Review – Asian Godfathers

Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia

by Joe Studwell, published 2007

Studwell’s “Asian Godfathers” examines the economic development of Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Phillipines, which are “linked by powerful, unifying themes… similar historical legacies and a very particular relationship between political and economic power.” In so doing, it helps the reader understand curious facts such as how,

a small region that, concurrently, could not boast a single non-state corporation among the global top 500 [but] none the less accounted for a third of the wealthiest two dozen people on the planet.

The narrative of southeast Asia is that it is rapidly privatizing after a narrow-miss with communism and concentrated state-owned enterprise intervention throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s post-war period and this explains some of the fantastic personal fortunes of various “business families” in the area. But if these supposedly privatized economies can’t boast globally competitive businesses, how are these people managing to get so rich?

The three minor inquiries of this major inquiry are (pg. xii):

  1. why have secretive tycoons come to rule the economies of southeast Asia?
  2. what have they contributed to the region’s overall economic development?
  3. why are they still so powerful when the depth and potency of the Asian Financial Crisis — an event to whose origins they were central — appeared, to many observers, to be likely to emasculate them? (It did not.)

In searching for answers, the book explores several key themes (pg. xiii):

  • historical; the southeast Asian economy is the product of a relationship between political and economic power that developed in the colonial era and was sustained, with a different cast of characters, in the post-colonial era
  • mechanical; a political elite grants to members of an economic elite monopoly concessions, normally in domestic service industries, that enable the latter to extract enormous amounts of wealth, without a requirement to generate the technological capabilities, branded corporations and productivity gains that drive sustainable economic development
  • political; it was expedient for new indigenous political leaderships to nurture their own dependent class of, typically, non-indigenous tycoons who could siphon off economic rents, give a share to their political masters and not pose a threat to political power
  • economic; instead, growth came from a combination of small-scale entrepreneurs, many concentrated and around manufacturing, and a policy of renting out the local labor force to efficient multinational exporters
  • crisis; these arrangements seemed to work acceptably well until the July 1997 onset of the financial crisis
  • repetition; most of the institutional failings revealed by the crisis have not been tackled in the decades since the crisis broke and it remains unclear whether they will be [there could be another crash, as a result]

The introduction to “Asian Godfathers” is outstanding. It is one of the best, most coherent summaries of the major arguments of a comprehensive work such as this that I have come across, so it is worth quoting extensively from it before outlining and commenting on the rest of the book.

First, why is the book called “Asian Godfathers” (pg. xiv)?

The use of the term godfather in this book aims to reflect the traditions of paternalism, male power, aloofness and mystique that are absolutely part of the Asian tycoon story… a very romanticized myth…has grown up around southeast Asia’s tycoons [along with] sub-myths about race, culture, genetics, entrepreneurialism… the entire grounding of economic progress in the region since the end of colonialism.

The Asian tycoons are not just characters in the book, they are characters in real life and they have worked hard to consciously develop their public character themselves. And with regards to character, it is interesting to note that,

Most of Asia’s godfathers are ethnic Chinese.

This would seem to fit into the “historical” theme, as during the colonial period many of the ennobled members of the business community were part of the Chinese diaspora throughout southeast Asia and their relationships with indigenous and colonial governments were similar to the roles and functions which exist today between political and economic elites in the region due to the seeming “special” status a racial or ethnic outsider can obtain in such scenarios.

That being said, Studwell objectively rejects the idea that there is a “culture-centered explanation” for the success of (mostly) Chinese tycoons in southeast Asia, founded on three points:

  1. notions of a cultural imperative ignore historical context; arbitrary decisions made by former colonial powers have led to present-day coincidences, such as the high percentage of “subcontinental ancestry” individuals serving as lawyers and judges in Singapore or Malaysia
  2. the Chinese are non-homogeneous and the Chinese in southeast Asia are typical of the Chinese race in general; Chinese emigres were a self-selected group willing to take significant risks for chances at a brighter future, and they emigrated from geographically, culturally and linguistically different regions around China at different periods of time
  3. the Chinese emigration generally can not be conflated with the godfather phenomenon; while overseas Chinese enjoy above-average incomes in some places, there are also large populations of emigre Chinese who live in poverty similar to the indigenous populations

So does this mean culture and race mean nothing in explaining southeast Asian economic outcomes? Not quite. (pg. xix)

This book argues that these individuals are above all the economic products of the political environment in which they operate and that it is this same political environment that is preventing the region from achieving sustained economic progress. In a worst-case scenario, southeast Asia may be headed towards Latin America-style stagnation and inequality.

