Recent Reading

Time to catch up on some posts that have been delayed by the election season…some books I’ve read in recent weeks include:

The Book of Fires, by Jane Borodale. A young woman living in the country, in 1752 Britain, becomes pregnant as a result of what would now be called date-rape. She flees to London and becomes apprentice to a maker of fireworks.

The book paints a vivid portrait of 1750s Britain…perhaps too vivid for those with weak stomachs. Very well done.

Bull by the Horns, by Sheila Bair. The author was head of the FDIC from 2006 through 2011, and provides an inside view of the financial crisis. She has plenty of hard things to say about many politicians of both parties, some of her fellow regulators, and especially Timothy Geithner and (thankfully former) Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit. Contrary to the impression that might be given by the preceding sentence, there is nothing mean-spirited about this book; Bair comes across as a very dedicated, hard-working, and thoughtful individual. Definitely recommended.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, by John Coates. The author is a trader turned neuroscience researcher, and this book is about the linkages between the brain/mind and other aspects of the human organism, especially hormones. He is particularly interested in how hormonal reactions can impact the financial markets, but the applicability of his ideas is clearly not limited to this sphere. He argues that a testosterone feedback loop tends to drive excessive risk-taking by men, to the point that “the trading community at the peak of a bubble or in the pit of a crash may effectively become a clinical population,” and cites a British politician who has also become a neurobiology researcher, to the effect that the same syndrome affects political leaders.

Concerning women in the financial world, Coates dismisses the common argument that the short supply of women in trading jobs is due to their distaste for the rowdy trading-floor environment, pointing out that there are plenty of women doing well in sales positions on those very same trading floors. He suggests that women may not be as good at, or as inclined to, very-short-cycle decision-making of the kind required of traders, but are equally good or perhaps better at longer-cycle risk-taking as is required of asset managers, and cites the much higher % of women among asset management companies than among traders. (He also argues that trading skill will be of diminishing importance as this function is increasingly performed in microseconds by algorithms.)

There’s something in this book to offend all sorts of people! Michael Kennedy, since you probably know more about hormones and other relevant aspects of human biology than do most of us here, I wish you’d read this book and let us know what you think.

An Old Heart Goes A Journeying, by Hans Fallada. Fallada is the author of two books I’ve previously reviewed: Little Man, What Now?, and Wolf Among Wolves. The present work is a very different sort of book: an aging professor of theology, who has for many years lived alone except for his housekeeper, receives an urgent letter from his goddaughter, who is being held captive by a cruel and grasping peasant couple. Although set in 1912, the book has very much the feel of a tale from much longer ago–it is sort of a fairy tale, and I think the author clearly intended this effect. I liked it very much.

Fallada had intended to write a sequel to this book, but I don’t think he ever did. Which may be just as well, because it’s hard to think that much good 1912..lay ahead for the characters.

5 thoughts on “Recent Reading”

  1. “Michael Kennedy, since you probably know more about hormones and other relevant aspects of human biology than do most of us here, I wish you’d read this book and let us know what you think.”

    I downloaded it to my Kindle. I hope it doesn’t have too many charts or illustrations as those are lousy on the Kindle. I just got my light screen Kindle which is easier to read as it it back lighted.

    I turn, I have a book to recommend. It’s called Diabetes Rising.

    I read it a year ago and gave it to my son who developed type I diabetes at age 27 and is now 43 working as a fireman. It has some new theories of the cause and is really good. It’s not at all just for medical folks.

    Here is my review of it.

  2. Thanks, David. The Coates book sounds very interesting. There seem to be some interesting overlaps between topics covered by this sort of cognitive neuroscience, and behavioral finance. The testosterone feedback loop seems plausible. There will be ample grant money available to study it. OTOH, I suspect that women tend to be poor at other types of decisionmaking, and that their decision biases vary considerably with their monthly cycles.

  3. Jonathan…I’d think that the testosterone positive-feedback loop would be most dangerous when there’s a significant time lag between *perception* of success or failure and the *actual* success or failure. For example: CEO does an acquisition. Media and analysts drool about how brilliant it is. With growing self-confidence, he does another. Same enthusiastic response. Rinse and repeat, several times. Turns out, a few years down the road, that all these acquisitions really sucked.

    Whereas someone in a job with quicker feedback would not get into the exponential self-confidence spiral.

    Re women, there was a CNN item a few weeks ago citing research to the effect that single women are on the average more likely to support Obama vs Romney during the ovulation phase of their cycle. (The opposite effect was said to occur for married women.) After the predictable firestorm broke, CNN pulled the story, but the academic paper (Kristina M. Durante and others at U-Texas San Antonio) is still on-line.

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