In a break from my 'usual' fare in nonfiction books, I just read a book that isn't about management or self-improvement and I really enjoyed it so I want to recommend it to you. The book is called "Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy," by Robert P. Smith.
This autobiographical book is written from Smith's perspective as an international financial in the "fringe" markets of the world, or as the title describes, the 'dark corners of the economy.' He calls himself "The Indiana Jones of International Finance" and the title comes from the premise that he, like an archaeologist, looks for valuable things within the ruins. In his case, it's ruined economies.
You see, starting in the 60's Smith was involved in speculative trading during tumultuous times in lots of out-of-the way economies, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Nigeria, Russia, Iraq, and Turkey. Through his experiences, he learned a lot about the financial and psychological forces that feed our world economy and he does an excellent job of pulling you into his world in a way that not only teaches some fundamental economic concepts, it gives you a better feel for how business is done when the rules are - shall we say - fluid.
Entertaining, but poignant
The book is a fun read, and the style is very conversational and vivid -- as I read it, I could readily picture the scenes in my mind.. But more than just a fun read, this book left me with a feeling of uneasiness. Why? Because, with all the economic strangeness in the world, this book gives you an appreciation for just how unpredictable the economies of our world are, and just how successful people are at getting around the official rules when money is involved.
For example, when you read Smith's account of the many steps taken during the Vietnam War to prevent inflation from impacting the local Vietnamese currency - and then you see how futile those steps were - it makes you wonder whether any of the current activities around economic stimulus packages, tariffs, regulations, and so forth will actually do much to prevent further inflation and economic distress in today's world.
When you read about the collapse of the Russian economy, you wonder if the phrase "too big to fail" has any meaning at all.
On the plus side, you also get a glimpse of how creative, enterprising people can actually drive great success in spite of (or, as in Smith's case, because of) economic problems. And you get to learn how Smith, while making a lot of money, has actually been pretty good at putting that money back into the world in ways that benefit others.
The final chapter?
After tagging along with Smith through many shenanigans, he tries to tie all of his lessons learned in a final chapter called "American Twighlight." This chapter is a must-read as it uses the lens of Smith's learnings to take an objective look at the current state of the US economy. The news is mixed, as you might expect - but not as dismal as the chapter title might imply. He doesn't predict the US's demise but he does talk about some fairly dramatic changes we could see within our lifetimes. Given his past (and his success in reading the currents of the economy), I am thinking seriously about what he says.
And, I am thinking that I might just go looking for some riches among the ruins myself. If you're looking for a new and different book to read, I recommend Riches Among the Ruins.
And, if you like this sort of book, you might also want to look back at my review of a book about the Enron debacle.