So, again, how do these people get so rich? Essentially, they are “asset traders”, trading assets from one political system (Asia) to another (the Western world/global market economy) and they get paid for arbitraging between the two in the form of rents.

Asian godfathers exploit political inefficiency for gain… their companies’ performance in terms of productivity typically lags behind that of the overall economies in which they operate… it is the smaller scale local businesses and the hard work and thrift of ordinary southeast Asians that have driven development.

Interestingly, this is the same argument that was made about the Chinese communist party in control of coastal trading cities and the inland rural entrepreneurs who were driving economic change in China that was put forth in “[amazon text=Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics&asin=0521898102]”. The state-connected actors get all the credit for “producing” measurable trade activity that their political obstructions necessitate, and the contribution of thrifty commercial operators in the domestic economy which are harder to measure and observe go without note despite being at the root of the phenomenon of “third world development” in these regions.

This is one of the central myths shattered by this book– that the mega-wealthy businessmen of southeast Asia are bootstrapped entrepreneurs operating in competitive markets and that Hong Kong and Singapore have grown because they are liberal, free market economies in a world of state intervention and control. The truth is almost exactly the opposite, with the individuals topping the “rich list” representing a group of crony capitalist concessionaires par excellence, and Hong Kong and Singapore in particular representing what happens when you channel large volumes of cash flow through controlled banking and finance regimes, regardless of wider economic or social principles.

This political economic arrangement is not new, and it is not even just colonial. As Studwell argues, it starts with migration pre-dating European control of the region and it relies upon an ancient

racial division of labor in which locals were the political entrepreneurs– focused on the maintenance of political power against indigenous rivals and, later, in partnership with European and American colonists — and outsiders who became economic, and as a corollary bureaucratic, entrepreneurs.

In a sense, there’s really nothing unique or extraordinary about these arrangements. From the dawn of time some groups in society have sought political control over others, which is to say, they seek to live at the expense of the productive people in society. The ancient trade economy resulted in migrant businessmen who proved to be capable administrators not only of their own affairs but also as hired tax farmers and local bureaucrats for the indigenous rulers. Over time, these two groups came more and more to rely upon one another, the businessmen on the rulers for explicit monopoly concessions in return for loyal service, and the rulers on the businessmen for a class of people who could actually get their hands dirty with revenue generation for the state while serving as convenient scapegoats or distractions for the frustrations of the local populace concerning their rule, when need be.

These political arrangements always result in poverty, suffering and gross economic inefficiency. In the case of countries where the governments overtly monopolize or nationalistically control real enterprises, there is the perennial problem of an artificially low supply resulting in artificially high prices. Combined with foreign trade controls which prevent competitive global exports from arriving in their markets, you have the set up for an extremely lucrative arrangement for these “godfather” types who bridge the gap between the inefficient, politically-controlled domestic markets and the efficient, competitive global market. The success of the “trade nations” of Hong Kong and Singapore, then, can be explained by political interference in the nearby local economies, not the absence of such interference in their own:

What is important about Hong Kong and Singapore is that they are archetypal city states — ‘port city states’ would be more precise. Since colonial inception they have offered tariff-free trade (with few or no questions asked about what is being traded) and have been places to park money (with few or no questions asked about where the money came from)… Hong Kong and Singapore perform a simple economic trick: they arbitrage the relative economic inefficiency of their hinterlands… For as long as surrounding countries have imposed tariffs or quotas on trade in their efforts to fund government, Hong Kong and Singapore have profited from circumventing those restrictions.

In the case of Hong Kong and Singapore, “Hong Kong’s immediate hinterland is Southern China… Singapore’s dominant hinterland… has long been Indonesia.” When was the last time you saw China or Indonesia show up on a list of globally competitive economies?

The reason Hong Kong and Singapore are such large financial centers, in particular, is that

Ethnic outsider tycoons who have profited from business concessions in surrounding countries have always sought to keep the funds offshore, fearing — with good reason — that they may one day be the victims of political change.

Perhaps overlooked by some,

Singapore… increased account secrecy provisions and changed trust laws in a manner designed to attract the kind of money Switzerland had dealt in… foreign private banks almost doubled between 2000 and 2006

And meanwhile, “to sustain its economy, Singapore is building casinos to attract corruption money from China.”

In conclusion, rather than proving the efficacy of free markets (which Hong Kong and Singapore largely do not have in terms of domestic industries), instead the experience of these island countries serves to prove

That a city state with a strategic deep water port in a region that has relatively higher levels of mismanagement, corruption and political uncertainty will prosper with little reference to official economic philosophy.

