Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Amazon Review of Henry Kaufman's "Tectonic Shifts in Financial Markets: People, Policies and Institutions"

Too Big to Fail is Still with Us

Henry Kaufman, my former boss at Salomon Brothers, has written an easy to read and an important book about our nation’s financial structure. Simply put, Dodd-Frank did not solve the “too big to fail problem” and in fact made it worse by ratifying the undo concentration of the giant “financial conglomerates” that rule finance today. He further argues that this financial concentration impedes Federal Reserve policy. In a crisis that might be true, but it is not clear whether that is true in more normal times. After all Canada has run monetary policy for decades with a highly concentrated financial system with few issues than what occurred in the United States.

His book is part autobiographical as well in that he discusses his years at Salomon Brothers where in the late 1970s and early 1980s the financial world waited with baited breath for his comments. He notes his great friendship with Paul Volcker where he is very kind; he is not so kind to Alan Greenspan where the he believes the Fed became more political. This is not to say it wasn’t political in earlier times.
He makes an acute observation about Margaret Thatcher who impressed him with her sophisticated knowledge of macroeconomics.

What troubled me about his book is his discussion of Lehman Brothers where he was a board member before and at the time of its high profile bankruptcy. He argues that the Fed had more options than letting the firm go bankrupt and suggested that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was driving the bus, not the Fed. That could very well be true, but I wish he discussed what happened in the Lehman boardroom when the firm ran up its debt/equity ratio to 33-1 and loaded up their books with highly illiquid real estate, including the giant Archstone transaction. Further in late 2007 Lehman had a chance to walk from that transaction, but didn’t. Were it not for their real estate heavy transactions in both physical real estate and what was to become highly illiquid positions in commercial mortgage backed securities, the firm could very well have survived. In the interests of full disclosure I left Lehman in 2005.


Thus having opened the discussion about Lehman, I wish he would have given us more details. Otherwise this is a fine book for those interested in how our financial system evolved over the past 60 years.

The full Amazon URL is:

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Amazon Review of Duff McDonald's "The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, The Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite"

Put the Blame on HBS

Duff McDonald has written a very long (672 pages in the print edition) minutia filled anti-American business and anti-Harvard Business School screed. For the most part he believes that American business can’t do almost anything right and he places the blame on the “West Point of Capitalism,” the Harvard Business School for practically everything that is wrong with America.

He doesn’t like the managerial capitalism of the 1950s that ran aground in the 1970s and the shareholder capitalism that began to evolve in the 1980s. What he would prefer is some broad version of “stakeholder” capitalism that protects the environment and combats income inequality, but my question is whether business is the vehicle to do that. My guess is that if business tried as it did minimally in the late 1960s he would use the leftist pejorative term “corporate liberalism.”

The villain of his piece is finance professor Michael Jensen who laid the intellectual foundations for shareholder capitalism in the late 1970s. Out of this flows leveraged buyouts, mass layoffs and the philosophy of short-termism with respect to the undo focus of corporate management on meeting quarterly earnings expectations. He however conveniently ignores such successful corporations as Amazon, Google and Berkshire-Hathaway who invested for the long run and mightily succeeded.

McDonald is highly critical of HBS’ case method of instruction which by its very nature lacks real theoretical underpinnings. That is true, but the case method is useful in organizing how to think about very real business problems. It also leads to superb teaching. He admits that pretty much every professor at HBS is a great teacher, a skill that is lacking at other business schools.

He does favorably mention Harvard professor General Georges Doroit who was an expert on logistics and went on to found the venture capital industry in the early 1950s with his American Research and Development. He also singles out for praise Arthur Rock who was one of the earliest venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

In the interests of full disclosure I have an MBA, not from Harvard, and taught MBAs. As a professor I used discussion of formal finance theory with an occasional case study in corporate finance. Indeed in the most case intensive course I taught, I so inspired one student that many years later he endowed a teaching award in my name. As a result it is hard for me to get too worked up about McDonald’s criticism of the case method.


