The Money Culture Review
A little back story before I review this book. Before Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker, he was a financial journalist that wrote short form articles for magazines. After Liar’s Poker but before he became so famous that he could afford not to publish for extended periods of time, he bundled some of his favourite stories together, called it The Money Culture, and published it. To save you sometime, unless you are a ravenous Michael Lewis fan like myself, or interested in outdated stories about wealth culture around the world, you can safely skip this book. That being said, there are a few gems in here that I will share.
To give you some context, the book is split into 3 parts, one about stories from American financial culture, the second about European culture, and the third about Japanese. I will give you my favourite stories from each.
I think my favourite story that comes out is the one where the bankers, at his old firm, Salomon Brothers, begin an internal betting market on whether or not one of the heavier set bankers, Franky, claims how fast he can run a mile. In true capitalist fashion, an exchange is created where the bankers can bet on his time much like the real stock market. It culminates with the bankers going down to the track and watching the race which Lewis describes quite humourously. Here is a quote that highlights Lewis’ genius of making something so banal so amusing:
They tossed a few hundred dollars to one of Salomon’s increasingly rare trainees and told him to find Franky the best running gear money could buy. Franky, with $16,000 riding on him, would fly as never before. The next evening the entire Salomon Brothers trading floor hummed the theme song from Rocky as Franky paraded in his new running gear.
This section was pretty boring. Basically just outlining how various different countries were corrupt in different ways. How Britain basically brought American greed to Europe when their bankers started to ape their American counterparts (and hence one step behind). The French had the Bourse (their historical stock exchange) where regulators purportedly called their brokers when they found out of insider trading. Oddly enough, the most interesting story to me in this section was about the wealth culture in Australia where the rich do some interesting things with their money.
This is by far the most interesting section of the book. Perhaps because Japanese culture in itself is so different than North American. But two stories come to the top of my list. The first, how the black market for art thrived/thrives (I could not find the status of this with a quick Google) in Japan because of a tax loophole that did not count art in capital gains tax. Thus, there was a huge market of buying and selling artwork (including illictly gotten works). However, the most interesting story by far is how the country of Japan was ill prepared for a big earthquake and how it could ruin Wall St. First, he tells a real tale about how the system works in Japan (poorly designed computer backups, weaker than required buildings, etc.) and interviews experts on how the system would fail. Then, he hypothetically creates a big earthquake near Tokyo and goes into great detail (fake events but accurate numbers) about how the ripple of the earthquake travels through the financial system to break Wall St. The reason I found this so interesting is because he talks about how he and a colleague would play “what if” scenerios at Salomon Brothers in his previous book, Liar’s Poker. So, it was a nice tie in to read this days after I had finished reading about it Liar’s Poker.
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Next Up: The New New Thing by Michael Lewis