This book's release coincided roughly with the author's correctly calling the Obama reelection, and I know there was some promotional buzz. I enjoyed the book, but like so many others, it is laden with all sorts of random anecdotes and stories that don't really cohere well, so it serves as a very light repast of actionable, penetrating statistical methods, slathered over with plenty of entertainment and filler. So, it probably nicely fulfills the contemporary book industry formula for popular writing and its marketing.
All kinds of dimensions of "contagion" are here, and it emerges as a central metaphor of how we organize our world nowadays, subjectively and collectively. But the journey to this point is quirky. The introduction was somewhat misleading, as I thought, crestfallen, "oh no, a politicized hectoring on leftish-academic themes in trendy abstract terms by spoiled effete impudent snobs with the usual too-obvious 'bad guys' and no sense of ironic self-awareness but instead a sort of righteousness ...." But straightaway, the book's first essays offered up some straight-faced tutorials on epidemiological and military trends in managing contagion issues in today's world, as in, microbial diseases and ideologies with the terrorism label. Then it veered back toward the sort of post-structuralist, deconstructionist, modern French lit-crit stuff that, frankly, is a guilty pleasure I can find stimulating and imaginative (particularly when it escapes the Marxist rhetorical baggage some academics endlessly schlep around). There was some discussion of modern popular culture from zombie fiction to DeLillo's novels (including Cosmopolis, available here). At some point, it was working: I got this great eerie feeling of being transported to spooky new ways of mapping my emerging world, much as I got listening recently to Hyperobjects (another audio available here, in that same vein). I like thinkers who turn my comfortable world inside out and leave me a little (or a lot) disturbed. But yet, I thought, this yet has the lingering tone of an effete academic un-ironically biting the hand that feeds him/her, criticising as a sort of monstrous horror movie the system (s)he self-sustains on. Finally, at the end, an essay on the novel The Believers served notice that nobody would escape the self-aware post-modern deconstruction, including imperious liberal-intellectual snobs. So, how to summarize? We go from organizational responses to contagions most citizens recognize, to an exploration of how the contagion metaphor is colonizing all kinds of thought and reasoning in today's world. Worthwhile, by my lights.
... through behavioral economics, before it had the name: I had lately read the first book in this series, 'The Money Game,' in print, and enjoyed it. This picks up in the same continuous tongue-in-cheek, footloose tone, into the early 70s. It is like 'The Go-Go Years' also found here in audio, but sketched in quicker little portraits of knaves and fools all across the investment world (but no less wise and instructive for that). Plenty is pertinent and even prescient for repeated trips through herd stupidity seen in markets since then. (The Swiss bankers vignette could fit today's news. And the musings on the Swiss are worth the price of admission). The narrator has just the right laconic tone, but he is awful at pronouncing any word not simply and obviously domestic-American-English. He is at a pre-college level, making a hash of anyone's name (a widely literate personal would know) and any city or street name (a cultured-literate person would know). It is seriously distracting listening to him make a hash of, e.g., "subsidiary," "Basel," "strasse," "Cuernavaca," "antennae" .... Yup, that's right. Fortunately I can wince and enjoy the book. The way investors (retail or for their own account) as well as various partners and other bigger financial wigs are suckered, hoisted on their own petards, is completely familiar, and can be amusing from a safe distance. This coincides with odd snips from here or there such as the appearance of a certain sort of pre-Jobs figure: an "acid-head arbitrageur" (yes, mispronounced) worthy of a Peter Sellers character sketch. Many a character of various stripes stumbles into the miasma of the 70s, like straight-faced insects into a complicated trap, and I was old enough by then (and stumbling enough) to enjoy this now. Here, entertainment meets cynical world-wisdom. Yes, the tech booms were flaring up back then, tech stars, hot names and the mystique of hot investments going through the same tilt-a-whirl. The pitches to investors are mighty familiar. And yes, some things may be tedious -- but even the standard hoary recitation of the transition from paper to computers in 1970s brokerages (not funny to many partners and players who were caught sideways and dragged under, along with some retail investors) is peppered with laugh-out-loud portrayals of various players.
