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On Style

I recently finished reading Style – The Basics of Clarity and Grace – by Joseph M. Williams.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

When we don’t know what we’re talking about (or have no confidence in what we do know) we typically write long sentences choked with abstract words.

I suspect that those who choose to observe all the rules all the time do so not because they think they are protecting the integrity of the language or the quality of our culture, but because they want to assert a style of their own.

We began with two principles: •Make central characters subjects of verbs. • Use verbs to name the actions those characters are involved in.

Most readers prefer subjects of verbs to name the main characters in your story, and those main characters to be flesh-and-blood characters. When you write about concepts, however, you can turn them into virtual characters by making them the subjects of verbs that communicate actions.

Your readers want you to use the end of your sentences to communicate two kinds of difficulty: long and complex phrases and clauses; and new information, particularly unfamiliar technical terms.

Five Principles of Concision: 1. Delete words that mean little or nothing. 2. Delete words that repeat the meaning of other words. 3. Delete words implied by other words. 4. Replace a phrase with a word. 5. Change negatives to affirmatives.

A highly recommended read in the area of writing.

 

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On The Inner Game of Tennis

I recently finished reading The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found insightful:

It is the thesis of this book that neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game nor without giving some attrition to the relatively new relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.

Getting it together mentally in tennis involves the learning of several internal skills: 1) learning to program your computer Self 2 with images rather than instructing yourself with words; 2) learning to trust thyself  (Self 2) to do what you (Self 1) ask of it This means letting Self 2 hit the ball and 3) learning to see ”nonjudgmentally”—that is, to see what is happening rather than merely noticing how well or how badly it is happening. This overcomes “trying too hard.” All these skills are subsidiary to the master skill, without which nothing of value is ever achieved: the art of concentration.

The first inner skill to be developed in the Inner Game is that of nonjudgmental awareness. When we “Unlearn” judgment we discover, usually with some surprise, that we don’t need the motivation rf a reformer to change our “bad” habits.There is a more natural process of learning and performing waiting to be discovered. It is waiting to show what it can do when allowed to operate without interference from the conscious strivings of the  judgmental ego-mind. The discovery of and reliance upon this process is the subject of the next chapter.

The main job of Self 1, the conscious ego-mind, is to set goals, that is, to communicate to Self 2 what he wants from it and then to let Self 2 do it.

The time for change comes when we realize that the same function could be served in a better way.

Step 1 – Observe, Nonjudgmentally, Existing Behavior…Step 2 Ask Yourself to Change, Programming with Image and Feel…Step3 Let It Happen! Step 4: Nonjudgmental, Calm Observation of the Results Leading to Continuing Observation of Process until Behavior Is in Automatic…Step 4 Observation.

By increasing the effective power of awareness, concentration allows us to throw more light on whatever we value knowing, and to that extent enables us to know and enjoy it more.

Children who have been taught to measure themselves in this way often be come adults driven by a compulsion to succeed which overshadows all else. The tragedy of this belief is not that they will fail to find the success they seek, but that they will not discover the love or even tithe self-respect they were led to believe will come with it. Furthermore, in their single-minded pursuit of measurable success, the development of many other human potentialities is sadly neglected.

On a closing note:

Winning is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached. Reaching the goal itself may not be as valuable as the experience that can come in making a supreme effort to overcome the obstacles involved. The process can be more rewarding than the victory itself.

A highly recommended read in the area of personal development.

On Common Sense on Mutual Funds

I recently finished reading Common Sense on Mutual Funds – New Imperatives for the Intelligent Investor – by John C. Bogle.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be insightful:

Investing is an act of faith. We entrust our capital to corporate stewards in the faith—at least with the hope—that their efforts will generate high rates of return on our investments. When we purchase corporate America’s stocks and bonds, we are professing our faith that the long-term success of the U.S. economy and the nation’s financial markets will continue in the future.

To state the obvious, the long-term investor who pays least has the greatest opportunity to earn most of the real return provided by the stock market.

In my view, market timing and rapid turnover—both by and for mutual fund investors—betray both a lack of understanding of the economics of investing and an infatuation with the process of investing.

My guidelines also respect what I call the four dimensions of investing: (1) return, (2) risk, (3) cost, and (4) time. When you select your portfolio’s long-term allocation to stocks and bonds, you must make a decision about the real returns you can expect to earn and the risks to which your portfolio will be exposed. You must also consider the costs of investing that you will incur. Costs will tend to reduce your return and/or increase the risks you must take. Think of return, risk, and cost as the three spatial dimensions—the length, breadth, and width—of a cube. Then think of time as the temporal fourth dimension that interplays with each of the other three. For instance, if your time horizon is long, you can afford to take more risk than if your horizon is short, and vice versa.

Rule 1: Select Low-Cost Funds…Rule 2: Consider Carefully the Added Costs of Advice…Rule 3: Do Not Overrate Past Fund Performance…Rule 4: Use Past Performance to Determine Consistency and Risk…Rule 5: Beware of Stars…Rule 6: Beware of Asset Size…Rule 7: Don’t Own Too Many Funds…Rule 8: Buy Your Fund Portfolio—And Hold It.