But what about the “godfathers” themselves? Surely they are talented businessmen in their own right despite the relatively uncompetitive markets in which they thrive?

Whether it is as a sop to the political class to help fool the local populace that it has options and opportunity, or it is a sop to their own egos to glory in a sense of achievement and capability that has not been earned, the godfathers’ public personas are men of meager means who rose through the ranks in short order to become industrial and financial titans in their adopted countries while the reality is that most came from already successful families with existing political connections that they enhanced, or, to the extent they were “penniless” before their rise, they certainly didn’t do it through hard work and sweat equity of their own but happened to be in the right place at the right time and got control of an early government concession which became the rocket engine to the top. Many godfathers of the present generation were war-time smugglers, gambling operators or even cooperators with occupying forces as southeast Asia changed hands back and forth during World War II. As Studwell observes,

whether Hong Kong has been ruled by British colonialism, Japanese imperialism or Chinese communism, it has always been managed through the same group of people.

According to one local observer and member of the monied class, “In one generation it is very difficult [to rise from rags to riches ] because it is not an open society.” And according to a local scholar, “I have yet to find a businessman who started as a coolie.” As such, the godfathers have a notorious reputation when it comes to expensive entertainment vices and

the rumors are legion and suggest a form of gambling that echoes that of Middle Eastern potentates — vast sums of money blown away by people who do not know its real value because they have not really earned it.

Nor are their social habits those of the hard-working middle-class bourgeoisie who cherish being part of their communities and maintaining stable, monogamous relationships with supportive spouses. Says one observer, “None of these people has social friends. They fuck a girl, shake off their horniness and then it’s back to work.” It appears to be the life of an addict and by another’s estimation, “If they don’t have a woman a day they can’t function.” The Asian godfathers are more Bill Clinton than Bill Gates, it seems.

Another important aspect of the godfather character is secrecy. While private businessmen are often protective of their trade secrets, customer relationships, technological know-how and tactical elements of their strategy, this is a different form of caginess. Says Studwell, “Most deals involve some element of government licensing or concession, things that both parties prefer to keep private.” The godfathers get special advantages from the government which, if known, ruin their reputations as self-made men, and the governments themselves want the mystique maintained so as to confuse the masses as to how they are controlled (and how they benefit by their arrangements with these business stars.)

And that secrecy is extremely valuable because

At the heart of the average godfather’s empire is a concession or license that gives rise to a monopoly or oligopoly activity… this non-competitive core cash flow, the river of molten gold that will keep him going through good times and bad

allows the godfathers to build their empires, and survive the inevitable setbacks and speed wobbles as uncompetitive pseudo-entrepreneurs jump head first into a bevy of unfamiliar industries and businesses and try to swim without the floaty wings of government assistance.

Though there are many such arrangements detailed in the book, the explanation of Hong Kong land development patterns on page 68 is worth quoting at length as a kind of summary of how these special arrangements serve to entrench a group of large scale crony capitalists:

The British administration set the scene for real estate oligopoly because it chose to depend heavily on land sales — all land was deemed “Crown land” until sold — to fund its budget. As Hong Kong grew in the post-Second Word War era, the government auctioned off development land in ever more expensive chunks: US$1 billion a pop for large plots by the mid 1990s. Anyone who acquired land in the secondary market that was not designated for building — agricultural acreage in the New Territories was targeted by the tycoon families behind Sun Hung Kai and Henderson in the 1970s and 1980s — had to pay a hefty upfront conversion premium before construction could begin. The effect was to rule out small players and persons without good connections to the large British banks. A government-commissioned 1996 report by Hong Kong’s Consumer Council found that three-quarters of new private residential housing was supplied by only ten developers between 1991 and 1994, and 55 per cent came from the four biggest developers. A separate look at profitability considered thirteen large residential developments. Margins were extraordinary, especially where conversion fees had been set by private tender on large lots of agricultural land. In such cases, the lowest return the Consumer Council found — as a percentage of total estimated development costs, including land — was 77 per cent. The highest was 364 per cent.

For everyone else in Hong Kong, the outsize cost of housing relative to all other living expenses is a constant complaint.

Middle class Hong Kongers, meanwhile, paid low nominal taxes but some of the world’s highest rents, or mortgage repayments, and apartment management fees equivalent to 13-15 per cent of rents.

