Business Adventures: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 17th, 2014 by bobmorris

Business AdventuresBusiness Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street
John Brooks
Open Road Integrated Media (2014)

Millions will rush to purchase a copy but how many will actually read it and then apply what they learn?

Here is a new edition of a book first published in 1969 and, until recently, out-of-print. It consists of 12 “stories” written by John Brooks (1920-1993) that first appeared in The New Yorker. It is one of Warren Buffett’s two favorite books, the other being Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor. About 20 years ago, Buffett gave his copy of it to Bill Gates who mentioned that in a Wall Street Journal (July 11, 2014). Now another lemming stampede is underway.

Contrary to what many people apparently believe, however, the significance of this book has much less to do with either Buffett or Gates than it does with the value of Brooks’ insights and how well he presents them. In my opinion, why Buffett and Gates think so highly of this book is of far greater importance than the fact they do so. I had read each of the essays as they appeared in the magazine and then re-read them recently after obtaining a copy of the new paperbound edition.

As I did so, I was again reminded of an incident that occurred years ago when one of Albert Einstein’s colleagues at Princeton playfully chided him for asking the same questions every year on his final examinations. “Quite true. Each year, the answers are different.”

Most of the historical material in Business Adventures is dated. How could it not be after 45 years? However, like Einstein’s questions, the issues that Brooks discusses remain – if anything – more relevant today than they were in 1969. It is worth noting that the average length of the essays is about 37 pages. Brooks probes with surgical skill as he focuses on major crises in “the world of Wall Street” and suggests valuable lessons that can be learned from each situation. Apparently Buffett and Gates took those lessons to heart.

These are among the subjects of greatest interest to me:

o Why the causes of the financial crisis in 1962 remain “unfathomable” but what the significance of that crisis seems to be, nonetheless

o The extent to which the failure of the Edsel suggests “a certain grandeur that success never knows”

o What an “ideal tax code” as conceived in 1969 shares in common with the 1913 income tax

o Why the decision handed down on August, 1968, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was “a famous victory for the S.E.C.” and resulted in “an interesting experiment”

o The struggles at Xerox to cope with the challenges of “good citizenship” in the late-1960s during it rapid and substantial corporate growth

o One of the “most trying — and in some ways most serious — crises in the Stock Market’s long history” and how it was resolved

o Lessons to be learned about ineffective corporate communications with the Justice Department, notably the initiatives of G.E. and its then chairman, Ralph Cordiner

o Business lessons to be learned from the stock fluctuations of Piggly Wiggly Stores, Inc. and from its founder/CEO, Clarence Saunders

0 David Eli Lilienthal and his relevance to the New Deal during the Roosevelt administrations and his subsequent impact on Wall Street

o What Brooks learned about corporate leadership and management while attending annual meetings of various corporations

Note: Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meetings offer compelling evidence of what Buffett learned from the tenth chapter, “Stockholder Season: Annual Meetings and Corporate Power” (Pages 315-337).

o Donald W. Wohlgemuth’s historical — and symbolic – significance after “almost six months in the toils of the law”

o The special significance of Charles Coombs and Alfred Hayes, especially with regard to “saving” the pound from devaluation

John Brooks was a superb journalist, one who possessed several of the skills of a world’s class anthropologist, skills that are evident in these and other articles for The New Yorker as well as in his books, notably The Go-Go Years: The Drama and Crashing Finale of Wall Street’s Bullish 60s (1999) and Once in Golconda: A True Drama of Wall Street 1920-1938 (also 1999). He was also a master raconteur, a teller of tales about the major characters on Wall Street, the motives that drove them, the challenges they faced, the conflicts they created or endured, and finally, their significance within a realm that includes but extends far beyond lower Manhattan.

With regard to Business Adventures, it is possible to determine the number of copies that are sold of the new paperbound and digital versions but not how many of those who purchase one or both will read all, most, or only some (if any) of the material. Meanwhile, FYI, Amazon offers three used copies of the hardbound edition for $1,400, $2,450, and $2,500. Buffett once observed, “Price is what you charge. Value is what others think it’s worth.” Whatever the cost of the container, the value of this material is incalculable.

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