Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Do you go to a cardiac surgeon only if has undergone a cardiac transplant?

March 3, 2017

This was the response Mr. GV Ramakrishna (GVR) gave to the reporter who asked him whether he traded in shares. The occasion was GVR being appointed SEBI chair in 1990. On seeing his IAS bacakground, a journalist thought of making a point by asking the share question. The journalist was obviously taken back by the response of GVR and relation with the media changed.

This and several other anecdotes are there in GVR’s autobiography – Two Score and  Ten: My Experiences in Government. It is interesting not much has changed ever since. SEBI continues to be run primarily by IAS officers who do not seem to have much of a background of financial markets.  They do seem to have had a tenure in Finance Ministry’s capital markets which is not valued much by markets and media. They surely know how to answer the question based on GVR’s response! 

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Legislating Instability: Adam Smith, Free Banking, and the Financial Crisis of 1772

January 20, 2017

This is the title of a book by Prof Tyler Goodspeed. A brief of the book is here.

The failure of Ayr Bank in 1772 was a turning point in financial history. It led to change in thinking of Adma Smith who till then favored banking free of government regulation. Thus, this event continues to inspire financial historians who look for different viewpoints to explain the crisis.

Prof Hugh Rockoff reviews the book and sums up:

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Book Review: Glimpses of Indian economic policy – An insider’s view by I.G, Patel

December 22, 2016

I just picked this book (out of stock on Flipkart and real expensive on Amazon) by late Dr IG Patel, the man who doffed many a policy hats in India.

The book was picked as one read through India’s demonetisation history in 1978 when IG (as popularly called) was the chief of Indian central bank. On the move he said:

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How does Geography shape and redefine society: Case of Rajasthan

October 20, 2016

Thingnam Sanjeev of National Archives of India has written a book review of this book by Yamuna Sunny. The book is called Sprout: A Social Geography of Rajasthan and looks like quite a read.

Sanjeev says:

The book is groundbreaking in terms of its presentation, the way it illuminates ideas and events with the clarity of a schoolbook. By using graphics, illustrations, pictorial maps and dialogues, it opens up a new way of approaching and understanding geography which ties up with Sunny’s claim of building on “the informal spaces of reading that should be available to the people” (in acknowledgement). The book is thus heavily driven and informed by a sense of social justice, and is indeed, a pioneering work of its kind on Rajasthan in particular, and geographical studies in India at large. Deviating from the general trend of geographical reading with its focus on the physical landscape, Sunny tries to show how the processes of production and distribution of a region determine the social formations.

The book provides us a window to critically examine the various social challenges that retrograde and divide the people of Rajasthan. It argues that popular knowledge on geography is generally confined to “the encyclopedic form” and attempts to reinvent and reinterpret new perspectives on geography. By using social imagery to explain various modes of life of Rajasthani society, Sunny shows how geography becomes the site where human groups interact with nature to produce goods. It is the unequal nature of this interaction that has produced the social categories of class, caste and gender. She has captured local cultural perspectives through the references to oral traditions, ancient texts, folklores, plays, folksongs and food culture of Rajasthan. How the Rajasthanis as a community viewed their own geography and their responses to the changing spatial relationships have also been explained. The book constitutes a relentless interrogation into how the social geography of Rajasthani society has been governed by the caste system and how it is this very system that has denied the underprivileged class/caste like Dalits free access to public spaces.

How you dislike Geography and History throughout school. This is only to figure later they are perhaps the most important and relevant subjects for the rest of your life.

Globalized fruit, local entrepreneurs: How one banana exporting country achieved worldwide reach

October 14, 2016

An interesting book review on history and growth of Ecuador banana industry.

Role of geography was  just crucial:

Ecuador’s many assets for having a successful industry are also identified. It has optimal soils for growing the fruit, an appropriate and relatively storm-free climate (bananas are easily damaged by strong winds), and an ample labor force already living in the lowland regions that would become the country’s banana zones. In addition, it had just experienced the failure of its prior primary export crop, cacao, adding some urgency to the interest in switching to bananas on the part of many farmers.

