Meltdown Forensics

Some of the players are still trying to explain what happened in the crisis. So they can blame somebody else

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Illustration by Kagan McLeod for TIME

By now, you know what pushed the U.S. economy to the brink two years ago: predatory mortgage lending fueled by greed, hubris, gullibility and lemming logic — the usual suspects.

If you still have the stomach for economic forensics, pick up Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager. This short, illuminating set of interviews with one savvy, articulate Wall Streeter was conducted from late 2007 through mid-'09 for the website of the literary journal n+1, of all places.

As the likes of the titanic Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers sink, Mr. Anonymous displays a deep, trading-honed intelligence, sharp analytical skills and a strong grasp of history to explain not only what was happening but also why it happened — breakdowns in ratings-agency standards, tepid regulatory intervention, an appalling lapse in common sense up and down the Street — in a bracing, no-nonsense manner.

Add a dash of gallows humor — "We have a beautiful country; I happen to live in a very ugly corner of it, but that doesn't take away from the overall beauty of it," he writes — and it adds up to a penetrating, educational and at times harrowing play-by-play. So unnerving, in fact, that when the discussions wrap, Mr. Hedge Fund eventually flees Manhattan for Austin, an effort to restart his life, if not an escape from an economy that has produced little of value in the past 10 years.

On the flip side, skip The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane, Randall Lane's overblown in-crowd account of his ride as a grasping publisher of cheesy Wall Street vanity magazines. Devoid of insight, depth and perspective, The Zeroes, inadvertently or not, portrays the irritatingly smug Lane as an inept businessman and a tool, unfit to credibly analyze anything beyond a speed-eating contest.

If you're into seeing scores settled, check out Alan C. Greenberg's The Rise and Fall of Bear Stearns, a short don't-blame-me account of his storied firm's collapse in 2008. Masquerading as an autobiography, it's actually Greenberg's stage for getting even with Jimmy Cayne, his megalomaniacal successor as CEO at what used to be one of the world's largest investment banks.

When he's not rummaging through the developments — among them was, of course, some dodgy hedge-fund trading that triggered an eventual run on the bank — leading to JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s bargain-basement purchase of Bear Stearns two years ago, Greenberg is calling Cayne every name in the book, slamming him as incompetent, intransigent, egotistical and delusional. Cayne, according to ol' Ace, was a boss who fiddled — actually, he smoked a lot of pot and played a lot of bridge — as Bear burned.

You certainly can't feel sorry for these greedheads. But one wonders about Greenberg's state of mind. In flatly and robotically describing himself as merely a past-prime executive put out to pasture when Cayne took over Bear, Greenberg, 83, displays an astonishing I-knew-nothing detachment from the disaster that followed. He doesn't so much look back in anger as he does in bewilderment and befuddlement, which strikes an odd chord throughout the book.

If, however, his version is the way things actually played out in Bear's sad demise, Greenberg ought to be a hell of a lot more bitter and retributive than he comes off.