The 'Supermoney' concept itself is a fairly shallow notion plastered on the front of the book. 'Supermoney' is roughly capitalized future earnings, as in, stock, which multiplies the canny entrepreneur's (otherwise relatively plodding ordinary cash) money. It can be lost as easily as any other asset class discussed here. But that's alright.
... I'm under the impression that the solution here is basically a few accounting adjustments. If it was that straightforward, were all these bubbles and crashes, lo these last 400 years, a lot simpler than we thought? I admire the author's good intentions. The explanations of the problems at the outset were also good. Maybe it's just me -- but I can't see how this would prevent people engineering new ways to fall into the same ditch again, as they seem prone to do.
I'm more inclined to go with what is being tried -- macro-prudential regulation to be sure systemically important firms are identified and watched, and forced to have a more sound financial and risk management structure. And if they do crash, a fast-track way to get control of them and do a resolution. That is, if it isn't all undone in the next couple years, which I think, politically, is quite possible. Then it's off the races again. But maybe it would be anyway, people being so inclined to run toward that ditch, and find loopholes to get there, the short-term incentives being what they are. And I don't see how this proposal changes those incentives.
This book stays breezy and reasonably entertaining. Being an Enron junkie, I would not miss it. And from that vantage, I enjoyed it a lot. It walks us around the physical place and through the details and trivia (some weirdly Orwellian) an Enronian would know. Then it does swoop occasionally to interesting deeper views and overviews, glimpses much deeper into the heart of darkness, the real sickness of the culture and especially the (avowedly) atrocious foreign projects, mostly as spoken by a more senior acquaintance "Mister Blue" while the latter was drinking $50 double shots of top-of-the-line booze and presumably staring darkly into the void. Here one will get glimpses and hear summations I hadn't heard elsewhere. I had I thought of that phrase "heart of darkness" right before the author quoted Conrad's book.
The end sort of peters out as we join the parade of terminated employees in a not-atypical dreary wandering away from the scene, into job fairs and wasting time online. The only special thing is, this guy was mistakenly left in the payroll and had access to messages and the physical place, so more is revealed as the defunct "Death Star" spins into bankruptcy outer space.
Stating the stock price and volume, and big events, as the author's personal adventure progressed day by day, works well. As far his participation in anything, he was developing a financial risk management product along the lines of bankruptcy insurance (but not a CDS, apparently) that didn't make it to prime time in his tenure.
This is great value all the way through. With some limited accounting background, I am able to follow it on my walks without reference to the downloaded charts and graphs, though these are clear and helpful. And this is a walk all around the hidden soft spots in company financials. These metrics are easy to calculate and straightforward to apply. And plenty of the statements are hedged (in a good way) to help from oversimplifying things. Little capsule company histories side-by-side with where the numbers went, help to back up these useful tools. I plan to listen again to internalize all of it.
This works for me. I have a broad and deep interest in business and financial history, and I'm always snagging stories from here and there and fitting the parts together into deeper understandings. Sometimes the author nails it here -- as in, giving a great plain-language explanation of central banking and international currency markets (and some wild swings, say, in the pound sterling, presaging better-known recent ones, featuring the US and UK's coordinated battles with speculators, trying to reduce volatility in those markets). I always like a different but clarifying look at such things, from a bit different angle. But, this is a snapshot from the later-mid-1960s, so (like reading some older books or watching some older movies) it helps to have some bigger background and context. The earlier stories do fit well as prequels to more recent ones. This was written on the eve of the US dollar falling off the gold standard, and the emergence of the post-Bretton Woods world (things the author only guesses at, prospectively), so having more of the story helps.