Another unique dimension of the Ecuadorean industry is its relatively late beginning. The country’s location on the west coast of South America had been the biggest deterrent to the successful export of the fruit prior to 1914 when the Panama Canal opened. While Colombia and Central American exporters all had Caribbean coasts through which their exports could pass, Ecuador’s trading links to Europe and most of North America involved an arduous voyage around the southern tip of the continent. The canal alleviated that necessity and, while adding on the expense of the canal toll, it allowed Ecuadorean bananas to be competitive in foreign markets. The country first attempted to develop a banana export industry in the 1930s but the Great Depression and the ensuing world war caused major reductions in global demand for the fruit. Instead, the industry got its real start in the late 1940s and took off during the first half of the following decade when Ecuador became the world’s leading exporter of the fruit, a position it continues to occupy. The late start actually worked to its benefit as it was able to learn from the problems confronted by its competitors in the region to its north. That helped both its entrepreneurs and its government make better choices, while also taking advantage of the U.S. Consent Decree of 1958, an anti-monopoly measure that required United Fruit to divest many of its landholdings in Latin America.

…..

Foremost among Ecuador’s distinctive characteristics is the prior existence of an important port city, Guayaquil (now the country’s largest city). Guayaquil has played a significant role from the colonial period on and, in the process, fostered the development of entrepreneurial skills of many of its residents. These were largely in place by the time bananas became a major export commodity for the country in the 1950s. The city spawned several entrepreneurs who would be instrumental in the development of the banana industry. The most notable among these was Luis Noboa. His story, recounted at length throughout the book, was a classic rags-to-riches tale of a driven man who became Ecuador’s wealthiest man and whose firm ultimately became its largest banana trading company (and the fourth largest in the world).

Fascinating to know all this…

Agriculture linked to trade is as old and as modern as it can get..

Who cooked Adam Smith’s dinner?

July 1, 2016

Didn’t know about this book at all – Who cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? It is by Katrine Marcal who has written a scathing review of economics built around “rational man”:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest

When Adam Smith wrote that all our actions stem from self-interest and the world turns because of financial gain he brought to life ‘economic man’. Selfish and cynical, economic man has dominated our thinking ever since and his influence has spread from the market to how we shop, work and date. But every night Adam Smith’s mother served him his dinner, not out of self-interest but out of love.

Today, our economics focuses on self-interest and excludes all other motivations. It disregards the unpaid work of mothering, caring, cleaning and cooking. It insists that if women are paid less, then that’s because their labour is worth less – how could it be otherwise?

Economics has told us a story about how the world works and we have swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. Now it’s time to change the story.

In this courageous look at the mess we’re in, Katrine Marçal tackles the biggest myth of our time and invites us to kick out economic man once and for all.

🙂

Malcolm Harris reviews the book:

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Who was David Hume?

May 9, 2016

Anthony Gottlieb reviews Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris. In the process, one gets some very interesting episodes in one of the most eminent thinkers of our time..

How Kirloskar fought against impractical Gandhism

December 2, 2015

An abstract from SL Kirloskar’s autobiography Cactus and Roses:

From the moment when, after my return from USA [end of 1926], I experienced my first direct contact with the current political movement in India, I became conscious of the serious differences I had in my thinking, that set me apart from my fellow citizens.

Although by no means deficient in the patriotic desire to see my country free and strong, I had my own views about the right methods of making her so. I regarded such rituals as the weekly Prabhat Pheries, the singing of patriotic songs, the parading of the Tricolour, even the wearing of Khaddar and spinning on the Charkha, in a detached and unemotional way. As I saw it, India’s political aim had already put her economy on the road to progress. The improved yield from farm-land created employment and turned out trained, well-paid workers able to raise healthy and educated children for the next generation, making a solid contribution to India’s economic growth.

…..

These Gandhian idealists seemed to me to be blissfully ignoring not only the facts of past history but also the realities of today. When India came under the control of Britain, it was a case of a country without machines being overpowered by one which had them. To discard machines, go about half-naked, live half-starved and reside in rude huts, would never lift us to the heights of happiness and freedom, but rather plunge us into the depths of misery and degradation. I, therefore, resolved to concentrate on the sound management of our enterprise, build more and still better machines, create more jobs and leave politics to our politicians. I would serve my country and lift her out of poverty and bondage, in the manner, which to me, seemed wisest, best, most efficacious, and most efficient.