No matter what fund style you seek, you should emphasize low-cost funds and eschew high-cost funds. And, for the best bet of all, you should consider indexing in whichever style category you want to include.

There are three major reasons why large size inhibits the achievement of superior returns: the universe of stocks available for a fund’s portfolio declines; transaction costs increase; and portfolio management becomes increasingly structured, group-oriented, and less reliant on savvy individuals.

Four principal problems are created by this overemphasis on marketing. First, it costs mutual fund shareholders a great deal of money— billions of dollars of extra fund expenses—which reduces the returns received by shareholders. Second, these large expenditures not only offer no countervailing benefit in terms of shareholder returns, but, to the extent they succeed in bringing additional assets into the funds, have a powerful tendency to further reduce fund returns. Third, mutual funds are too often hyped and hawked, and trusting investors may be imperiled by the risks assumed by, and deluded about the potential returns of, the funds. Lastly, and perhaps most significant of all, the distribution drive alters the relationship between investors and funds. Rather than being perceived as an owner oi the fund, the shareholder is perceived as a mere customer of the adviser.

On a closing note, on leadership:

To wrap up this litany, I put before you—both tentatively and humbly—a final attribute of leadership: courage. Sometimes, an enterprise has to dig down deep and have the courage of its convictions—to “press on,” regardless of adversity or scorn. Vanguard has been a truly contrarian firm in its mutual structure, in its drive for low costs and a fair shake for investors, in its conservative investment philosophy, in market index funds, and in shunning hot products, marketing gimmicks, and the carpet-bombing approach to advertising so abundantly evident elsewhere in this industry today. Sometimes, it takes a lot of courage to stay the course when fickle taste is in the saddle, but we have stood by our conviction: In the long run, when there is a gap between perception and reality, it is only a matter of time until reality carries the day.

A recommended read in the areas of investing and leadership.

On The Everything Store

I recently finished reading The Everything Store – Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon – by Brad Stone.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

There is so much stuff that has yet to he invented. There’s so much new that’s going to happen. People don’t have any idea yet how impactful the Internet is going to be and that this is still Day 1 in such a big way.

“If you want to get to the truth about what makes us different, it’s this,” Bezos says, veering into a familiar Jeffism: “We are genuinely customer-centric, we are genuinely long-term oriented and we genuinely like to invent. Most companies are not those things. They are focused on the competitor, rather than the customer. They want to work on things that will pay dividends in two or three years, and if they don’t work in two or three years they will move on to something else. And they prefer to be close-followers rather than inventors, because it’s safer. So if you want to capture the truth about Amazon, that is why we are different. Very few companies have all of those three elements.

So looking back on life’s important junctures was on Bezos’s mind when he came up with what he calls “the regret-minimization framework” to decide the next step to take at this juncture in his career.

We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position. The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model. Market leadership can translate direct! to higher revenue, higher profitability, greater capital velocity, and correspondingly stronger returns on invested capital. Our decisions have consistently reflected this focus. We first measure ourselves in terms of the metrics most indicative of our market leadership: customer and revenue growth, the degree to which our customers continue to purchase from us on a repeat basis, and the strength of our brand. We have invested and will continue to invest aggressively to expand and leverage our customer base, brand, and infrastructure as we move to establish an enduring franchise.

Jeff Bezos embodied the qualities Sam Walton wrote about. He was constitutionally unwilling to watch Amazon succumb to any kind of institutional torpor, and he generated a nonstop flood of ideas on how to improve the experience of the website, make it more compelling for customers, and keep it one step ahead of rivals.

Bezos was obsessed with the customer experience, and anyone who didn’t have the same single-minded focus or who he felt wasn’t demonstrating a capacity for thinking big bore the brunt of his considerable temper.

“My approach has always been that value trumps everything,” Sinegal continued. “The reason people are prepared to come to our strange places to shop is that we have value. We deliver on that value constantly. There are no annuities in this business.” A decade later and finally preparing to retire, Sinegal remembers that conversation well. “I think Jeff looked at it and thought that was something that would apply to his business as well,” he says.

“I understand what you’re saying, but you are completely wrong,’ he said. “Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other. not more.”

That was a typical interaction with Jeff. He had this unbelievable ability to be incredibly intelligent about things he had nothing to do with, and he was totally ruthless about communicating it.

If Amazon wanted to stimulate creativity among its developers, it shouldn’t try to guess what kind of services they might want; such guesses would be based on patterns of the past. Instead, it should be creating primitives—the building blocks of computing—and then getting out of the way. In other words, it needed to break its infrastructure down into the smallest, simplest atomic components and allow developers to freely access them with as much flexibility as possible.

‘Jeff does a couple of things better than anyone I’ve ever worked for,” Dalzell says. “He embraces the truth. A lot of people talk about the truth, but they don’t engage their decision-making around the best truth at the time. “The second thing is that he is not tethered by conventional thinking. What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”

On a closing note:

Amazon may be the most beguiling company that ever existed. and it is just getting started. It is both missionary and mercenary. and throughout the history of business and other human affairs, that has always been a potent combination. “We don’t have a single big advantage,” he once told an old adversary, publisher Tim O’Reilly, back when they were arguing over Amazon protecting its patented 1-Click ordering method from rivals like Barnes & Noble. “So we have to weave a rope of many small advantages.” Amazon is still weaving that rope. That is its future, to keep weaving and growing, manifesting the constitutional relentlessness of its founder and his vision. And it will continue to expand until either Jeff Bezos exits the scene or no one is left to stand in his way.

