JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 14, 2011
It took me a while, but I finally found time to read Michael Lewis's latest masterpiece, this one about the Irish financial meltdown. One of his extraordinary qualities is the ability to find fascinating characters. This scene concerns, at best, the third-most interesting character in the story:
The bank analyst who had been most prescient and interesting about the Irish banks worked for Merrill Lynch. His name was Philip Ingram. In his late 20s, and a bit quirky—at the University of Cambridge he had studied zoology—Ingram had done something original and useful: he’d shined a new light on the way Irish banks lent against commercial real estate.
The commercial-real-estate loan market is generally less transparent than the market for home loans. Deals between bankers and property developers are one-offs, on terms unknown to all but a few insiders. The parties to any loan always claim it is prudent: a bank analyst has little choice but to take them at their word. But Ingram was skeptical of the Irish banks. He had read Morgan Kelly’s newspaper articles and even paid Kelly a visit in his university office. To Ingram’s eyes, there undoubtedly appeared to be a vast difference between what the Irish banks were saying and what was really happening. To get at it he ignored what they were saying and went looking for knowledgeable insiders in the commercial-property market. He interviewed them, as a journalist might. On March 13, 2008, six months before the Irish real-estate Ponzi scheme collapsed, Ingram published a report, in which he simply quoted verbatim what British market insiders had told him about various banks’ lending to commercial real estate. The Irish banks were making far riskier loans in Ireland than they were in Britain, but even in Britain, the report revealed, they were the nuttiest lenders around: in that category, Anglo Irish, Bank of Ireland, and A.I.B. came, in that order, first, second, and third.
For a few hours the Merrill Lynch report was the hottest read in the London financial markets, until Merrill Lynch retracted it. Merrill had been a lead underwriter of Anglo Irish’s bonds and the corporate broker to A.I.B.: they’d earned huge sums of money off the growth of Irish banking. Moments after Phil Ingram hit the Send button on his report, the Irish banks called their Merrill Lynch bankers and threatened to take their business elsewhere. The same executive from Anglo Irish who had called to scream at Morgan Kelly called a Merrill research analyst to scream some more. Ingram’s superiors at Merrill Lynch hauled him into meetings with in-house lawyers, who toned down the report’s pointed language and purged it of its damning quotes from market insiders, including its many references to Irish banks. And from that moment everything Ingram wrote about Irish banks was edited, and bowdlerized by Merrill Lynch’s lawyers. At the end of 2008, Merrill fired him. One of Ingram’s colleagues, a fellow named Ed Allchin, was also made to apologize to Merrill’s investment bankers individually for the trouble he’d caused them by suggesting there was still money to be made on shorting Irish banks.
It's a remarkable anecdote, but it's stuck in the middle of the piece because there's simply so much incredible material in the story.
Meanwhile, here's a very fun little piece Michael wrote for TNR in 2007.