Interestingly, Hong Kong locals see this as inevitable, not as a necessary outcome of a crony land development and ownership system, but as the necessary outcome of living on a small island! The argument is that there is only so much land, and they aren’t making more (nevermind landfill projects like the airport, ports, etc.)– somehow competition serves to lower prices in every other area of business but in Hong Kong real estate, no matter how tall you build the buildings, supply never improves and prices keep going up. They’re totally bought in on the godfather propaganda.

The whole system seems outrageous to an outsider, as Studwell describes

a graft-seeking culture among indigenous politicians. “They’re broke every week… feed your mouth, feed your prick. That is how they think.”

Yet,

while the south-east Asian system is corrupt, it is more efficient than ones that pertain in socitieies where the holders of power also seek to be exploiters of business rents.

Here he is referring to places like Africa and parts of the Middle East, but the metaphor could also be apt in looking historically at feudal Europe versus bourgeoisie Europe, where one of the primary political trends was the reduction of large landed estates into ever smaller, privately owned parcels controlled by individual land owners or small businessmen.

So, if the godfathers are not business geniuses, what are they and how do they manage to get anything done across their humongous and complicated business holdings? According to Studwell,

their activities are more like those of supercharged chairmen: setting strategy, deal making, hobnobbing, but ultimately leaving others to execute the substance as well as the detail of what they put in train

and it is their gweilo, or running dogs, who are the real business men in their organizations. Yet, even then these individuals are not as much businessmen as they are “enforcers”, with the top enforcer being more akin to “‘the chief slave’. This is the first person called when the godfather wants something done.” And these gweilo, like the godfathers themselves, are rarely members of the local populace but are instead drawn from “a globally traded management cadre” who graduate from top universities and can be found running large enterprises around the world.

The final piece of the puzzle is the godfathers’ relationship with capital markets. The first thing to note is that every godfather has his own affiliated bank, for example, “By the mid 1990s every major business [in Indonesia], and many lesser ones, had a captive bank.” Interestingly, even “different factions of the military had banks”! With control of a bank, godfathers can tap into cheap capital pools and then hand off social problems to the government in the event of a crisis such as the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.

And while massive, cheap leverage is the favored form of financial fuel, the godfathers have also found unique ways to employ their legerdemain in the equity markets via that ever-so-wonderful technique of arbitrage. In fact, this explains the puzzling question of “why, despite heady economic growth, have long-term stock market returns in south-east Asia been so poor?” For example, Studwell notes that “Between the beginning of 1993 and the end of 2006, dollar returns in Thailand and the Philippines were actually negative; their stock markets destroyed capital.”

The answer is simple: “buying equities in south-east Asia is fundamentally about buying into the godfather business model”. And the godfather model contains the implicit query

why work hard to increase a company’s stock price and pay dividends when all the capital you need is available at a real interest rate close to zero per cent from a bank whose board you control?

From this standpoint, then, it should come as no surprise that

the eight largest conglomerates in the region exercise effective control over a quarter of all listed companies, while the top twenty-two conglomerates control one-third of listed vehicles.

What is, perhaps, surprising is how the godfathers have managed to profit even from running their listed companies into the ground. This was one of the most fascinating reveals in the book:

The game here was for tycoons to sell low-grade property assets into new corporate entities, back-load the debt repayments of the purchaser and list them with the story that dividends in year one would be a guide to future earnings.

The money used to finance this arrangement is often provided by their bank. And when the publicly-listed corporate structures verge on insolvency, the godfather’s private companies offer to repurchase the assets at pennies on the dollar. It is an outstanding bait-and-switch which allows them to swipe millions (billions?) along the way formerly belonging to “dumb money” mutual funds. In many instances of these IPO-to-privatize shenanigans “the boss himself would own only about 10 per cent of what he was selling, a powerful signal that the asset was overpriced.”

The 1990s leading up to the Asian Financial Crisis represented a kind of Golden Era of banking charlatanry for the godfathers where “Hong Kong, for instance, had negative real interest rates from the end of 1990 to the start of 1995”, which allowed for such inanities that “K. S. Lo, the real estate tycoon and elder brother of Vincent Lo, [telling a CSLA analyst] he would buy any property in Hong Kong sight unseen.” If that kind of anecdote isn’t revealing of the reality of the free market, competitive real estate economy in Hong Kong, nothing is.

