05 December 2017

The Wisdom of Finance

Mihir A Desai
2017, Profile Books, 240 pages,
ISBN 9780544911130

Reviewer: Vicky Pryce, SBE fellow and Author

This is probably the least mathematical volume ever produced on finance and does not contain a single graph. On purpose too! It is trying hard to be a different book to normal textbooks. And in that at least it succeeds.

The idea for this book stems from an end-of-course talk Professor Desai had to give to his students at Harvard Business School. He acknowledges that finance has a bad name. And in the lecture and in this book he has tried to de-mystify and de-demonize finance by linking its practices and development to human nature through a series of old and contemporary stories.

These stories – even songs at times – had obviously made a lasting impression on Desai over the years. Many are fictional or have their roots in folklore. For example, he demonstrates the suspicion and dislike finance engenders through William Shakespeare’ s The Merchant of Venice, showing how the rules and ethics of finance can be wilfully misinterpreted by those who do not like paying their debts. He goes back to the plays of ancient Greece to illustrate the ethical dilemmas many of us face in trying to lead a good life despite conflicting obligations and choices, in order to draw parallels with how financiers should behave.

Not all the stories work so well. A parable about a man who kept buying land that made him rich but died because of his overwhelming desire to acquire as much as possible is used to argue that greed to the exclusion of other things does not make us happy and can lead to a bad end. Perhaps. We know, though, that this is not always the case. And Desai uses the Lehman collapse in the recent financial crisis as an example of human nature gone uncontrolled, although many of us would think it was major political and regulatory failure which encouraged that behavior. In the chapter that discusses the danger of over- leverage which can lead to bankruptcy, the book argues by reference to more stories that, “Negotiating our existing commitments to allow us to take on new ones is the critical skill that finance highlights.” Yes – let’s teach it to all!

Of course human nature enters into every aspect of one’s life. I had no idea for example that the US bankruptcy laws had their roots in America in the early 1800s following the demise of Robert Morris who, having helped raise money to finance the Revolutionary War, then declined George Washington’s offer to be his first ever Treasury Secretary (it went to Alexander Hamilton), preferring to look after his wealth. When that evaporated Morris  was left penniless and with huge debts and in prison for a while, barely able to fend off angry creditors intent on murdering him. His creditors ended up getting very little if anything back as their disorderly behaviour reduced the value of what they would have got if they had gone through the procedures now enshrined in bankruptcy laws. But the nation was shaken by the fall of the great man and the general view about debt changed, it no longer being considered a mortal sin. And with it came as Desai says, a “re- orientation of legal attitude towards failure.”

I particularly loved the passage from a detective story by Dashiell Hammett, one of my favourite writers of all time, about a man who upped and left his family one day when he realised that he was in a rut, only to recreate the same life again after a while with a new family in another state far away; but at least that was his choice! Your choice may be to read this book. It is great fun and it could advance your knowledge of human nature. But be warned, a finance book it is not.