With McDonald continually in the attack mode his book makes for a very difficult read so I would recommend readers to find better things to do with their time.  

The full Amazon URL is:



Thursday, May 4, 2017

A New Look at Mall REIT Valuations

As most REIT practitioners know all too well, the mall sector has been hammered of late by fears of obsolescence engendered by the explosive growth of e-commerce causing the group as a whole to trade at a 30% or so discount to Street net asset value estimates. My explanation is that the estimates of value are way too high. How so?

At the present time the Street seems to be assuming that high quality malls are valued at a 4.5% cap rate, but in my opinion that doesn't take into account the increased capital spending required by mall owners to compete with the likes of Amazon. So instead of using a 4.5% cap rate lets use 5%. There is more though. Simply put some of the high quality malls are going to be degraded over time. My very rough estimate is that about 15% of the high quality malls will be re-rated over the next five years causing a cap rate increase to say 6% for those malls. Thus the weighted average cap rate should be 5.15%.

Now lets add another 50 basis points to allow for higher long term interest rates over the next few years yielding an adjusted cap rate of 5.65%. When you do this exercise you end up with a net asset value approximating current market prices. The arithmetic is below.

Net Operating Income   $45
Cap Rate Today                 4.5%
Firm Value                    $1,000
Debt @30%                       300
Equity Value                      700
Market Value                      490  (30% discount)

New Cap Rate                     5.65%
Firm Value                         $796
Debt                                     300
Pro forma Equity                  496
Market Value                        490

Thus the market might just have it right. You can play with my assumptions to your heart's content, but I think this is a reasonable analytical framework.

Monday, May 1, 2017

My Amazon Review of Charles R. Morris' "A Rabble of Dead Money: The Great Crash and the Global Depression: 1929-1939

The Great Depression: Who done it?

Charles R. Morris has presented us with a very thoughtful popular history on the origins of the Great Depression. He pulls together the thoughts of four really good books on the subject without getting too bogged down in technical jargon. They are Barry Eichengreen’s “Golden Fetters,”  Liquat Ahamed’s “The Lords of Finance,” Robert Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” and Frederick Lewis Allen’s popular history of the 1920’s “Only Yesterday.”

To Morris and most of the economics profession the cause of the Great Depression was the imbalances that arose out of World War I with its interaction with the gold standard. This is more a Hooveresque version of the cause compared to Roosevelt’s view that causes were domestic; namely rampant speculation, the unequal distribution of income and the 1920’s depression in agriculture. Morris debunks all of the Rooseveltian causes and notes that agriculture wasn’t that bad off in the late 1920s. He does not however note the revolution in agricultural technology caused by the introduction of tractors eliminated the need for forage crops that accounted for 40% of the U.S.’s agricultural output. That alone would have triggered a fundamental restructuring of the industry.

Morris is very good at discussing the impact of electricity, automobiles and radio on production and the lifestyles of average Americans. The 1920’s truly brought with it a revolution in production and consumption. He also has vignettes about the rise and fall of the Samuel Insull, the utility mogul and Ivar Kreuger, the global match king as there empires collapsed under a mountain of debt.

If he holds out one party for special opprobrium it is Germany in its failure to step up to its reparations obligations after the 1924 Dawes Plan knocked them down enough to satisfy Keynes. Simply put they never were going to pay and it was the entire reparation process that put an inordinate amount of stress on the global financial system. However it is unrealistic to assume that any 1920’s social democratic government would have put on such a squeeze on their domestic economy as the French did following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.


As a result if a lay reader doesn’t want to slog through the four books I mentioned above, Morris’ alternative is well worth the read.

For the complete Amazon URL see:



Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Amazon Review of Michael Sims' "Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Sherlock Holmes"

When Dr. Doyle Became Sherlock Holmes

Michael Sims has written a very long biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle centered around his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. It is a book that I wanted to like. The beginning of the book is terrific discussing Doyle’s as an avid reader with an alcoholic father and his medical school training at the University of Edinburgh medical school. There he comes under the sway of Professor Joseph Bell, a very shrewd diagnostician with dominant personality.  It is Bell along with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin that the Sherlock Holmes character is molded.

