Tuesday, 20 October 2009

What We Learn From the Businessmen

If you did not recognize the style of Death of a Deal Man, you do not know John Das Passos. If you are an American, that is doubly unacceptable. His is the only name you can utter when an anti-American foreigner claims that your country has not produced a single writer or artist of international standing. Das Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy is a masterpiece of fiction in form and content. Once in this blog I asked the philosophical question: What do we need to know about something so we could say we know it? When it came to people, Das Passos knew the answer; he gave it to us with an impossible mix of brevity and completeness that approached poetry. Read the biographies in the U.S.A. and judge for yourself.

I thought of Das Passos when I was reading Wasserstein’s death notices. Even the man’s obituaries were hurried, as if rushing to complete an about-to-expire deal. Deal making alone drove the narrative, as in this gem in the Wall Street Journal (Oct 15, p. C3):
A former editor of the school newspaper at the University of Michigan, Mr. Wasserstein long has had an interest in media deals.
Do not blame the reporter for bad writing. The corollary is absurd because it captures the absurdity of a life whose focus on deals distorted all the relations. Eugene O’Neill perceptively captured this affliction in Hughie’s small-time gambler, Erie Smith. In the dinner party of a puritan hostess, with her children present, Erie recounts the story of one his wagers in a horse race, reasoning that the children would love “animal stories.”

The unintended humor is not confined to the dearly departed. In the same week, I also read the news of the retirement of James Simons, the founder of Renaissance hedge fund who made billions in trading. The Times said that “many on Wall Street” still believe that Mr. Simon has a “supernatural talent for making money.” Now that is a juxtaposition of spiritual and the material that only a Rumi could pull off. How life’s extremities give rise to poetry!

And there was John Mack, the outgoing CEO of Morgan Stanley, telling a TV interviewer on Friday that “our focus” must be on the job creation. This, from a man known as “Mack the Knife” for his relentless cutting of workers always and anywhere he went.

Now that a few market indexes are up and the immediate danger of a collapse seems to have passed, the men of finance are returning to the limelight, assuming Rodinesque poses and availing themselves to awe-struck financial reports for insights about “what went wrong”. They might even be right about the direction of the dollar or the yield of the 10-year Treasury by next year.

But that is not finance as discussed in this blog. We will learn nothing about finance from these men because what they see is always the appearance and never the substance. We will learn nothing from a mouse about the working of the cosmos, even though it could consistently find the cheese, as if by a supernatural talent.

If you are a student of real finance, you are in the right place. Stick around.