A recommended read in the areas of technology and corporate history.

On The Most Important Thing

I recently finished reading The Most Important Thing – Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor – by Howard Marks.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Few people have what it takes to be a great investors. Some can be taught, but not everyone… and those who can be taught can’t be taught everything. Valid approaches work some of the time but not all. And investing can’t be reduced to an algorithm and turned over to a computer. Even the best investors don’t get it right every time.

Because investing is at least as much art as it is science, it’s never my goal—in this book or elsewhere—to suggest it can be routinized. In fact. one of the things I most want to emphasize is how essential it is that one’s investment approach be intuitive and adaptive rather than be fixed and mechanistic.

Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted. The second level thinker takes a great many things into account: What is the range of likely future outcomes? Which outcome do I think will occur? What’s the probability I’m right? What does the consensus think? How does my expectation differ from the consensus? How does the current price for the asset comport with the consensus view of the future, and with mine? Is the consensus psychology that’s incorporated in the price too bullish or bearish? What will happen to the asset’s price if the consensus turns out to be right, and what if I’m right?

Return alone—and especially return over short periods of time—says very little about the quality of investment decisions. Return has to be evaluated relative to the amount of risk taken to achieve it. And yet, risk cannot be measured. Certainly it cannot be gauged on the basis of what “everybody” says at a moment in time. Risk can be judged only by sophisticated, experienced second-level thinkers.

The road to long-term investment success runs through risk control more than through aggressiveness. Over a full career, most investors’ results will be determined more by how many losers they have, and how bad they are, than by the greatness of their winners. Skillful risk control is the mark of the superior investor.

The pendulum swing regarding attitudes toward risk is one of the most powerful of all. In fact, I’ve recently boiled down the main risks in investing to two: the risk of losing money and the risk of missing opportunity. It’s possible to largely eliminate either one, but not both. In an ideal world, investors would balance these two concerns. But from time to time, at the extremes of the pendulum’s swing, one or the other predominates.

What weapons might you marshal on your side to increase your odds? Here are the ones that work for Oaktree: a strongly held sense of intrinsic value. insistence on acting as you should when price diverges from value. • enough conversance with past cycles—gained at first from reading and talking to veteran investors, and later through experience—to know that market excesses are ultimately punished, not rewarded. a thorough understanding of the insidious effect of psychology on the investing process at market extremes. a promise to remember that when things seem “too good to be true,” they usually are. willingness to look wrong while the market goes from misvalued to more misvalued (as it invariably will), and • like-minded friends and colleagues from whom to gain support (and for you to support).

To boil it all down to just one sentence, I’d say the necessary condition for the existence of bargains is that perception has to be considerably worse than reality. That means the best opportunities are usually found among things most others won’t do. After all, if everyone feels good about something and is glad to join in, it won’t be bargain-priced.

What We Learn from a Crisis—or Ought To: Too much capital availability makes money flow to the wrong places…When capital goes where it shouldn’t, bad things happen…hen capital is in oversupply, investors compete for deals by accepting low returns and a slender margin for error…Widespread disregard for risk creates great risk…Inadequate due diligence leads to investment losses…In heady times, capital is devoted to innovative investments, many of which fail the test of time…Hidden fault lines running through portfolios can make the prices of seemingly unrelated assets move in tandem…Psychological and technical factors can swamp fundamentals…Markets change, invalidating models…Leverage magnifies outcomes but doesn’t add value…Excesses correct.

On a closing note:

Thus, it’s our goal to do as well as the market when it does well and better than the market when it does poorly. At first blush that may sound like a modest goal, but it’s really quite ambitious.

A must read in the area of investing.

On Confessions of an Advertising Man

I recently finished reading Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

Today, the world of advertising faces four problems of crisis dimensions. The first problem is that manufacturers of package-goods products, which have always been the mainstay of advertising, are spending twice as much on price-off deals as on advertising…The second problem is that advertising agencies, notably in Britain, France, and the United States, are now infested with people who regard advertising as an avant-garde art form…The third problem is the emergence of megalomaniacs whose mind-set is more financial than creative. They are building empires by buying up other agencies, to the consternation of their clients.  The fourth problem is that advertising agencies still waste their clients’ money repeating the same mistakes.

(1) Creating successful advertising is a craft, part inspiration but mostly know-how and hard work. If you have a modicum of mostly know–how and hard work. If you have a modicum of talent, and know which techniques work at the cash register, you will go a long way. (2) The temptation to entertain instead of selling is contagious. (3) The difference between one advertisement and another. when measured in terms of sales, can be as much as nineteen to one. (4) It pays to study the product before writing your advertisements. (5) The key to success is to promise the consumer a benefit – like better flavor, whiter wash, more miles per gallon, a better complexion. (6) The function of most advertising is not to persuade people to try your product, but to persuade them to use it more often than other brands in their repertoire. (Thank you, Andrew Ehrenberg.) (7) What works in one country almost always works in other countries.

