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Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

flashCapitalism is great. When it works, it transfers money from people willing to take risks to people who have risks worth taking. Sure, the eventual payoff to both is in proportion to the risk, and the risk is in proportion to the vision, but the overall purpose is to move idle money to the places that can put it to use. Capitalism is great. When it works.

And then there are the parasites.

In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis tells the story of a bunch of regular guys who decided to drag one group of parasites into the light so the markets could understand how and why they had become hosts. The parasites had a simple business model. Someone sends out an offer to buy United Widgets at $1.00, the parasite would see his offer, and go buy the available shares at $1.00. Then he’d offer them to the buyer for $1.01. A penny a share of pure profit, no risk, no real value added. But how did he see the spread between the two?

He figured out that placing his computer server just a little closer to the server that executes trades would buy enough lag time that he could spot the opening and get the jump on real investors. The smart guy and his cronies started at milliseconds and wrung every angle until they were down to beating legitimate investors by nanoseconds. These weren’t the small-time investors, either—institutional investors managing billions of dollars couldn’t figure out why they were constantly paying higher prices when the computer said right there that they should have gotten it for less. They’d scratch their heads and pay the higher cost.

But there were people in the system who caught on to the parasites. Instead of cashing their knowledge in for a few million bucks, these regular guys decided they were going to put the markets back on an equal footing. (Well, as equal as it could be.) There are too many for me to credit in this post, but basically they were organized and inspired by Brad Katsuyama, a low-key guy working for the low-key Royal Bank of Canada. For my money (what’s left of it after the markets got hold of it), he should be recognized as a genuine hero. But his discovery about lag time was only the tip of the fraud, and his real courage came out when he brought his findings and his solutions to those institutional investors. Their reaction—and the way he finally convinced them that he had a viable solution—shows that sometimes heroism doesn’t happen in a flash. Heroism takes work.

As for the parasites? A friend once told me, “Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered.”  When I look around, it seems that the parasites, and the pigs, are actually doing better than everyone else. Capitalism is great. When it works.

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It takes a special kind of writer to see a connection between two disparate events and create a bright line that links the two. In his newest book, Michael Robotham does just that by connecting the global financial crisis with the anarchy in Iraq.  (Please, please, please let it be fiction!)

First, a word about two of the main characters. One of the leads is Vincent Ruiz, a retired London Detective Inspector who is a main character in five of Robotham’s previous books, along with psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, who has a supporting role in The Wreckage. It’s important for readers to know that reading the earlier books isn’t necessary to understand and enjoy The Wreckage, because Robotham easily introduces both characters and fleshes them out without overly referencing the previous books.  The downside is that they are such well-written characters that you’ll want to go back to the start (Suspect) for more.

Ruiz’s story is but one thread in the novel, and readers can be pardoned for thinking that Robotham takes up too many threads in the early going. By the middle of the story the strands start coming together and it is readily apparent that he is weaving a complex tapestry that defies a simplistic approach. The other storylines include a traumatized young woman who runs a con game with her boyfriend; a woman searching for her missing husband; and a freelance journalist working in occupied Iraq.  To say any more would be to not just give away the story, but to spoil the pleasure of watching Robotham create.

It’s not uncommon for reviewers to call fiction about current events “an intelligent thriller.”  Sometimes that makes readers feel better about their pleasure reading (remember The First Law of Reading – “never apologize for your reading taste“).  Sometimes it fulfills the contractual obligations of the publisher’s other authors.   In the case of The Wreckage, it is dead on.  If you want to read one of the most intelligent thrillers of the last couple of years, here’s your book.

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The United States is in the middle of the world’s largest and longest-lasting crime spree.  The criminals are known– their names and photos routinely appear on the front pages of newspapers– but law enforcement has been unable to make arrests or bring charges.  And, according to Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, they are likely to continue their spree until there’s nothing left to steal.  The ringleader is a character by the name of Goldman Sachs, and this kingpin has set itself up so that it not only steals from the suckers, but also from the other crooks as well.

Over the course of the past thirty years, Taibbi writes, a combination of easy money thrown at banks, oversight agencies blinded, and the watchdog press put to sleep has enabled investment banks, insurance companies, and commodities brokers to inexorably suck the money out of our pockets.  It doesn’t get added back into the economy in any fashion, except in the bonuses paid to CEOs, partners, and the legion of salespeople hawking their products.  Unless you produce gold-plated yachts and giant houses, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see that money again.

