House of Cards by William D. Cohan (Doubleday, $33)
If the financial crisis had an official start date, it was March 5, 2008, when Bear Stearns, one of Wall Street’s most profitable and notorious investment banks, seized up. Eleven days later Bear was dead. This book tells the story of its demise and offers unforgettable mugshots of the feral pack of boy-men who ran the place. They sometimes seemed more concerned with playing bridge than looking after their business. Our take: A dense, fascinating book. If you thought investment bankers were mostly hard-working, wise and careful, you will go away with a different opinion.
Weekly Market Comment (www.hussmanfunds.com, free)
Most financial managers write bland reports stuffed with pomposities. John Hussman doesn’t. His Weekly Market Comment offers a cantankerous, detailed critique of exactly what policy-makers and the markets have got wrong. Our take: Hussman has the right stuff, including a PhD in economics and an eye-popping investment record. He’s a pro’s pro, one of the money managers that other money managers keep a close eye on. You can only profit by reading him.
Animal Spirits by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller (Princeton University Press, $32.50)
Economists should be ashamed: few of them saw the financial crisis coming. Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winner, and Shiller, a Yale professor, believe that economists failed to raise a warning because they chose to ignore crowd psychology—what used to be called “animal spirits.” By leaving stories and emotions out of their equations, economists missed the beating heart of the market. Our take: Akerlof and Shiller are convincing and scary. If they’re right, and policy-makers continue to ignore animal spirits, more breakdowns lie ahead.
Soros by Robert Slater (McGraw-Hill, $33.95)
George Soros spent part of his teenage years living under an assumed name and fleeing Nazis. A few decades later, he made billions shorting the British pound. Today, he is one of the world’s most successful investors and a major donor to liberal causes. This book tells the tale of a man who has always been able to thrive in crisis. Our take: There is a great book to be written about Soros. Unfortunately this isn’t it. It provides a workmanlike overview of Soros’s career, but little insight into the man or what made him such a great investor.
Baseline Scenario (www.baselinescenario.com, free)
Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is now a professor at MIT—and a blogger. His Baseline Scenario (produced with James Kwak and Peter Boone) delivers smart, snappy commentary on the current mess. Johnson’s central thesis is that policy-makers have given away far too much to Wall Street’s golden boys. Our take: Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how financial whiz kids could have steered the global economy into its worst quagmire since the Great Depression. Especially recommended is the “Financial crisis for beginners” section.