(1) I admire people who work hard, who bite the bullet. I dislike passengers who don’t pull their weight in the boat…(2) I admire people with first-class brains, because you cannot run a great advertising agency without brainy people. But brains are not enough unless they are combined with intellectual honesty…(4) I admire people who work with gusto. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing, I beg you to find another job…(6) I admire self-confident professionals, the craftsmen who do their jobs with superlative excellence. They always seem to respect the expertise of their colleagues. They don’t poach. (7) I admire people who hire subordinates who are good enough to succeed them. I pity people who are so insecure that they feel compelled to hire inferiors as their subordinates.

(1) I try to be fair and to be firm, to make unpopular decisions without cowardice, to create an atmosphere of stability, and to listen more than I talk. (2) I try to sustain the momentum of the agency – its ferment, its vitality, its forward thrust. (7) I try to recruit people of the highest quality at all levels, to build the hottest staff in the agency business. (8) I try to get the best out of every man and woman in the agency.

The agencies which are most successful in new business are those whose spokesmen show the most sensitive insight into the psychological make-up of the prospective client. Rigidity and salesmanship do not combine.

Some agencies pander to the craze for doing everything in committee. They boast about “teamwork” and decry the role of the individual. But no team can write an advertisement, and I doubt whether there is a single agency of any consequence which is not the lengthened shadow of one man.

(1) What You Say Is More Important Than How You Say It. (2) Unless Your Campaign Is Built Around a Great Idea, it Will Flop. (3) Give the Facts. (4) You Cannot Bore People into Buying. (5) Be Well-Mannered, But Don’t Clown. (6) Make Your Advertising Contemporary. (7) Committees Can Criticize Advertisements, But They Cannot Write Them. (8) If You Are Lucky Enough To Write a Good Advertisement, Repeat It Until It Stops Pulling. (9) Never Write an Advertisement Which You Wouldn’t Want Your Own Family To Read. (10) The Image and the Brand. (11) Don’t Be a Copy-Cat.

On a concluding note, “a collection of Ogilvy-isms”:

We prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. Tell the truth, but make the truth fascinating. In the best establishments, promises are always kept. whatever it may cost in agony and overtime. Change is our lifeblood. It is important to admit your mistakes and to do so before you are charged with them.

A recommended concise and perceptive read in the areas of advertising, and influence.

 

The House Of Morgan

I recently finished reading the award-winning book The House of Morgan by Ron Chernow. As best summarized by the author: “This book is about the rise, fall, and resurrection of an American banking empire—the House of Morgan. Perhaps no other institution has been so encrusted with legend, so ripe with mystery, or exposed to such bitter polemics. Until 1989, J. P. Morgan and Company solemnly presided over American finance from the “Corner” of Broad and Wall. Flanked by the New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, the short building at 23 Wall Street, with its unmarked, catercorner entrance, exhibited a patrician aloofness. Much of our story revolves around this chiseled marble building and the presidents and prime ministers, moguls and millionaires who marched up its steps. With the records now available, we can follow them inside the world’s most secretive bank.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

The story of the three Morgan banks is nothing less than the history of Anglo-American finance itself. For 150 years, they have stood at the center of every panic, boom, and crash on Wall Street or in the City. They have weathered wars and depressions, scandals and hearings. bomb blasts and attempted assassinations. No other financial dynasty in modern times has so steadily maintained its preeminence. Its chronicle holds up a mirror in which we can study the changes in the style, ethics. and etiquette of high finance. To order this vast panorama, we will divide our saga into three periods. This framework applies principally to the Morgan houses but also has, I think, more general relevance to other banks.

The House of Morgan’s future approach to business was shaped in the gloomy days of 1873. The panic was a disaster for European investors. who lost $600 million in American railroad stocks. Stung by all the railroad bankruptcies, Pierpont decided to limit his future dealings to elite companies. He became the sort of tycoon who hated risk and wanted only sure things. “I have come to the conclusion that neither my firm nor myself will have anything to do, hereafter, directly or indirectly, with the negotiation of securities of any undertaking not entirely completed; and whose status, by experience, would not prove it entitled to a credit in every respect unassailable.” Another time, he said, “The kind of Bonds which I want to be connected with are those which can be recommended without a shadow of doubt, and without the least subsequent anxiety, as to payment of interest, as it matures. ” This encapsulated future Morgan strategy—dealing only with the strongest companies and shying away from speculative ventures.

Pierpont selected partners not by wealth or to fortify the bank’s capital but based on brains and talent. If the Morgan style was royal. its hiring practices were meritocratic. The bank had many first-rate technicians.

The intellectual and political leap most damaging to the House of Morgan was a spreading notion that a Wall Street trust had created the industrial trusts and governed their subsequent destiny.

