Study Guide

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

By Michael Lewis

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine Introduction

The 2008 stock market crash. Ouch then, ouch now.

Most people roll their eyes at the mere thought of economics and finance—that is, if those eyes haven't glazed over first—so we don't blame you for being a little scared before approaching The Big Short. Don't be. Filled to the brim with human stories and blessedly free of equations and graphs, The Big Short is the perfect starting point for learning about the 2008 financial crisis.

After all, do you even know what caused the 2008 stock market crash? We sure didn't before reading The Big Short.

Basically, the entire global economy was nearly destroyed by home mortgages. Really. Over the '80s and '90s, financial companies started investing heavily in Americans' home mortgages, propped up by the assumption that home prices would never go down. You know what happens when you assume.

By the early 2000s, these mortgages had become the foundation for our entire economic system, even though the actual quality of those mortgages had been declining for years. To make things even stranger, the ratings agencies were acting like these terrible mortgages were top of the line.

To anyone who was looking, it should have been obvious that a financial collapse was imminent, but there were only a handful of people with this foresight. One is Michael Burry, an isolated genius from California. Another is Steve Eisman, a New York analyst looking to spark a class war. Rounding out our group are Charles Ledley and Jamie Mai, two super-smart college grads whose intelligence is only matched by their aimlessness. A ragtag bunch of misfits, these ones.

These four fellows are among the select few who see the coming mortgage-pocalypse and made bets (big bets) that it would happen. As they fight tooth and nail to turn their suspicions into millions of dollars, they learn the gut-wrenching details of the U.S. mortgage bond market—for instance the fact that this market is about to rain down fire and brimstone on countless working-class Americans.

It sounds like heavy material, but it's delivered with an easy touch by author Michael Lewis. Lewis spent some time in the finance world himself during the '80s, but he left disgusted with the industry and wrote Liar's Poker, which is basically the '80s version of The Big Short. Lewis has written a ton of other massively popular nonfiction books as well, including Moneyball, The Blind Side, and Flash Boys. If you didn't notice, two out of three of those books have been turned into movies, just as The Big Short was in 2015.

So channel your inner 99-percenter, and get ready to learn the nitty-gritty griminess at the core of our financial system. That is, if you can handle it.

What is The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine About and Why Should I Care?

Well, first of all, as this book shows, the 2008 crash totally impacted everybody. Don't you want to get the scoop on what actually happened to you and yours?

But that's just the obvious reason why should care. Let's dig a little deeper.

In an interview with A. V. Club, comedian Nathan Fielder talks about how the 2008 financial crisis helped him create his hit show, Nathan for You. Check it:

I started reading all these books about it, trying to understand, "How did this happen?" [...] It all came down to these minor interactions that people would have with each other where someone would know something's wrong or unethical, but the other person just wouldn't want to speak up because the social environment wasn't conducive to that.

So all these terrible things that happened, these big world events, came down to basically two people in a room with one person being too uncomfortable to speak their mind.

So what are you supposed to take away from this? That reading The Big Short will give you the comedic juice needed to create the most hilarious show of the 21st century? Well, not quite, though we'd encourage you to try.

Instead, we'd suggest keeping this quote in mind as you work through The Big Short. Think about how many times the crisis could have been avoided if the involved parties had grown consciences and backbones. Think about what might have happened if some banker somewhere had said, "Enough is enough." Think about what might have happened if someone had actually listened to Steve Eisman's warnings.

Hey, this is a sitch we all run into at some point our lives. Maybe your buddy is being rude to the people around you. Maybe your sister just said something offensive. Or maybe you trip up and do something inappropriate. These situations happen to everyone, and though it can be tempting to ignore them out of shame, it's crucial to take stock of our trip-ups and work for a better future.

We know—you probably weren't expecting us to take a book about the stock market in such a personal direction. But that's just how Shmoop rolls, babies. That's just how Shmoop rolls.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine Resources

Websites

Michael Lewis Homepage
Author Michael Lewis has written a ton of killer nonfiction books, some of which are also about Wall Street, so check out the dude's homepage to find out more.

Scion Asset Management, LLC
Hey, it's Michael Burry's new investment company. Groovy.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

The Big Short (2015)
The Big Short's film adaptation is a chill film with a great cast, and we're not the only ones who think so—the film was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture.

Articles and Interviews

CNN Money on the Stock Market Crash
This is an article written right after the stock market crash. Pretty apocalyptic, huh?

Where Are They Now?
This piece from Business Insider follows the main players in The Big Short in the years following the subprime crisis.

Video

Selena Gomez Describes Synthetic CDOs
This is one of our favorite scenes in The Big Short movie, and it's also a pretty darn accurate description of synthetic CDOs.

Videos

Michael Lewis with Conan O'Brien
As a part of his Serious Jibber-Jabber series, Conan O'Brien has a very long, very serious conversation with Michael Lewis.

Audio

Adam McKay on The Big Short
In this chat with Vulture, Adam McKay, the director of the film adaptation of The Big Short, talks about the production process of the film.

Michael Lewis on The Longform Podcast
This killer chat with Michael Lewis focuses heavily on Wall Street and other financial topics.

Images

Steve Carrell is Steve Eisman
That hair, though.

The Dow Jones During the 2008 Stock Market Crash
You might not be able to fully interpret this graph, but even us non-Wall Streeters know a massive and sudden decline when we see one.