Studwell has produced an outstanding and deeply-researched resource in “Asian Godfathers.” While my review focused on Hong Kong and Singapore, which are of particular interest to me personally, there is just as much detail here about Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Phillipines, as well as a variety of throwaway lines that come out of the mouths of the main characters and those forced to bask in their wake alike that are just too funny not to chuckle about. The great detail with which Studwell describes the machinations of the godfathers and the mass of damning evidence he provides that they not only do not operate in free economies but only exist because of the nature of southeast Asian government manipulation of regional economies is deeply satisfying to this reader and I am sure it will be refreshing to other curious minds as well.

This book is not a classic that can be read again and again with new insights about the human condition to appreciate every time, but it is an outstanding treatment in its specific area that I would strongly recommend to anybody curious to know more about southeast Asian political economy in general, and how crony capitalism works specifically, not just in these economies but around the globe because the formula is similar, if not identical. There are only so many ways to rip people off and it turns out it doesn’t require too much creativity. I plan to purchase and read a copy of Studwell’s How Asia Works in the future.

Entrepreneurial Opportunity Cost

I am wondering out loud here: when people attempt to do some kind of modeling of the various opportunity costs of having government provide X, versus having “the market” provide X, do they factor in the opportunity cost of lost entrepreneurial progress inherent in bureaucratic provisioning?

For example, if someone was arguing that the government should control automobile production, is there any calculus attempted that examines the present value of foregone future improvements in automobile production and design that will inherently be included in bureaucratic provisioning?

A further example– the roads and highways we drive on, which have been provisioned by government for decades, haven’t changed all that much. But cars have made huge technological leaps in terms of how they’re designed and built. Cars have entrepreneurs behind them, roads and highways have bureaucrats behind them.

I’m not sure I am articulating my inquiry as coherently as I might like to but there it is nonetheless!

Review – Losing My Virginity

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way

by Richard Branson, published 2011

Spoiler alert– this book is choppy and inconsistent in the pacing and entertainment factor of its narrative. You really need to read between the lines a bit to get the most value out of it. That being said, it’s surprisingly literary for a dyslexic former publisher of a student magazine and I found Branson’s repeated reference to his high-altitude balloon voyage trials to be an outstanding metaphor for his life as a businessman and entrepreneur.

You see, in Branson’s ballon journeys, the key factors of any consistency were that: a.) Branson was knowingly and openly taking what he perceived to be a potentially life-threatening risk b.) Branson was almost always underprepared for it, or decided to go ahead with his attempt despite early warnings that something was amiss and c.) nonetheless, he somehow managed to survive one disaster after another, only to try something bigger and bolder the next time around.

And this is quite similar to the way he comported himself as an entrepreneur on so many occasions. Again and again, he’d make a daring foray into a business, market or industry he didn’t quite understand, the company would stumble after an early success leaving them all on the brink of failure and yet, each time they’d double down and somehow win.

In that sense, Branson is a perfect example of survivorship bias. On the other hand, having so many narrow misses that turn into massive accelerators of a person’s fortune start to make you wonder if isn’t mostly luck but rather mostly skill.

As an entrepreneurial profile, “Losing My Virginity” is full of all kinds of great successes and astounding failures. With regards to the failures, something I found of particular interest was the fact that Branson’s company were victims of some of the most common pitfalls of other businesses throughout its early history: taken for a ride by indomitable Japanese owners/partnerships in the 80s, repeated victim of the LBO-boom and the private/public buyout-cycle in the 80s and 90s. When you read these stories in the financial press it always seems to happen to the rubes of the business world, but Branson’s foibles help one to realize even rather sophisticated types can get taken in now and then.

The volatility in Branson’s fortunes do leave one with a major question though, namely, why did Branson’s company ultimately survive?

This isn’t a Harvard Business School case study so I don’t mean to pass this off as a qualified, intelligent answer to that question, but I will attempt a few observations and, in typical HBS fashion, some or all of them may be contradictory of one another and none will be provided with the precise proportional contribution they made to the end result:

  • the group had a cultural commitment to change and dynamism; they were not so much their businesses, but a culture and group of people who did business a particular way, a true brand-over-merchandise, which allowed them to reinvent themselves numerous times
  • the group strategically focused on being the low-cost provider in their industry, usually while simultaneously attempting to pursue the seemingly mutually exclusive goal as being seen as the highest quality offering as well
  • the group focused on serving customers but equally saw treating its employees with concern as an important value
  • the group consciously created a brand that could be applied to diverse businesses (see point #1)
  • the group pursued businesses that seemed “interesting” or sensually appealing to it, which ensured that everyone involved was motivated to do well because they liked the work they had chosen

Another thing I noticed about Branson and the development of his company was the attention he paid to the composition of management and owners and his dedication to weeding out those who were not good fits in a charitable way. Channeling the “best owner” principle, Branson made a conscious effort to buy out early partners whose vision and tastes did not match the current or future vision of the group. In this way, the company maintained top-level focus and concentration on a shared strategic vision at all times, sparing itself the expense and distraction of infighting and wrangling over where to go next and why.