After Pierpont Morgan’s death, the House of Morgan would become less autocratic, less identified with a single individual. Power would be diffused among several partners, although Jack Morgan would remain as figurehead. In the new Diplomatic Age, the bank’s influence would not diminish. Rather, it would break from its domestic shackles and become a global power, sharing financial leadership with central banks and government! and profiting in unexpected ways from the partnership. What nobody could have foreseen in 1913 was that lack Morgan—shy, awkward, shambling Jack who had cowered in the corners of Pierpont’s life—would preside over an institution of perhaps even larger power than the one ruled by his willful, rambunctious father.

Through Strong’s influence, the Federal Reserve System would prove far more of a boon than a threat to Morgans. The New York Fed and the bank would share a sense of purpose such that the House of Morgan would be known on Wall Street as the Fed bank. So, contrary to expectations, frustrated reformers only watched Morgan power grow after 1913.

The news of war was greeted with melodramatic foreboding by Jack Morgan, who foresaw “the most appalling destruction of values in securities which has ever been seen in this country.” Later reviled as a “merchant of death” by isolationists, his first reaction, in fact, was spotlessly humane.

So the early New Deal threatened the House of Morgan in two ways: the Pecora hearings were exposing practices that could bring fresh regulation to Wall Street. And the White House attitude toward European finance augured an end to the House of Morgan’s special diplomatic role of the 1920s. After an incestuous relationship with Washington in the twenties, the bank would suffer the curse of eternal banishment.

The Glass-Steagall Act took dead aim at the House of Morgan. After all, it was the bank that had most spectacularly fused the two forms of banking. It had, ironically, proved that the two types of services could be successfully combined; Kuhn, Loeb and Lehman Brothers did less deposit business, while National City and Chase had scandal-ridden securities affiliates. The House of Morgan was the active double threat. with its million-dollar corporate balances and blue-ribbon underwriting business.

As it turned out, the House of Morgan didn’t suffer as much from Willkie’s defeat as might have been expected. Bolstered by his election victory, Roosevelt moved more vigorously to support Britain, and in this effort he needed the Morgan bank. With marvelous suddenness, the chill in Morgan-Roosevelt relations thawed and was replaced by cordiality from the White House of a sort that 23 Wall hadn’t known since the twenties. As America’s attention shifted from blistering debates over domestic policy to ways in which to deal with Europe’s dictators, the power of the House of Morgan surged accordingly.

On a closing note:

The old House of Morgan’s power stemmed from the immature state of government treasuries, companies, and capital markets. It stood sentinel over capital markets that were relatively small and primitive. Today, money has become a commonplace commodity. A company in need of capital can turn to investment banks, commercial banks, or insurance companies; it can raise it through bank loans, bond issues, private placements, or commercial paper; it can draw upon many) currencies, many countries, many markets. Money has lost its mystique, and banking. therefore, has lost a bit of its magic. The Morgan story is the story of modern finance itself. A Pierpont Morgan exercised powers that today are dispersed among vast global banking conglomerates. The activities once performed by a knot of side-whiskered men in mahogany parlors are now spread across trading rooms around the world. We live in a larger, faster, more anonymous age. There will be more deals done and more fortunes made, but there will never be another barony like the House of Morgan.

A recommended read in the areas of Finance, Banking and History.

On Den Of Thieves

I recently finished reading Den Of Thieves – by Pulitzer Price Winner, James B. Stewart.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

Even now it is hard to grasp the magnitude and the scope of the crime that unfolded, beginning in the mid-1970s, in the nation’s markets and financial institutions. It dwarfs any comparable financial crime, from the Great Train Robbery to the stock-manipulation schemes that gave rise to the nation’s securities laws in the first place. The magnitude of the illegal gains was so large as to be incomprehensible to most laymen.

Nor were these isolated incidents. Only in its scale and potential impact did the Milken-led conspiracy dwarf others. Financial crime was commonplace on Wall Street in the eighties. A common refrain among nearly every defendant charged in the scandal was that it was unfair to single out one individual for prosecution when so many others were guilty of the same offenses, yet weren’t charged. The code of silence that allowed crime to take root and flourish on Wall Street, even within some of the richest and most respected institutions, continues to protect many of the guilty. To dwell on the ill-gotten gains of individuals, however, is to risk missing the big picture. During this crime wave, the ownership of entire corporations changed hands, often forcibly, at a clip never before witnessed. Household names—Carnation, Beatrice, General Foods, Diamond Shamrock—vanished in takeovers that spawned criminal activity and violations of the securities laws.

Nor should the financial implications of these crimes, massive though they are, obscure the challenge they posed to the nation’s law-enforcement capabilities, its judicial system, and ultimately, to the sense of justice and fair play that is a foundation of civilized society. If ever there were people who believed themselves to be so rich and powerful as to be above the law. They were to be found in and around Wall Street in the mid-eighties. If money could buy justice in America, Milken and Drexel were prepared to spend it, and spend it they did. They hired the most expensive, sophisticated, and powerful lawyers and public-relations advisors, and they succeeded to a frightening degree at turning the public debate into a trial of government lawyers and prosecutors rather than of those accused of crimes. But they failed, thanks to the sometimes heroic efforts of underpaid, overworked government lawyers who devoted much of their careers to uncovering the scandal, especially Charles Carberry and Bruce Baird, in the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, and Gary Lynch, the head of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Lynch, the head of enforcement at the securities and exchange ness of crime on Wall Street after a decade of lax enforcement sometimes overwhelmed their resources. Not everyone who should have been prosecuted has been, and mistakes were made. Yet their overriding success in prosecuting the major culprits and reinvigorating the securities laws is a tribute to the American system of justice.

