentives can lead intelligent people to do stupid things. When I say stupid, I¿m thinking of the college educated math whizzes who calculated the odds of a nation-wide collapse in housing prices to be less than on in a billion (i.e. impossible). The problem was that their models were based on history that did not include a boom in subprime mortgages (i.e. a changed condition). The following quote from the book is a good illustration of why statistics are not good at predicting financial markets:¿¿how do we know that the normative distribution applies to events in financial markets? The way in which people move and jostle around a room might be plotted and mapped with statistical tools and shown to resemble something like a normative distribution¿sometimes people are over here, somewhere in the middle. But shout ¿Fire!¿ and the movement of people in the room will look very different¿it will feature a stampede toward the exits.¿Perhaps those math whizzes need to study more chaos theory.One interesting observation is that not a single bank in Canada has gone broke during the past couple years. The author suggests (presumably in jest) that they were spared because of their propensity of not act like their ultra free wheeling capitalistic neighbors to the south. Their desire to not be like us saved them from doing stupid stuff like us. So they owe us a big word of thanks for our being such a positive influence on them. Actually there is a rational explanation for the Canadians conservatism in banking. They had their own banking crisis about a decade ago, and they fixed it with stringent banking laws. The rest of the world in contrast moved into the direction of total deregulation.On the lighter side, here¿s my favorite quote from the book:¿I¿d like to think he would have enjoyed the old joke about accountants: ¿What¿s two plus two?¿ ¿What would you like it to be?¿ "The above quote is referring to the fact that Luca Pacioli, the first person to write (in the 15th Century) a book that laid out the method of double-entry bookkeeping was also a writer about magic, in the sense of conjuring. No doubt if he were living today he would have also written a book about mortgage backed derivatives. Speaking of big words, have you heard of the following words?--Collateralized Debt Obligations--Collateralized Debt Swaps--Synthetic Asset-Backed Security--Off-Shore Special-Purpose EntityThis book does a good job at trying to explain what these words mean. Using tools such as these the big investment banks figured out ways to make money available for loans ¿risk free.¿ Their system allowed them to keep loaning the same dollar hundreds of times over without any of the corresponding risk obligations sho
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Result two?
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    His brow furrowed. "You have lied to me. Now, you will be punished. Bend over."
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Waits for frosthawk.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    A rather dry account of the financial crisis. Check all bankers are bad, check people with money are bad, check all bond brokers are evil, geez can someone come up with something new to write about. After reading Endgame - this book fell way short of saying the same thing.
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    cinmor More than 1 year ago
    I've always "considered" myself intelligent, but I had a very difficult time reading I.O.U.. I repeatedly had to go over the same paragraph to comprehend the meaning of the author's words. This occurred through out the book. Others may find enjoyment in this book and economics may just not be my forte!