Also of interest are the original illustrations for the Sherlock Holmes series. It is those illustrations from the 1890s that for our image of Holmes and Watson today. Moreover Holmes’ dear stalker hat is a creature of the illustrator, not Doyle himself.


This is all to the good, but the book goes on and on dealing with Doyle’s medical practice, his life in Portsmouth and the problems of getting published. For me the book is way too long. Thus I can only recommend Sims’ book to a real Sherlock Holmes geek.

For the complete Amazon URL see:

Monday, April 17, 2017

My Amazon Review of Richard Haass' "A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order"

A Foreign Policy for Clinton, not Necessarily for Trump

Richard Haass, a person I like (From TV) and respect has written a very long Foreign Affairs article on a foreign policy for the United States. It would be very appropriate for Hillary Clinton, not so much for Donald Trump. After all Haass is a pillar of the establishment, being president of the Council on Foreign Relations for the past fourteen years.

He is a student of Henry Kissinger and, as such, he goes back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia which represents the beginnings of the nation state system as we know it. He believes that system which is based on the non-interference of the internal affairs of a state is inadequate for the 21st Century. He believes that states have the “sovereign obligation”, to reign in terrorism, fight drug trafficking, prevent nuclear proliferation, and deal with climate change. This is a far cry from the Westphalian System and it necessarily breeds suspicion of the established powers trying to enforce their codes on smaller states.

He is rightly critical of the Obama policies in Syria, Libya and Iraq. And in the 1990s he was prescient in proposing a preventive strike against North Korea’s then nascent nuclear program. The Clinton Administration failed to hear is warning and we are now suffering its consequences.


Haass opens his book with the Brexit vote. However, there is no real follow through. This is a real failure of his book because in my opinion the foreign policy challenges are not external, but rather internal. There is a revolt going on against the global elite of which Haass is an exemplar and I am a mere plebian. It is that revolt that is reordering foreign policy: witness France, Turkey, Hungary and above all the election of Donald Trump. Thus as Dr. Kissinger has taught us, in order to be successful a foreign policy has to have domestic support. I fear Haass’ ideas have yet to convince the general public. It is here where work has to be done.

For the Amazon URL see:



Monday, April 10, 2017

My Amazon Review of Catherine Merridale's "Lenin on the Train"

Riding the Locomotive of History

One hundred years ago this month V.I. Lenin boarded a train in Zurich that would take him through Germany, Sweden and Finland to ultimately arrive at Finland Station, Saint Petersburg, Russia. As history professor Catherine Merridale describes, Lenin arrives in a city racked by three years of war and rapt in the chaos of a new revolutionary government struggling to govern and a Bolshevik Party torn between participating in governing and advocating another revolution.

Merridale vividly describes the collapse of the Czarist regime at home and on the war front and Lenin’s life in exile in Switzerland. It is the German government who seizes upon the idea of transporting Lenin into Russia with the goal of fomenting a revolution that would take that country out of the war. The plot succeeds brilliantly. The go between was a Bolshevik/ speculator Alexander Helphand also known as Parvus, who is quite a character. With the deal orchestrated Lenin and his entourage occupy three rail cars as they travel through Germany and beyond. Although it was known as a “sealed train” it was far from sealed and passengers actually disembarked on occasion. It was quite a menagerie and the passengers included such luminaries as Karl Radek, Grigory Sokolnikov and Grigory Zinoviev. All three would later die in the Stalin purges of the 1930s.

The interesting thing is that it was no secret. The Russian government knew, the British knew and the Bolsheviks knew that Lenin was coming. With his boisterous arrival he grabs the Bolshevik Party by the throat and with the force of his will he sets them on a revolutionary course. Lenin truly was the “plague bacillus” that Churchill described him as, because in his wake you can count the deaths in the tens of millions.


Although the book is slow going at times, Merridale tells the story with great verve and you get a sense of the drama building as the locomotive of history goes on its journey through northern Europe.