For Levine, the experience only reinforced his view that without extraordinary measures, he was never going to realize his grand ambitions. Not that he was particular surprised. As he told Wilkis constantly, he was convinced that everyone was using inside information to get ahead: the game was rigged.

The causes of the boom were probably as much psychological as financial, though many economic explanations have been offered to explain the sudden, almost frenzied effort to buy existing companies rather than create new ones. Throughout the 1970s, investors had focused on company earnings, and the corresponding price/ earnings ratios, as a measure of value. With an economy ravaged by post-Vietnam War and OPEC-induced inflation, high tax rates, and soaring interest rates, profits had been meager. So stock prices Stayed low even as inflation pushed the value of income-producing assets ever higher. Coupled with low-priced assets was the tax code’s very generous treatment of interest payments on debt. Corporate dividends paid on stock aren’t deductible; interest payments on debt are fully deductible. Buying assets with borrowed funds meant shifting much of the cost to the federal government. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 sent a powerful “anything goes” message to the financial markets. One of the first official acts of the Reagan Justice Department was to drop the government’s massive ten-year antitrust case against IBM. Bigness apparently wasn’t going to be a problem in the new era of unbridled capitalism. Suddenly, economies of scale could be realized in already oligopolistic industries such as oil, where mergers wouldn’t even have been considered in the Carter years.

Yet history offers little comfort. The famed English jurist Sir Edward Coke wrote as early as 1602 that “fraud and deceit abound in these days more than in former times.” Wall Street has shown itself peculiarly susceptible to the notion, refined by Milken and Boesky and their allies, that reward need not be accompanied by risk. Perhaps no one will ever again dominate the financial world like Milken with his junk bonds. But surely a pied piper will emerge in some other sector. Over time, the financial markets have shown remarkable e resilience and an ability to curb their own excesses. Yet they are surprisingly vulnerable to corruption from within. If nothing else, the scandals of the 1980s underscore the importance and wisdom of the securities laws and their vigorous enforcement. The Wall Street criminals were consummate evaluators of risk—and the equation as they saw it suggested little likelihood of getting caught.

A highly recommended read in the area of finance.

On The Lean Startup

I recently finished reading The Lean Startup – How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses – by Eric Ries. This book has been in my to-read list for quite some time, and has been recommended to me by several friends over the past few years. I am very glad that I was finally able to read this gem in entrepreneurship and management.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be particularly insightful:

After more than ten years as an entrepreneur, I came to reject that line of thinking. I have learned from both my own successes and failures and those of many others that it’s the boring stuff hat matters the most. Startup success is not a consequence of good genes or being in the right place at the right time. Startup success can be engineered by following the right process, which means it can be learned, which means it can be taught. Entrepreneurship is a kind of management. No, you didn’t read that wrong. We have wildly divergent associations with these two words, entrepreneurship and management.

This is a book for entrepreneurs and the people who hold them accountable. The five principles of the Lean Startup, which inform all three parts of this book, are as follows: 1. Entrepreneurs are everywhere. 2. Entrepreneurship is management. 3. Validated learning. 4. Build-Measure-Learn. 5. Innovation accounting.

The Lean Startup method, in contrast, is designed to teach you how to drive a startup. Instead of making complex plans that are based on a lot of assumptions, you can make constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. Through this process of steering, we can learn when and if it’s time to make a sharp turn called a pivot or whether we should persevere along our current path. Once we have an engine that’s revved up, the Lean Startup offers methods to scale and grow the business with maximum acceleration.

Mark explained, “Traditionally, the product manager says, ‘I just want this.’ In response, the engineer says, ‘I’m going to build it.’ Instead, I try to push my team to first answer four questions: 1. Do consumers recognize that they have the problem you are trying to solve? 2. If there was a solution, would they buy it? 3. Would they buy it from us? 4. Can we build a solution for that problem?”

What differentiates the success stories from the failures is that the successful entrepreneurs had the foresight, the ability, and the tools to discover which parts of their plans were working brilliantly and which were misguided, and adapt their strategies accordingly.

Thus, for startups, I believe in the following quality principle: If we do not know who the customer is, we do not know what quality is.

These examples from Grockit demonstrate each of the three A’s of metrics: actionable, accessible, and auditable.

My goal in advocating a scientific approach to the creation of startups is to channel human creativity into its most productive form, and there is no bigger destroyer of creative potential than the misguided decision to persevere. Companies that cannot bring themselves to pivot to a new direction on the basis of feedback from the marketplace can get stuck in the land of the living dead, neither growing enough nor dying, consuming resources and commitment from employees and other stakeholders but not moving ahead.