The cons are not simple. They were devised over the years by some really smart people who had their eye on anything monetary that wasn’t already theirs.  From institutional investors required to maximize profits in risky investments (have you checked your 401[k] lately?) to taxpayer-financed bailouts, these guys have created a system that privatizes their profits but socializes both the losses and the long-term consequences of their schemes.

Fortunately, Taibbi has sorted his way through both the histories and mechanisms used by these guys and come up with clear and cogent explanations of their concepts, and he steers clear of the tall grass that makes reading prospectuses both useless and soporific.  He doesn’t mince words, targeting Randian Fed Secretary Alan Greenspan, a host of government/industry insiders and their gold-plated revolving door, and the elected officials who approve questionable legislation for their donors.  If, as Dylan wrote, “to live outside the law, you must be honest,” it’s even better to buy the legislative process and make your crimes legal.  For these guys, it’s dirt cheap and pays off every hour of every day.

One of the important points Taibbi makes is that all of this goes on in full sight of the public, but we’re too busy talking about pigs and lipstick, socialism, abortion, gas-guzzling drivers, and gun rights to pay attention.  It’s easier for our press to cover the horserace and entertainment factors of our elections than to actually talk about the vanishing difference between the Democrats and Republicans and their focus on the next election cycle.  At this rate, we won’t be able to buy the metal for our pitchforks and oil for our torches in another five years.

Don Corleone said that “one man with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”  Update that to “two thousand men with guns,” and you’ve got a more accurate picture of the Griftopia we live in.

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I have read a lot of books about personal finance over the past few years.  It’s a topic I felt I needed to learn more about, but I did this before the recent economic downturn. Last year I reviewed Ali Velshi’s book, Gimme My Money Back, which was written to address the causes of our financial collapse and as a basic primer for personal financial management.  I Will Teach You to be Rich also covers the basics, but it is written for twenty- to thirty-somethings. It focuses on streamlining your finances using online tools, and maximizing your returns by choosing the best online banks, credit cards and low-cost investment vehicles.  At the end of each chapter, the author lays out action steps that should take six weeks to follow. I think these are especially beneficial for young adults.  Having a manageable plan makes it more likely that you can accomplish your goals.  The last chapter focuses on major milestones like weddings, purchasing a home or car, and repaying student loans.  I was surprised by some of the things that Sethi reveals, such as that the average wedding costs $28,000 or that buying a home rather than renting may not be the best choice.

I particularly like Sethi’s writing style.  It’s no-nonsense and easy to understand.  He uses examples of his own money strategies, as well as his friends’ choices, to illustrate money-management principles.  I also like his fresh perspective.  There are many books that talk about budgeting, which Sethi says doesn’t work.  He suggests keeping necessary expenses at about 50%, investing 10% of your income, saving about 10% of your income, and the rest is fun money.  Most budgets suggest only allocating 10% to “fun,” but Sethi is recommending up to 30%.  He practices the “set it and forget it” approach; automatically invest and save your money, have bills paid automatically, and enjoy the rest.  It’s a more hands-off approach to money management, but also more practical for a younger generation.

Overall, I think this is one of the best personal finance books for the novice that I’ve read.  The only quibble I have is with the name, which is slightly misleading. This is not a “get rich quick” plan or scheme.  This book provides solid advice for properly managing your money.

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gimmeAli Velshi is a business correspondent on CNN. He has written this timely primer on the current state of our financial crisis. The first chapter explains how we got here with a simplified version of sub-prime mortgages. He then covers the basics of personal finance, looking at good vs. bad debt, savings, and investments. From there he delves more into the world of investments, explaining the available options to investors, some key principles, and how to build a custom portfolio.

This book is quite basic, which is not necessarily a bad thing. There are many people who have never considered their finances before now, and this may be the place to start. What I like about Velshi’s book is that the chapters are short and simplified for the beginner. At the end of each chapter there is a ‘what did we learn’ section that succinctly recaps what was covered and then a ‘coming up,’ which introduces the topics of the next chapter, much like television segments. I also found his explanation of the various investment options helpful. The world of stocks and bonds can be a confusing place, but Velshi breaks it down for the reader into manageable sections.

Gimme My Money Back is geared toward the complete novice. If you already invest, this book might be too basic for you, but if you’re not sure where to start, this is a great primer. I would also recommend Personal Finance for Dummies for those looking for basic material with broader coverage.

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