"Genius is in-born, may it never be still-born."

"Oysters, irritated by grains of sand, give birth to pearls. Brains, irritated by curiosity, give birth to ideas."

"Brainpower is the bridge to the future; it is what transports you from wishful thinking to willful doing."

"Unless you keep learning & growing, the status quo has no status."

Thursday, October 29, 2009


As a movie buff, reading the book, 'Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy', invariably reminds me of vivid memories of three great movies during the eighties, 'The Year of Living Dangerously' (starring Mel Gibson), 'Under Fire' (starring Nick Nolte, Ed Harris & Gene Hackman) & 'Salvador' (directed by Oliver Stone; starring James Woods) in some ways.

For me, this book is basically "part-adventure, part-memoirs" of the enterprising author, Robert Smith, lawyer-debt-collector-turned economic mercenary & financial entrepreneur, who has been acknowledged as the 'Indiana Jones of International Finance', especially the more interesting & dangerous parts.

The book also traced his adventurous global exploits - stretching over three decades across five continents - in the risky world of trading in emerging & submerging markets' sovereign debt & evaluating creditor claims against foreign governments in the most remote, & sometimes hostile, areas of the world.

What had motivated him most was, like he said, "I'm restless & I love to travel... I crave adventure in exotic places... Living by my wits in an unpredictable environment is a thrill I seek over & over... I love the thrill of the deal, & I love making money!"

As a matter of fact, what had really stood out in this book, especially in terms of personal traits, were his astute power of observation, knack for improvisational creativity, & propensity for instinctive (intuitive) decision making.

For me, even though finance is not my cup of tea, this book has been quite an enjoyable read.

Luckily for me, it is not about lessons in global finance, although it does provide numerous snapshots of intriguing financial transactions that go on in the murky fringes of the global economy. To illustrate the magnitude of the wheeling & dealing: The author lost US$15 million on a single day in 1998 pertaining to the ruins of the Russian economy.

I am in fact rather keen to glean street-smart insights from a man on the spot, so to speak (cold calling was a staple of his business), in the remote frontiers of globalisation: El Salvador, jungles & streets of Vietnam, Turkey, Guatemala/Panama, Nigeria, Russia, & post-Saddam Iraq.

Sad for him, his trading days are now over. The globalisation of the market & the availability of information rapidly transmitted electronically has made the business much less lucrative than it used to be.

Nonetheless, I fully agree with him that there are valuable lessons to be learned from his book in terms of understanding human nature, & also about the complex new world in which we live.

The following are my personal takeaways from his book:

- "... sometimes, you have to fake it in order to make it.";

- "... learn to listen critically & discern whether people are telling the truth; learn to weigh people's motives & sometimes hidden agendas; learn how to be at ease & operate in unfamiliar territory; learn how not to behave in a foreign country, when you wanted to get things done.";

- "... find someone you trust who speaks the language & lives in the culture; also, while you handle the business, always find a local partner to handle the politics.";

- "The Vietnamese were, generally speaking, very patient people who listened carefully to everything you had to say, even if they had no intention of cooperating."; [This is an interesting observation.]

- "... to get things done, keep your own dignity & the dignity of others, intact; treat people well & they will follow you to the ends of the earth... ";

- "Psychology is all important if you want to make money speculating in currencies... We are creatures prone to excesses of both pessimism & optimism. We are emotional. And emotions, especially contagious emotions like excessive pessimism & excessive optimism move markets all the time...";

- "Don't get discouraged when things ain't working out. Why? Because circumstances are going to change. All you have to do is be open to new opportunity when it arrives.";

- "... always follow a lead, because you never ever know if there might be a pot of gold at the end.";

- "Timing can be everything in business & in life.";

- "... most positively brilliant ideas are born on hotel balconies in the middle of the night under the influence of alcohol."; [For me, the alcohol part is questionable; maybe I am not a drinker.]

- "... in finance, every financial problem has a solution - or, more likely, a thousand of them. Financial creativity, too, is an organic process, & if there is a way to make money at something, someone will inevitably find it.";

- "(in negotiation)... always let the other party go first... You should never be the first to state a price. By waiting the other guy out, you let him establish the floor. It may be higher than you expected it. If it's lower, you lose nothing... You learn a lot about their thinking that way without selling yourself short.";

- "Things change. There's always another train coming into the station."; [I recall maverick billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson had also thought likewise.]

- appreciate "the extraordinary value of circumspection. Even today, when there is so much financial information readily available in real time on computer screens throughout the world, circumspection is essential in business...";

- "Play your cards close to your vest or you will lose your leverage. Always suggest your need is limited, not infinite...";

- "You can learn about a country from its airport when you first arrive; continuing in the cab while you pick the brains of the cab driver about local conditions, while scanning the view for more clues; next, from the viewpoint of your hotel window, which gives more clues about the state of the economy.";

- "Countries don't have permanent alliances, only permanent interests (attributed to George Washington). So it is in business, one doesn't necessarily have permanent enemies, either. When mutual self-interest is involved, even former enemies will bury the past to make millions of dollars in the future.";

- "... make investment decisions based on the reading of politics, not economics.";

- Pottery Barn rule: if you break it, you own it;

- "... find the right lawyer for the right job.";

- "... learn that trust should not be dispensed too easily, that you can travel a long way on a good bluff, & that business is largely about shaping perception.";

- "... people's imagination will let them believe what they want to believe.";

- "Things don't always break your way, & to thrive you have to be a survivor. You have to take your knocks & get up to fight again another day.";

- "... to be successful in the global economy you need, first & foremost, to understand people.";

- "... at the end of the day, it's about doing well & doing good, & in my view everyone who has done well has an obligation to do good." [referring to his charitable work in recent years];

In the end analysis, all I can say is that this book has been a rare treat, at least from my personal perspective: an entertaining broad-brush view of the dark corners of the global economy, & a penetrating observation of human nature under dicey circumstances.

[Disclosure: The book came from the author's publicist. Payment: FREE.]

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