For the Five Whys to work properly, there are rules that must be followed. For example, the Five Whys requires an environment of mutual trust and empowerment. In situations in which this is lacking, the complexity of Five Whys can be overwhelming. In such situations, I’ve often used a simplified version that still allows teams to focus on analyzing root causes while developing the muscles they’ll need later to tackle the full-blown method. I ask teams to adopt these simple rules: L Be tolerant of all mistakes the first time. 2. Never allow the same mistake to be made twice.

I highly recommend this book!

On Lords Of Finance

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer Prize winning, Lords of Finance – The Bankers Who Broke The World by Liaquat Ahamed. This book aim, as best described by the author is: “The collapse of the world economy from 1929 to 1933—now justly called the Great Depression—was the seminal economic event of the twentieth century. No country escaped its clutches; for more than ten years the malaise that it brought in its wake hung over the world, poisoning every aspect of social and material life and crippling the future of a whole generation. From it flowed the turmoil of Europe in the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and the eventual slide of much of the globe into a Second World War even more terrible than the First. The story of the descent from the roaring boom of the twenties into the Great Depression can be told in many different ways. In this book, I have chosen to tell it by looking over the shoulders of the men in charge of the four principal central banks of the world: the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve System, the Reichsbank, and the Banque de France…Governments then believed matters of finance were best left to bankers; and so the task of restoring the world’s finances fell into the hands of the central banks of the four major surviving powers: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. ”

Below are key insights from the book that I wish to share:

On Central Banks:

To understand the role of central bankers during the Great Depression, it is first necessary to understand what a central bank is and a little about low it operates. Central banks are mysterious institutions, the full details of their inner workings so arcane that very few outsiders, even economists. fully understand them. Boiled down to its essentials, a central bank is a bank that has been granted a monopoly over the issuance of currency. This power gives it the ability to regulate the price of credit—interest rates—and hence to determine how much money flows through the economy. Despite their role as national institutions determining credit policy for their entire countries, in 1914 most central banks were still privately owned.

On the start of WW1:

As the lights started to go out over Europe that fateful first week of August, every banker and finance minister seemed to be fixated not on military preparations or the movements of armies but on the size and durability of his gold reserves. The obsession was almost medieval. This was, after all, 1914, not 1814. Paper money had been in wide use for more than two centuries, and merchants and traders had developed highly sophisticated systems of credit. The idea that the scope of the war might be limited by the amount of gold on hand seems anachronistic. Nevertheless, here was the London magazine United Empire declaring that it was “the amounts of coin and bullion in the hands of the Continental Great Powders at the outbreak of hostilities” that would largely determine “the intensity and probable duration of the war.”

On the effect of the war on the US:

More important, the war had irrevocably changed the economic and financial position of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. The Fed, which barely existed in 1914, now sat on the largest reservoir of gold bullion in the world, making it potentially the dominant player if and when the international gold standard was restored.

On the impact of reparations on Germany:

Behind all the divisions that were to wreck Germany for the next few years, the one single factor that united every class and every political party—democrats and royalists, liberals and Socialists, Catholics and Protestants, northerners and southerners, Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, and Hessians—was the injustice of the peace treaty, or as it was called the Diktat. And of all the various penalties heaped on Germany by the treaty – disarmament, dismemberment, occupation, and reparations—it was reparations that would become the single most consuming obsession of German foreign policy.

On the US monetary policy and Keynes:

The hidden irony was that every one of Keynes’s main recommendations—that the link between gold balances and the creation of credit be severed, that the automatic mechanism of the gold standard be replaced with a system of managed money, that credit policy be geared toward domestic price stability—corresponded precisely to the policies Strong had instituted in the United States.

On the expanding role of the Central Banks:

This new set of principles, somewhat cobbled together on the fly, represented a quiet, indeed carefully unheralded, revolution in monetary policy. Until then central bankers had seen their primary task as protecting the currency and confined their responsibilities to ensuring that the gold standard was given free rein, only stepping in at times of crisis or panic. The credit policy of every industrial country had been driven by one factor alone: gold reserves. The United States was, however, now so flush with gold that the solidity of its currency was assured. Led by Strong, the Fed had undertaken a totally new responsibility—that of promoting internal economic stability.

On Churchill and the return to gold standard:

Though Churchill remained chancellor until 1929, by 1927 he had come to realize that the return to gold at the old prewar exchange rate had been a misjudgment. But by then there was little he could do about it except fulminate in private about the evil effects of the gold standard. In later life, he would claim that it was “the biggest blunder in his life.” He blamed it on the bad advice he had received.

On the opposable forces facing Central Banks:

The men in charge of central banks seem to face a similar unfortunate fate—although not for eternity—of watching their successes dissolve in failure. Their goal is a strong economy and stable prices. This is, however, the very environment that breeds the sort of over-optimism and speculation that eventually ends up destabilizing the economy. In the United States during the second half of the 1920s, the destabilizing force was to be the soaring stock market. In Germany it was to be foreign borrowing.

