04 November 2014

Business Adventures -- the review

John Brooks published Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street in 1969 (the year I was born). The book surely sold well at its inception, but a recent plug by Bill Gates (who quotes Warren Buffet as saying its the best book on business he's ever read) has taken the reissued paperback to the top of the sales lists in business commerce. A sales rep from the publisher asked if I wanted a review copy. I'm glad I said yes, but I'm sure she's annoyed that it took me two months to get to this review!

Anyway, the book has 12 chapters, and I'll comment a little on why their stories are still relevant today:

  1. The Fluctuation describes a "shock" drop and struggle in the stock market in 1962. The story seems novel in describing how a slow ticker tape created great anxiety, but it's still relevant in describing how we always seem to lack enough information to make a "good" decision. Fortunes are gained and lost on impatience.
  2. The Fate of the Edsel describes how failure results when salesmen believe themselves instead of their customers (as well the teflon that protects salesmen from their failures).
  3. The Federal Income Tax is surprisingly contemporary: "Like any tax law, ours had a kind of immunity to reform; the very riches that people accumulate though the use of tax-avoidance devices can be -- and constantly are -- applied to fighting the elimination of those subsidies." I noted, in this chapter, Americans' propensity to tolerate the obscenely rich due to their (nearly-hopeless) hope of reaching that level of wealth. Europeans accustomed to inherited, aristocratic privilege do not expect to achieve wealth through "application and hard work" so they vote to redistribute it. Another thought from this interesting chapter is that Americans may "talk shop" all the time because such chatter is an excuse to deduct meal expenses.
  4. A Reasonable Amount of Time recounts a ridiculous application of insider trading rules to executives who had announced a big deal at a press conference. Why were they prosecuted? "The reporters were not smart enough to see the profit opportunity."
  5. Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox tells of the skyrocketing rise of an early tech company, ridiculous wealth, copyright problems and a search for corporate social responsibility. A carbon copy of today's issues, to be sure.
  6. Making the Customer Whole recounts a Lehman Brothersesque tale of a broker that runs out of liquidity and then rescued by the government other brokers, who take a pound of flesh but prevent mayhem amidst JFK's assassination. It's a pity that too-big-to-fail bailouts of greedy incompetence have replaced such systems.
  7. The Impacted Philosophers recounts the story of industrial price fixing, in which companies like GE and Westinghouse conspired to increase the price of equipment sold to public utilities. The heads of the firms avoided jail by pleading they knew nothing about underling's behavior, especially as they appeared to speak in winks, nods and innuendo that never appeared in any written records. (Hear that Steven Cohen?)
  8. The Last Great Corner tells how Clarence Sanders, founder of Piggly-Wiggly, goes to battle against Wall Street (buying his own shares to squeeze short sellers) but loses when they change the rules. He comes back, several times (like a Donald Trump, except with good ideas) before bowing out -- an American dreamer who hit big and struck out.
  9. A Second Sort of Life describes how a big government bureaucrat (from the TVA) walks through "the revolving door" (except not, since only once) to become a big successful CEO. Common traits? The ability to think, and execute, big in different environments.
  10. Stockholder Season recounts another familiar story: corporate officers evading awkward questions from their shareholders by holding meetings in obscure locations, tabling motions, denying cronyism, etc. Some things never change.
  11. One Free Bite discusses the problem of confidentiality and non-compete agreements, in this case, regarding space suit technology. On one side is BF Goodrich; on the other is a scientist who's left for the competition. Will that scientist be able to work in his specialty without going to jail? Several lawsuits later, and the matter is still unclear (my tolerance for copyright and patent protection is shrinking daily).
  12. In Defense of Sterling is a nail-biter on the Bank of England's attempts to "protect" Sterling's value against other currencies. It's a good story for anyone interested in the current "depreciation wars" or problems in the Euro area.

Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS to its excellent writing, historic detail and striking relevance for people wanting to understand more about the modern variants of these issues. It seems that struggles over money will always be among us.

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