Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Liar's Poker and Confessions of a Wall street analyst

A few weeks ago, I was browsing books in the library as usual when two books caught my eyes – Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis and Confessions of a Wall street analyst by Dan Reingold. I thought it was good fortune that had me borrow both books at the same time, because reading these books one after another brought me to a level of insight that reading them individually would not bring.

Liar’s Poker is the more famous of the two. It talks about the story of a trader and bondsman who went through hell and came back ahead, dealing and wheeling in the pits of Salomon Brothers. I learnt more about the history of Salomon Brothers in this autobiography than I would have had I read it straight from a point by point, chronologically arranged sequence of events. It’s the story that stays after the facts faded from memory and the author weaves the story so tight and so engaging that it’s literally a page turner for me. Imagine this – a page turner for this genre of books!

It struck me that back in 1980s, these traders and bond salesman are paid to take enormous amount of risk, all backed by their clients’ money. The firm actually encouraged them to take such risk. A few hundred millions is small change for these people. It’s incredible to think that this insane amount of money just floats around waiting for Big Swinging Dicks to play around.

The other book, Confessions of Wall street analyst, is a little more dry. It had to be, it’s about the life of a idealist analyst who wants to go into wall street to espouse his independent views, but left the street a cynic wary of the independence of American’s financial system. The book is full of examples where investment bankers, analyst and issuers had major conflicts of interest, back in those days when SEC haven’t clamped down on them. It was in the heydays of the telecoms M&A era and subsequent internet dot.com bubble. I had first hand account of how Worldcom blew up, catching analyst and even insiders wondering why nobody found out the glaring aggressive accounting in their books.

I read about ‘swapping’ – where company A bought products from company B and vice versa, resulting in both companies booking a huge increase in revenue and not necessarily an increase in earnings. They did this to justify their huge PE ratios attributed to them and the target revenue and growth set up management. It was an incredible insight into the pitfalls of seeking growth at all expense and the eventual and inevitable exposure of such growth. The scary part is – even insiders do not know about it. Insiders like CEO or CFO, so absorbed in their own story of growth through acquisition and glowing from their soaring share prices, actually believed it will last forever.

I already had the idea that analyst are not entirely independent because they are paid by the company that usually also had a brokerage and investment banking wing, which is a huge source of potential conflicts of interest. But reading these two books bought it to a huge new level of belief!

Perhaps the last few words in the Confessions of a Wall street analyst will cement the ideas in my head forever:

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my time on the Street, the most difficult one to swallow is that I no longer believe in the transparency of the American financial system. When I came to the Street, I saw it as a place where there were plenty of sharks, but also a place where American capitalism reigned supreme, a place where everyone had a chance to do if they were smart, hardworking, and a little bit lucky. It was a game I enjoyed playing – at least until I realized how corrupted the game had become.


Unknown said...

I love your blog and would like to exchange links with you to mine.

"Caribbean Dreams: True Story of an Ivy League Couple who Bought a STRIP CLUB in the Caribbean"


It's a business oriented comedy in the same genre as Liar's Poker, but much sexier.