March 8, 2016

Why fiction: Michael M. Thomas on Fixers


FixersIn 2009, my novel Love & Money was chosen by a friend as a “party favor” at a conference for Wall Streeters and other big hitters that he hosts every year. When the proceedings broke for lunch, a participant came over to the table where I was sitting, picked up a copy, and asked me to tell him about my book.

“Well,” I said, “it’s a novel. . .”

I got no further than that. “A novel?” he exclaimed. “Who the hell has time for that?” And he dropped the book back on the table and stalked away.

I could see his point. Most fiction explores issues of character and motive through narratives—we make up stories to explain ourselves, and these are of little interest to people whose principal, if not sole, interest in life is making money. They will buy books that purport to suggest new ways of making money, or which reveal the secrets of investment and trading deities. Fiction, though, has no place in the moral continuum they inhabit.

I come at the business of novel writing from a different perspective. All fiction is in its way a hypothesis, a speculation based on observation and reflection, and my fiction concerns itself with my curiosity about the way the world really works. I have said that, in their way, my novels are fiction for the nonfiction reader. They take real-life situations for which the on-the-record explanations and justifications are unconvincing, incomplete, or even duplicitous, and try to come up with better answers as to why matters that affect all of us have turned out the way they have.

I start with the premise, based on six decades lived close to power, money, and influence, that the Wall Street–Washington connection is an insiders’ game where momentous decisions, including the disbursement of the full faith (in several senses) and credit of the American citizen-taxpayer, are agreed to in secret. That deals are cut behind the scenes and under the table that never find their way onto the public record.

I’m interested in financial and political outcomes that make little sense, for which there might be background stories equally as plausible and potentially much more explosive than the official explanations that the media laps up. The classic example is Watergate, where Woodward and Bernstein essentially asked “Why?” about a minor break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and ended up bringing down a president.

In the case of Fixers, my curiosity was initially aroused by the announcement on November 21, 2008, two weeks after Barack Obama’s glorious victory, that the new administration’s economics/finance team would be led by Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner (in the novel, “Harley Winters” and “Thomas Holloway”).

This made no sense—no sense at all. Moreover, to voters like myself, it constituted a gross breach of trust. The financial crisis was well advanced by then: Lehman had failed, and Uncle Sam had injected tens of billions of taxpayer money into a bailout of the banks and was standing by with a bucket the size of the Titanic into which would be dumped over a trillion dollars of dubious loans. The principal culprit in bringing the crisis about was Wall Street, broadly speaking, and in his campaign, Obama had made clear that under his regime, Wall Street would be made to pay for its sins.

And yet, if reform and punishment were on the agenda, it was difficult to imagine two people less inclined to carry out such a program than Summers and Geithner, who were closely identified with the deregulation of finance and lax governance of the banking sector that had paved the way for crisis. Why these two, of all people, I asked?

I soon had my answer. Within minutes after the Summers-Geithner announcement (actually a leak orchestrated by the Obama transition team), the Dow Jones began a two-day spike that would amount to a thousand points on the upside. The Street’s message was clear: with Summers and Geithner manning the ramparts, there was no need to fear serious, painful reform.

In the world of Big Money and Big Politics, there is no quo without a quid. Wall Street’s reward was all carrot, no stick. It was natural to ask: what had the Obama people gotten in return? I went back to the first days of his campaign in 2007 and was impressed by the speed with which he had overtaken Hillary Clinton both in the polls and at the cash register. In politics, this degree of acceleration costs a lot of money. I asked myself: suppose the Obama campaign had received a big, secret infusion of money in return for a watch-what-we-do-not-what-we-say agreement to go easy on the Street, by putting in place a financial team that would reflexively combat any effort at serious reform and retribution.

This brought me to Goldman Sachs, clearly the model for the imaginary firm of “Struthers Strauss” that I created as a centerpiece for the narrative I was beginning to construct. As the crisis unfolded through 2008, and in the immediate period afterward, events seemed time and again to go Goldman’s way. None—such as Washington’s bailout of close to $20 billion in defaulted swaps trades with AIG—have ever been adequately explained. The one-sided settlement of the “Abacus” trade, in which Goldman clearly colluded with a leading hedge-funder to create investments designed to fail, raised other questions, as did the $10 billion investment in Goldman by Warren Buffett (in the novel, “Merlin Gerrett”) at a crucial moment. For all of these, to someone who knows his way around Wall Street, other explanations can be found that are at least as compelling and rational as anything that’s been put on the record.

Hence Fixers. Often, the only way we can get to the bottom of things is by applying imagination and creativity to the known facts. I’m not saying that events transpired exactly as they do in my narrative, but they very well might have. And that’s why people seriously interested in the way the world really works should have time for novels.

Yesterday, in a statement from the White House, President Obama denied that his administration has gone easy on Wall Street. Here’s the Associated Press report:

President Barack Obama is rejecting criticism from those on the left and the right who say his administration hasn’t done enough to prevent another financial crisis. Obama says the changes enacted early in his tenure “have worked.” He says the Dodd Frank law made the financial system more secure, implemented consumer protections and did not hurt the economy.

Obama says critics are spreading “cynicism.” The president didn’t name names, but both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have suggested that the administration wasn’t tough enough on Wall Street following the 2008 financial crisis.

Obama made the remarks at a meeting with financial regulators.

Fixers is on sale now. You can buy your copy here, at your neighborhood independent bookstore, at Barnes & Noble, or at Amazon.


Michael M. Thomas is the bestselling author of nine novels, including The Ropespinner Conspiracy, Hard Money, Hanover Place, and Love and Money. His journalism has appeared widely, including in The New York Times, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and in a regular column for the New York Observer.