Elsewhere there is a story about price-fixing among certain manufacturers in the 60s. These scofflaws got their knuckles rapped, somewhat, under the glare of public and governmental attention. Then there ensued the corporate game (also well known among politicians) in moments of scandal, of artfully evading responsibility. We have a ringside seat as this art is practiced by various execs under the hot spotlight. What a rhetorical dance! This is a fine tutorial (all done tongue in cheek) for anyone, I suppose, looking to glide through a public grilling in congressional hearings and parading before angry righteous citizens wielding pitchforks and torches, without breaking stride or losing that elite "teflon" panache (and somehow trying to sound ethical and even noble, or as a last resort, gullible, but no, not culpable!). I find plenty amusing and enlightening here. But the choice of topics is fairly random, and it does suffer from flat spots.
For those who have followed financial services and the trends in regulation since '08, a lot of this is not new. The narrator, with his blandly casual, unvarying bored yuppie intonations intensifies the feeling at moments of listening to an interminable corporate slide show; every single sentence (no exceptions) begins and ends in the exact same sound registers, and I get the feeling he was just clocking in and picking up a paycheck. The review of recent history was very pedestrian and unimaginative, and I didn't hear anything at all new until some time in the 30th minute. Maybe every half hour I heard something that really made me perk up. The fresher ideas (at least, fresher in my experience, having absorbed many of the big mainstream books on this area) involve thinking in new patterns about future growth and change in this industry. Though few sharp-etched answers are offered, and plenty of bromides are here about honoring all stakeholders (without really digging into how incentive structures can specifically and concretely change to get us there), the listener is invited to consider many directions and niches for banking in the near future, and some opportunities and dangers, from the community level to internationally. I don't regret hearing this one, though I will refrain from much, if any, "wow" response.
This is maybe the sixth book I have read on Enron. Full disclosure: I am an aficionado, fan and amateur scholar of the Enron story. This one (for readers who already have a basic grasp of the narrative) has its own useful and illuminating angles and facts, large and small. Sherron Watkins' personalized journey through the company helps show the nervous, semi-entrepreneurial kind of path many felt they must follow, to be linked to the personalities and the "action" where advancement and even survival could be found. On occasion, the personal trivia veered into the stupid -- ski and paintball encounters and such. But I guess this shows some of the silly juvenile trash that I am given to understand still permeates the halls of many corporations, as team- and spirit- building exercises. Apparently the cheerleaders still stalk the halls of business. But these sidetracks are mercifully short, and the discussion often touches (if simplified, then comprehensibly) on quite substantive matters -- some details of accounting devices used to puff up revenues and hide debt, and the legalities of entering, say, retail electricity sales in multiple states. Then, too, we get a good portrait of the principals' (Skilling's and Fastow's, particularly) reactions to such obstacles, as mere technicalities to be creatively overcome. And there, the story is quite current, in view of globalized corporations' armies of numbers and law personnel brainstorming to "arbitrage" every such obstacle. Some of this is a natural (and not necessarily always nefarious) part of doing business -- creativity IS often about stretching existing boundaries and obstacles. And sometimes the legalities ARE sketchy. Of course, Enron became a caricature and a cartoon of this, as is skillfully laid out here. The narration is clear, punchy and quite suitable.
The Gordian knot entangling the Euro members is fascinating and well explicated. This author's prescriptions strike me as pretty straightforward neo-(neo-) Keynesian, but I wouldn't let that dissuade me from hearing him out. He does at least roughly map a lot of areas that need vigilance -- we are not (ever) out of the woods.
I'm primarily a "business history guy," and not into fiction much. But I'm also an Anglophile, raised on Shakespeare, and this play is very revealing of much business/cultural history. Modern ears, I think, will likely deplore the injustices done to the Jewish merchant Shylock, which might not have been Shakespeare's (or his audience's) views at all. This was billed as a "comedy," right? As in, having a "happy" ending? But I love the way the pretzel logic leaves everyone, even the most virtuous, tinged with a bit of larceny and trickery. The hypocrisy of the supposedly virtuous Establishment gentiles was well on display here (perhaps unintentionally?). The performance I thought delightful all around. I can only wish audible would produce the earlier Christopher Marlowe play "The Jew of Malta," and maybe the nonfiction book "Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe" by Derek J. Penslar. But meanwhile, Ferguson's "The Ascent of Money" is available, which sheds some limited light on the topic.
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