On the blame attributed to the US and France regarding their “hoarding of gold”:

The Sunday Chronicle of September 20 carried a profile of Montagu Norman by Winston Churchill, as part of a commissioned series on contemporary figures. Since leaving office in June 1929, Churchill had quarreled with his Conservative colleagues over Indian self-rule and, now isolated and out of favor, felt free to express his disillusionment with the gold standard orthodoxy openly. The problem was not so much the standard itself, he argued, but the way it had been allowed to operate. It was the hoarding of gold by the United States and France and the resulting shortage in the rest of the world that had brought on the Depression. He had begun to sound almost like Keynes—in a speech to Parliament the week before he had described how gold “is dug up out of a hole in Africa and put down in another hole that is even more inaccessible in Europe and America.”

On the steps taken by the US Government to alleviate the great depression:

In February 1932, he pressed Congress to pass legislation that would make government securities an eligible asset to back currency. At the stroke of a pen the gold shortage was lifted, allowing the Fed to embark on a massive program of open market operations, injecting a total of $1 billion of cash into banks. The two new measures combined—the infusion of additional capital into the banking system and the injection of reserves allowed the Fed finally to pump money into the system on the scale required. But Meyer had left it too late. A similar measure in late 1930 or in 1931 might have changed the course of history. In 1932 it was like pushing n a string. Banks, shaken by the previous two years, instead of lending It the money used the capital so injected to build up their own reserves. Total bank credit kept shrinking at a rate of 20 percent a year…By Thursday, March 9, the Emergency Banking Act was ready to be submitted to Congress. Most of it was based on the original Mills proposal. Banks in the country were to be gradually reopened, starting with those known to be sound, and progressively moving to the shakier institutions, which would need government support. A whole class of insolvent banks would never be permitted to reopen. The bill also granted the Fee the right to issue additional currency backed not by gold but by bank assets. And it gave the federal government the authority to direct the Fed to provide support to banks. The legislation was supplemented by a commitment from the Treasury to the Fed that the government would indemnify it for any losses incurred in bailing out the banking system. This unprecedented package finally forced the Fed to fulfill its role as lender of last resort to the banking system. But to achieve this, the government was in effect providing an implicit blanket guarantee of the deposits of every bank allowed to reopen.

On the US coming off of the Gold standard:

Roosevelt’s decision to take the dollar off gold rocked the financial world. But in the days after the Roosevelt decision, as the dollar fell against gold, the stock market soared by 15 percent. Financial markets gave the move an overwhelming vote of confidence. Even the Morgan bankers. historically among the most staunch defenders of the gold standard, could not resist cheering. “Your action in going off gold saved the country from complete collapse,” wrote Russell Leffingwell to the president.

On the IMF:

Much of the negotiating had been done prior to the conference between the Americans and the British. At Bretton Woods, the biggest controversy was over how much money each country would be eligible to borrow from what was now being called the International Monetary Fund. The Russians, who were there in strength though very few of them spoke English, demanded that the borrowing rights reflect not simply economic power but also military strength, and insisted on equality with the British; India wanted to be on a par with China; the Bolivians wanted parity with the Chileans and the Chileans with the Cubans. The United States, as the find’s prime financier, set these quotas in a series of backroom deals orchestrated by White. On July 22, the conference came to its formal close with a great banquet. Keynes gave a final address. He reminding the participants of the economic chaos that had afflicted the world for almost a generation and paid tribute to the spirit of cooperation that had informed the discussions: “If we can so continue, this nightmare, in which most of us present have spent too much of our lives, will be over. The brotherhood of man will have become more than a phrase.” As he left the room, the delegates sang “For He’s Jolly Good Fellow.”

On a Concluding Note:

For many years people believed—even today many continue to do so—that an economic cataclysm of the magnitude of the Great Depression could only have been the result of mysterious and inexorable tectonic forces that governments were somehow powerless to resist…To the contrary, in this book I maintain that the Great Depression was not some act of God or the result of some deep-rooted contradictions of capitalism but the direct result of a series of misjudgments by economic policy makers, some made back in the 1920s, others after the first crises set in—by any measure the most dramatic sequence of collective blunders ever made by financial officials. Who then was to blame? The first culprits were the politicians who presided over the Paris Peace Conference. They burdened a world economy still trying to recover from the effects of war with a gigantic overhang of international debts…The second group to blame were the leading central bankers of the era in particular the four principal characters of this book, Montagu Norman, Benjamin Strong, Hjalmar Schacht, and Emile Moreau. Even though they, especially Schacht and Norman, spent much of the decade struggling to mitigate some of the worst political blunders behind reparations and war debts, more than anyone else they were responsible for the second fundamental error of economic policy in the 1920s: the decision to take the world back onto the gold standard…More than anything else, therefore, the Great Depression was caused by a failure of intellectual will, a lack of understanding about how the economy operated. No one struggled harder in the lead-up to the Great Depression and during it to make sense of the forces at work than Maynard Keynes. He believed that if only we could eliminate “muddled” thinking—one of his favorite expressions—in economic matters, then society could allow the management of its material welfare to take a backseat to what he thought were the central questions of existence, to the “problems of life and of human relations, of creation, behavior and religion.” That is what he meant when in a speech toward the end of his life he declared that economists are the “trustees, not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization.” There is no greater testament of his legacy to that trusteeship than that in the sixty-odd years since he spoke those words, armed with his insights, the world has avoided an economic catastrophe such as overtook it in the years from 1929-33.

A must read for anyone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the global financial system.