Another aspect of the company’s resilience had to do with its operational structure. Branson built a decentralized company whose debts and obligations were kept separate. In an environment where new ventures were constantly subject to total failure, this arrangement ensured that no one business failure would bring the entire group down.

The final lessons of the Branson bio were most instructive and had to do with the nature and value of forecasting.

The first lesson in forecasting has to do with the forecasts others make of us, or the world around us. For example, Richard Branson had no formal business training, he grew up with learning disabilities (dyslexia) and he was told very early on in his life by teachers and other adult and authority figures in his life that he’d amount to nothing and his juvenile delinquency would land him in prison. Somehow this worthless person contributed a great deal to society, through business and charity, and by most reasonable measures could be considered a success, making this forecast a failure. If one had taken a snapshot of the great Warren Buffett at a particular time in his adolescence, when the young boy was known to often take a “five-finger discount” from local department stores, it might have been easy to come up with a similar forecast about him.

I’m not sure how to succinctly sum up the concept there other than to say, “Things change.” Most forecasts that involve extrapolating the current trend unendingly out into the future will probably fail for this reason.

The second lesson in forecasting has to do with how we might attempt to forecast and plan our own lives. When we have 50, 60, 70 or more years of a person’s life to reflect on, it is easy to employ the hindsight bias and see how all the facts of a person’s life were connected and led them inexorably to the success (or infamy) they ultimately achieved. And certainly there are some people, again using Buffett as an example, who from an early age were driven to become a certain something or someone and so their ability to “predict their future selves” seemed quite strong.

But the reality is that for the great many of us, the well-known and the common alike, we really don’t have much of a clue of who we are and what we’ll ultimately become. The future is uncertain and, after all, that’s the great puzzle of life that we all spend our lives trying to unravel. Richard Branson was no different. He was not born a billionaire, in a financial, intellectual, personal or other sense. He had to learn how to be a businessman and how to create a billion dollar organization from scratch. Most of the time, he didn’t even know he was doing it. In other words, HE DID NOT KNOW AHEAD OF TIME that he would become fabulously wealthy, and while he was hard-working and driven, it doesn’t even appear he purposefully intended to become so.

Maybe we should all take a page from Branson’s book and spend less time trying to figure out what’s going to happen and more time just… happening. We could sit around all day trying to figure life out, or we could follow the Branson philosophy where he says, “As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

This Just Blew My Mind: The Moneyball Secret & Warren Buffett

I read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball a few months ago after having seen the film. I would’ve preferred to do it in the other order (if I had ended up seeing the film at all) but I hadn’t gotten to the book yet on my reading list and an opportunity to see the movie presented itself that I decided not to turn down.

As I understood the story, the basic premise was the principles of Grahamite value investing in baseball– buy cheap things rather quality things and wait for reversion to the mean to kick in. These cheap things may not be worth much, but you can buy them at such a discount it doesn’t matter as they’d have to be truly worthless for you to have made a mistake in the aggregate.

Specifically, Billy Bean, the GM of the Oakland Athletics at the time, was recruiting players with no star power and no salary-negotiation power that could fill his roster with an above-average on base percentage. In contrast, all the big teams with the big budgets were buying the massive stars who were known for their RBIs and home run percentages. Billy Bean’s motto was “don’t make mistakes”, like a value investor who looks for a margin of safety. The other big teams with their massive budgets were operating with the motto “Aim for the stands, hit it out of the park”, like the huge mutual funds with their marketing machines and their reliance on investor expectations to add super fuel to the market.

That’s the story I thought I read, anyway, and it made a lot of sense. Inspiring stuff for a little value investor guy like me.

Today, I sat in a marketing presentation from a vendor who used Moneyball as a metaphor and he threw an image up on the projector during his slide show of the Oakland A’s stadium. It is a shared stadium meaning it is not dedicated to the A’s but also serves as the Oakland Raiders football team home field. As a result, the baseball diamond has a lot of extra foul zone on the first and home base lines, which you might be able to see if you get real close to your monitor and squint.

 

I had never seen the A’s stadium before. I had no idea it had extra large foul zones. I didn’t realize that in a 160-odd game series the As would play around half, or nearly 80 games, at a stadium that had extra large foul zones.

