/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Sun, Sep 24 2017
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  • The Spider Network, a novelistic account of the mediocre rich men who robbed the world with Libor

    The Spider Network, a novelistic account of the mediocre rich men who robbed the world with Libor

    In 2013, we learned that the world's largest banks had spent years rigging LIBOR, an interest-rate benchmark that served as a linchpin in trillions of dollars' worth of financial instruments, a fraud that could have cost the world $500 trillion, all to fatten the banks' bottom lines and bankers' pay-packets by paltry millions. In The Spider Network, Wall Street Journal veteran reporter gives us a novelistic and remarkably easy-to-follow account of one of the most baroque frauds in finance's history, and, in so doing, reveals the rot and mediocrity at the heart of the very financial system.

    Enrich served as the WSJ's European Banking Editor during the runup to the financial crisis of 2008 and in its aftermath, as bankers who'd brought the world's economy to its knees took home huge bonuses while their employers sucked up billions in taxpayer bailouts. He found himself a confidant of Tom Hayes, the only banker to do serious time for the LIBOR scandal, and recorded hours and hours of frank interviews with Hayes and his wife.

    This affords Enrich a unique perspective on the LIBOR scandal, one that he fleshes out with admirable depth using court testimony and the astounding mountain of evidence drawn from the archived chats and voice-calls by the bankers who conspired together to rip off the entire planet.

    What emerges from the story is a picture of mediocrity clothed in tailor-made suits. Buffoonish brokers bribe odious traders with overpriced Champagne to get their business, while the whole gang wheedles lazy, asleep-at-the-switch colleagues to falsify the data in the spreadsheet cells that are treated as empirical market benchmarks but are literally just made-up numbers. Regulators look the other way, compliance officers pretend they don't see anything, and when government lawyers finally take an interest, they get halfway through their investigations before quitting their jobs and going to work for the banks they've been prosecuting, with multi-million-dollar hiring bonuses.

    Meanwhile, the crooked trading turns out to all be a socially useless casino, not "providing liquidity" or "allocating capital" or "discovering prices" but just spinning the wheel and throwing the dice with other peoples' money.

    The (mostly) men involved in the scam are painted as a thoroughly dislikable lot, but without resorting to caricature. Rather, Enrich invites us to empathize with them -- understand their motives and the framework they live in -- without sympathizing (letting them off the hook for their shitty behavior).

    Hayes is at the center of the book: on the autistic spectrum, often foolish, mathematically brilliant, personally deplorable at nearly every turn. But he is still a figure that Enrich finds empathy for, even managing the trick of getting us to root for him now and again as he bellows abuse at the people around him (it helps that most of them are no better).

    Enrich is doing important work here, making one of the most significant, complicated and boring affairs of the past decade into something accessible, exciting, and salient. This is financial writing at its best.

    The Spider Network: The Wild Story of a Math Genius, a Gang of Backstabbing Bankers, and One of the Greatest Scams in Financial History [David Enrich/Custom House]

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