Every once in while, I like to jot down some thoughts on the books I’m reading, since reading and flying across oceans and large land masses is a major part of my job. In part, I do this because I fear I’ll begin to forget the details of these works as my brain slowly deteriorates into a whiskey-soaked old age. But there’s also the fact that some of these books are worth recommending, and since my kids are highly unlikely to take my recommendations as anything but an unwelcomed bit of parental pressure, I’ll foist them upon you.
Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal that Runs the World
By Bill Carter
Bill Carter’s the kind of guy I might have known, and also would probably get along with. He was in Bosnia at the same time I was – he wrote the fantastic Fool’s Rush In about that war’s absurdities, and he’s got a gonzo streak I recognize from my own days as a foreign correspondent. But I don’t know him – or at least I didn’t until I started assessing his new book on the copper mining industry as a possible selection for think tank I run at Renaissance Capital. Among the things I do as Editor-in-Chief of Renaissance Insights is find good excerpts to send out to our clients, many of whom are deeply involved in minerals and mining as investors or operators.
Bill’s book wasn’t quite what I was looking for – short on market savvy or the kind of actionable nonsense an investment audience wants. But it is a fantastic, fascinating look at the often brutal and seedy side of mining, copper or otherwise. For someone not steeped in the topic, it’s a great introduction and an enraging narrative of greed, apathetic corporate incentives and government malfeasance. Particularly good, considering the recent Barclay’s – LIBOR scandal – is Bill’s account of how global prices for copper and other metals are set at the London Metal’s Exchange by people with a barely concealed interest in skewing reality. Anyway, great stuff from an excellent reporter and slightly mad gentlemen. It was nice to meet him, even if it was just over the phone.
By John Updike
When I moved to London last year from Hoboken, I knew being lonely was part of the deal. My wife and I – now ex-, had to buy our way out of a bad mortgage, which meant taking on debt just to sell the house. Infuriating, but that’s life. As a result, my employed had the upper hand on where I’d be based, to say the least, and London it was. My three kids, unfortunately for me, are now living an ocean away.
So I decided that, rather than enter into a quest for the finest single malt on this island (I may yet do that, but not so far), I’d instead read a few seminal works that somehow I had missed all these years. I’ve started with Updike’s great Rabbit series, and I have not been disappointed.
Indeed, as Rabbit tools around the mid-Atlantic states in “Rabbit Run” contemplating a dash away from his wife and child, I had a chilling sense that maybe this story was too close to home. Not that I did any such thing – but loneliness has a way of messing with you. (I get that same feeling when I hear the opening lines of “Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen, too). But Rabbit turns around and saves the day in his inimitable selfish, sex-obsessed, mid-century American way. Within 100 pages I realized why this book is part of the cannon, and jumping forward to 1969 in the second volume, Rabbit Redux, just makes me want more and more. Shame there are only four of them.
Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State
By Mary Harper
This is a great breath of fresh air for someone interested on Africa and tired of, for lack of a better term, war pornography. Nowhere would you less expect to find good news than the “failed state” of Somalia.
I’ve been off the Somali coast on a US Navy ship, but never in the country. However, my dealings with Somalis – from cab drivers in Newark, N.J. to a few London bankers – always led me to wonder: How could such an entrepreneurial people descend into such a mess?
Islam – I hear you screaming at your screen. Well, partly it’s militant Islam, but that hardly the whole story. Happily, radical Islam seems to be on the run there, and Mary Harper, a BBC correspondent I knew many centuries ago during my time there, does a marvellous job telling a very unknown story of success.
The fact is, life has gone on. In spite of what western photojournalist capture and send home, children are born, people get married, businesses are started, people eat, live, die (some of them of even of natural causes).
Somalia is showing signs of mending. Outsiders have played a role in this, notably African Union peacekeepers and the Kenyan military. But it’s Somalis themselves who are taking the real action, and here’s where Harper’s book shines. “The best people to sort out the problem of Somalia are the Somalis themselves, and this has already been proved to some degree in the self-declared republic of Somaliland. It is ironic that the region that was largely left alone by foreign powers, and received very little outside help, is one of the most stable, and certainly the most democratic, of all territories in the Horn of Africa.”
Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles
By Ruchir Sharma
“It’s not just a cultural oddity that new wealth in Warsaw is boring and understated while the style of the Moscow elite is garish and overstated,” Ruchir Sharma, an EM portfolio manager and asset allocation specialist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management writes in Breakout Nations. “It’s a sign that Poland has a more serious future than Russia does, because Poland is spending money more wisely.”
That’s the kind of on the ground truth that separates this book from dustier volumes tackling the same topic: which “emerging nations” will keep emerging as the century progresses. Sharma, who I hosted in a series of meetings for Renaissance clients, has his favorites, and they happen to coincide with some of my own: he’s high on South Korea (who isn’t?), but also shaky Thailand in Asia. He sees Poland and Turkey, as I do, as countries doing all the right things, and in Africa, we share optimism (and a bullish view) of Nigeria, in spite of its internal problems.
Indeed, it’s his lack of enthusiasm for the powers of the BRICS that stand out (and again I agree). Russia is a commodity play, Brazil overrated, as he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs.
On China, the “big kahuna,” he pleads special case: the biggest question for investors and the world economy. As it breaks through the $5,000-per-capita GDP level it may stall. Of the many economic and political stresses in the country, the statistic of most concern is aggregate debt/GDP, currently around 200%. This ratio has grown by 65% over the past five years.
On the subject of India, where Sharma was born, his contrarian views have played out dramatically. When he was writing the book in early 2011, most analysts were still debating whether India would overtake China’s growth rates over the next decade. “Today, no expectations have lowered as quickly as India’s.”
When his book first appeared earlier this year, Indians demanded to know how he could possibly be so negative as to suggest that India has only a 50/50 chance of being a breakout nation. “Now everything written is about how I was too optimistic.”
All in all, fantastic book.