Friday, May 27, 2005

2 books

Well I've been reading a couple of books lately so I thought I might as well write about them. Nothing to debate really, but no one's writing here so I shall.

The first book is A Random Walk down Wall Street by Burton Malkiel. I had to read this for my Managerial Finance class, so I wasn't really looking forward to it, but I have to say that it was really interesting, and I've ordered a copy for myself (the copy I read was my classmate's). Basically this provides a solid background for all that is financial, mainly for investing purposes. He talks about all the bubbles that have come about, from the tulip craze in Holland in the 1600's to the dotcom bubble, and what was happening during this time. He also talks about the different fads and methods that have existed for investing (such as growth investing, value investing, charting, etc).

I found it interesting because first of all, despite having majored in business, I was still pretty clueless about what really goes on in even the basics of stock prices and movements (For example, why should stock A be worth 40 and stock B be worth 50? Is it just speculation or are there fundamentals behind it, and if so, how do I know what they are?). He presents everything fairly clearly, and then proceeds to debunk almost every form of stock valuation that has existed in the past century. He especially goes to town on the chartists; those people who try to show you trends based on historical movements and whatnot. That section was especially interesting.

In the end, his conclusion is that index funds will be anyone's best bet, and people need to be diversified to different degrees based on their disposable income and their willingness to take on risk. If you don't care about the reasons behind everything, and think it's a waste to go through the whole book just to be told that index funds work best, I would still recommend the final chapter, on personal finance. Here he actually writes out what he believes would be your optimal investments based on income and risk (he calls risk 'the amount you can sleep at night'). So basically if you have any interest in investing in securities, funds, 401(k)'s, savings accounts, or if you want to make it out of debt quickly, I would recommend this book. There will be sections you're not interested in, so you can skip those (unless you have to read it for class) but the other parts should make up for those.

The second book I just finished is Freakonomics by Steven Levitt. I had never heard of this guy before, but searching around about him I found he's actually very well respected, so I wouldn't be put off by the somewhat pop-culturish title. Having said that, what he writes is very accessible, without any knowledge of Economics or statistics required.

It's hard to explain this book, but basically Levitt seems to not take any conclusions for granted. He dissects certain matters and aspects until he can arrive at (what he sees as) the core of the problem. An example would be that when crime in New york started decreasing, people were attributing it to gun control laws, to Giuliani's strict laws, as well as many other reasons. These were proffered by many experts, and then repeated by the media. While he aknowledges that these factors may have had effects, it's pretty interesting to see how he finds out that Roe v. Wade had more to do with it than anything.

He also talks about why drug dealers tend to live with their mothers, whether swimming pools are more dangerous than guns, and how someone's name might affect their future, among many other interesting studies. Two points about this, however: First of all, theories like this have been sprouting around forever. For example, I remember once hearing how the level of prosperity of a country might be correlated to the average hair length of girls in that country (as in, negatively correlated). Now this is a fun theory, but it's just a theory. The difference between these and Levitt's theories is that he goes through great pains to prove or disprove them. A second point is that you realize he obviously doesn't cover every area that could be covered. Even within his areas, there are many factors which may have been skipped. After reading the book, however, you have more of a feeling of seeing things differently, and wondering if, say, that butterfly flapping its wings in china really did cause the hurricane in the US or not.