Despite reading the 300-page narrative on how John Paulson rose from an identikit hedge fund manager into one of the biggest financial earners in history, you leave with little sense of what the man was like. A minor playboy in his youth, a penchant for muted suits and ties, and obsessive perfectionist (surely a prerequisite for a successful fund manager), Paulson is the antithesis of his fund strategy doing exactly the opposite of everyone else. This contrarian market strategy made his fund $15 billion in one year, and $4 billion in his pocket; figures now etched into the cover of every MBAs pencil case.
Paulson is not the only character. Zuckerman also covers Paulsons friend Jeffrey Greene, a west coast property billionaire who asks Mike Tyson to be his best man and odd choice, Tyson not known to be responsible in the ring. However, Greene obscures Paulson as the lead character whenever we swans onto the page. Zuckerman describes him as a Hollywood clich, and he is exactly right. Greene is a parody of the American dream, a man who put himself through Harvard Business School, throws extravagant parties filled with raw foods and supermodels, and is now the perfect role model for frat boys looking for an action packed career.
An archetypal quote in the New York Times highlights Greenes true colours. I had all this success and made all this money, but I didnt have anyone to share it with, said Mr. Greene who had not been in a serious relationship in more than five years. He was 51. Eventually, at 52, he married the beautiful Mei Sze Chan, an owner of a real estate business in the Catskills.
Perhaps we should be giving credit for Paulson not being like Greene. Paulson, despite unimaginable wealth, still used to travel to work by bus. But Paulson, unlike Greene, came from somewhere; his father was Alfred Paulson, a chief financial officer for Ruder Finn. This lack of the American dream makes it a harder story to sell. There are richer people than Paulson, and Paulson did not build anything, although he played a part in bringing down a few egos on the way. This is not Paulsons fault, but means that todays modern day Rockefeller, Michael Bloomberg (politics aside), will be remembered as a man of immense wealth long after Paulson, for Bloomberg created something tangible (although Paulsons investors would argue that $15 billion is tangible enough).
The other major character is Paolo Pellegrini, Paulsons analyst, and the man who made the model that showed that if house prices stopped rising, subprime mortgages were destined for the economic dustbin. Pellegrini seems to be somewhat of a failure before landing at Paulsons fund, previously getting fired by two investment banks for being a poor salesman. Six foot two, and socially awkward, whilst at Lazard trying to sell Xerox Corps failing life-insurance subsidiary, he told the firms executives: You can turn chicken shit into chicken salad in this market. He did not last long. His personal life was also a disaster, getting divorced from a New York heiress after demanding the pre-nup agreement was sweetened.
Zuckerman is exemplary at explaining the complexities of the sub-prime market, but unlike financial writers such as Michael Lewis or William Cohen, he fails to draw out the more interesting characters. Paulson may have made the most money, but Pellegrini and Greene were the volatile potential car crashes we wanted to hear about.
But perhaps the main reason Paulsons trade loses some of its lustre, is its association with ABACUS, the CDO deal involving Goldman Sachs, the SEC, and a $500 million settlement all of which came public after the books publication.
In the paperback edition, the front cover attempts to redress the balance: Includes The Inside Story Of The Goldman Sachs Scandal. However, Fabulous Fab gets no mention in the index, whereas Heidi Fleiss gets two. Zuckerman does note that Bear Stearns turned Paulson away when the latter pitched his now infamous ABACUS trade for failing its ethics standards. There has been much made on whether Paulson is culpable in the ABACUS case, but if it failed one Wall Street ethics test, then it surely should have failed them all? Perhaps Zuckermans admiration for a man who made $4 billion in one year prevented him from digging deeper into the ABACUS trade, a trade that due to the SEC settlement never questioned the extend of Paulsons involvement. Whether he is exonerated of found guilty, this chapter in Paulsons career needs to be closed if we are to admire the man the way Zuckerman wants us to.