I had no idea that a lot of players who had high on-base percentages got there because they hit balls that would normally end up in the stands at most other stadiums, but at the A’s home field it’d end up in the extra large foul zone. I had no idea that this meant those kinds of players would be extra valuable only on the Oakland A’s baseball team. I didn’t realize, as the demonstrator told us, Billy Bean was building a “pitching team”, not just a cheap on-base team (whatever that means).

This blew my mind. Maybe I just missed this in the book, and the movie. I am not a sports fan so maybe Lewis mentioned it and it wasn’t a detail that stuck out to me (which is actually another important lesson from all of this, but I digress…). Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe Lewis, the consummate story-teller, focused on the point he wanted to make from the story even though the reality, while related, was really determined by something else– the extra large foul zone at the Oakland A’s home stadium.

It reminded me of one of those situations with Warren Buffett. The first time you read Buffett’s biography and learn about his investments, you get the hokey “Just buy good businesses at fair prices!” schtick and you think, “Hey, that sounds simple, makes sense, that’s all there is to it!” Then you learn a few years later that what he was ACTUALLY doing was gaming the tax system, or creating synthetic leverage for himself, or whatever. You find the REAL angle, and it’s a bit more sophisticated and a bit harder for the average Joe to replicate by following the “invert, always invert” mantra of Charlie Munger.

What I took away from this is that people tell the stories they want to tell and you should never, ever take something at face value that involves a story of a person becoming wildly successful, wealthy, etc., just by figuring out some seemingly obvious, simple trick like buying cheap baseball stats.

There’s always an angle, like, he was buying cheap baseball stats that worked especially well in his home stadium.

That’s still genius, no doubt, but there’s less there that anyone operating outside that specific context can learn from it.

 

Review – How To Get Rich

How To Get Rich: The Distilled Wisdom of One of Britain’s Wealthiest Self-Made Entrepreneurs

by Felix Dennis, published 2009

This will likely be one of the shortest reviews on record here. One reason is because I don’t want to spoil too much of this book for anyone else who might be interested in it; I do think it has to be fully read by oneself for it’s message to be understood.

Another reason is that I am not rich myself, so I don’t know how valuable my critical impressions of Dennis’s logic and experience will be and I don’t have any real opportunity to run a controlled experiment and find out. I’m going to take his thesis into mind and live my life as I see fit and maybe I’ll end up rich, or at least quite wealthy.

When Dennis says “rich” he means “filthy” rich. As in, it’d take several generations of slouches to piss through it all. This is the kind of rich he’s talking about. He’s not talking about retiring with a pension. And this book is psychological in that Dennis spends a lot of time detailing the mindset and motivations of people who are rich, not just particular strategies or actions to achieve this level of wealth (though he discusses that, too).

Besides the survey of rich life and rich world views, the book provides numerous general lessons on business, business management and entrepreneurial practices which are all valuable in their own right even if one doesn’t want to be rich, but doesn’t feel like being poor, either.

This book’s strongest point is honesty. And now, Felix Dennis’s “Eight Secrets to Getting Rich”:

  1. Analyze your need. Desire is insufficient. Compulsion is mandatory.
  2. Cut loose from negative influences. Never give in. Stay the course.
  3. Ignore ‘great ideas’. Concentrate on great execution.
  4. Focus. Keep your eye on the ball marked ‘The Money Is Here’/
  5. Hire talent smarter than you. Delegate. Share the annual pie.
  6. Ownership is the real ‘secret’. Hold on to every percentage point you can.
  7. Sell before you need to, or when bored. Empty your mind when negotiating.
  8. Fear nothing and no one. Get rich. Remember to give it all away.

Video – Seth Klarman On Leadership

The Harvard Business School presents Seth Klarman, founder and president of the Baupost Group

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • I don’t think a lot about being a leader; our goal is to be “excellent” and to be proud of what we do
  • Main principle for leadership or management-style: “Do unto others…”
  • Big believer in leading by example; you can’t expect other people to do things you’re incapable of or unwilling to do yourself
  • Sometimes organizations are stuck, people want to do more but they haven’t been asked the right way; don’t overlook the power of re-anchoring via leading by example
  • Leadership stems from credibility — credibility stems from being “right” over time and from having knowledge — and from moral values
  • Two important moral values for leaders:
    • Football field test; play the game from the center of the field, not near the sidelines, where it is easy to go out of bounds without intending to do so
    • WSJ test; live your life in a way that you would not be embarrassed to have it reported on the front page of the WSJ
  • Every quarter, I sit down with the non-investment team members of the firm and explain the current investment strategy; the idea is to help the rest of the firm understand why the firm is doing well or poorly; this creates a culture where everyone is on the same page
  • You want to create a culture where everyone is willing to stay late to finish a job if they have to, where people will spend time double-checking for mistakes; people paying attention to detail at every level of the firm is important
  • Leaders don’t take credit, they give credit; be quick to give everyone around you credit, it is empowering to those people
  • Turnover is a hidden cost of business; it can take so long to get someone up to speed, train them properly, get them to the point that they can contribute; treating employees properly and caring for them is a smart business decision
  • If you have someone who is not getting the job done, other people are probably carrying their weight and working extra hard for them, and this isn’t fair; good leaders need to be fair
  • Get a good mentor; find a place to work where they care about you, that will nurture you and be interested in your development; if you can find one it sets you on the road to success
  • An experience SK feels good about as a leader: the time the leaders of the firm decided to buy the entire firm playoff tickets for the Red Sox game that ended up being a historic game– an order of magnitude different from handing over a $1000 bonus
  • A mistake SK made as a leader: tolerating a “difficult person” for far too long, because they were a talented individual; it poisoned the well, tarnished the moral character of the firm, led to some financial losses; focused too much on the short-term pain rather than the long-term benefit of that decision
  • A leader is not afraid to fail, is not afraid to be wrong or to lose money in the short-term; a leader always adheres to their principles and standards
  • JP Morgan: “I can do the work of a year in 9 months, but not in 12”; it’s important to set time aside to refresh, relax, reflect
  • Marathon, not a sprint; don’t focus on the short-term because it causes anxiety and makes you hyperactive in an effort to compensate for short-term poor performance
  • You can’t be a leader if you burn out; find balance, seek a variety of interests
  • Working a couple years at an intense pace (80hrs+/week) is okay if it’s for a specific purpose; ideally, if you are going to work that hard, do something entrepreneurial, then you’re doing it for yourself and the benefits, if any, accrue to you
  • Understand that if you plan to compete by being willing to work 100 hours a week, you’ll be beat by people willing to work 110 hours

Video – Hugh Hendry Visits The Milken Institute

Hugh Hendry interviewed in a panel discussion at the 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Global economy is “grossly distorted” by two fixed exchange regimes: the Euro (similar to the gold standard of the 1920s) and the Dollar-Renminbi
  • China is attempting to play the role of the “bridge”, just as Germany did in the 1920s, to help the global economy spend its way into recovery
  • Two types of leverage: operational and financial; Germany is a country w/ operational leverage; Golden Rule of Operational Leverage, “Never, never countenance having financial leverage”, this explains Germany’s financial prudence and why they’ll reject a transfer union
  • Transfer of economic rent in Europe; redistribution of rents within Europe, the trade is short the financial sector, long the export sector
  • Heading toward Euro parity w/ the dollar, if not lower; results in profound economic advantage especially for businesses with operational leverage
  • “The thing I fear” is confiscation: of client’s assets, my assets; we are 1 year away from true nationalization of French banks
  • Theme of US being supplanted as global leader, especially by Chinese, is overwrought
  • Why US will not be easily overtaken: when US had its “China moment”, it was on a gold standard…
    • implication, as an entrepreneur, you had one chance– get it right or you’re finished
    • today is a world of mercantilism, money-printing, the  entrepreneur has been devalued because you get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th chance
    • when the US had its emergence on a hard money system, it built foundations which are “rock solid”
    • today, this robust society has restructured debt, restructured the cost of labor, has cleared property at market levels
    • additionally, “God has intervened”, w/ progress in shale oil extraction technology; US paying $2, Europe $10, Asians $14-18
  • Dollar is only going to go one way, higher; this is like early 1980/82
  • “I haven’t finished Atlas Shrugged, I can’t finish it”: it’s too depressing; it reads like non-fiction, she’s describing the world of today
  • The short sale ban was an attack on free thought; people have died in wars for the privilege to stand up and say “The Emperor has no clothes”; banned short selling because truth is unpalatable to political class; the scale and magnitude of the problem is greater than their ability to respond
  • We are single digit years away from a most profound market-clearing moment, on the order of 1932 or 1982, where you don’t need smarts, you just need to be long
  • Hard-landing scenario in Asia combined w/ recession in Europe would result in “bottoming” process, at which point all you need is courage to go long