Should be an interesting read..

Book review: Towards Development Economics: Selected Indian Contributions, c. 1900-1945

November 6, 2015

TCA Ananth mention this book in a previous article. I am quite sure most econ students who graduate from India have not heard about most economists featured in the book. Such is the tragedy of our econ teaching.

The book is a compilation of select writings of select eminent economists, written in the period 1900-45. The title of the book could have been much better. This one hardly does any justice and might be seen as another development book.

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Book review: The Financial Expert by RK Narayan

November 2, 2015

A friend Shrikanth pointed to this book by the legend RK Narayan and I was just hooked. A typical plot by RK Narayan based in Malgudi with a financial wizard – Margayya – as the key protagonist. Apart from the usual finance books, one actually learns more abot finance and humility from such books. But hardly anyone recommends this book for a finance course. Though, there are some who recommend works like Reminiscences of stock operator, A fool and his money  for a reading in finance.

The Financial Expert isn’t a finance focused book but still leaves the main message – money and its proclaimed masters better be humble. Your mastership is valid only till money lasts and there is no guarantee over the last outcome. Money is as mercurial as the metal.

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Book Recommend: The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business

October 6, 2015

This is just a brilliant and a must read book for those interested in Indian economy and business. It is written by Prof Dwijendra Tripathi (formerly of IIM-A) and Jyoti Jumani.The book balances breadth and depth really well and all in some 220-30 odd pages. It really is concise.

Prof Tripathi was a rare scholar as he studied business history of India. Economic history used to be far more popular and atleast is known as subject (if not taught). But business history is like this poor branch of economic history – mostly ignored. However, it is business history which connects the dots of economic development and its impact on businesses. It takes the discussion from markets to firms and makes things look more realistic. You start reading familiar names of various companies and how they responded to the changing environment.

The book gives a good overview of how business history has shaped in India:

The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business is an adapted edition of The Oxford History of Business. The author traces the transformation of the Indian business class from merchants to industrialists and, more recently, service providers. The focus of this volume is on the modern or that phase of Indian business in free India and response of Indian business to the call of globalization.

There is a good detailed review of the book here as well. It sums up whatever there is in the book. It saves a lot of my effort. Hence the title of the post has been changed from review to recommend.

Superb stuff..

Book review: Money, Whence It Came, Where It Went

September 4, 2015

There are two things with economic/finance history. One, we are just ignorant about most of these historical ideas. Two, in case we want to improve our historical understanding, we usually refer to new books written on the topic. The newer books update the narrative but the older books usually have a more detailed narrative given the shorter time. Moreover, historical training was a must earlier, leading most scholars to be really thorough with history. Knowledge of history was the key to an academic career.

Post-crisis, there have been many books written on history of money, global finance, central banking and so on. But then this book by John Galbraith on history of money gives most of these books a run for money. Galbraith was quite a writer and has written some amazing accounts on depression, affluent society and so on. He made arcane and exotic stuff look really easy and fun to read. This book on money is no different.

Starting with a more genralised account on money, the book focuses on US Dollar. Obviously, this is how the show usually begins. It starts from Europe and then moves to US. Asia and others are broadly missed from the picture despite China being seen as the original creator of paper money. The rise of the west post 15th century is still a question which most historians grapple with.

This book looks at questions like: How money began to be created and circulated, how initially banks were created just to verify the weight of different coins (like Bank of Amsterdam), the different experiments by different people under different circumstances to create paper money and so on. All chapters are fascinating to read.

The author stresses that one should be weary of men of money (women hardly played a role even in the west). They usually create enormous hype early on. People love such characters as something like money has never been understood by people. What is not understood is usually seen as important. Hence, historically, people have accorded a very high priestly kind of a role to financiers. They are seen as these magicians capable of turning things around. All the magicians do is pick some old trick and fool people into believing that something real is happening. Things like inflation or recession do not last forever and eventually end. Those who come during the time when such events are about to decline are celebrated beyond belief.

He points to many such examples after discussing life of Nicholas Biddle, once celebrated showman of Second Bank of United States (Chap 7, pg 82). He says :History of Nicholas Biddle is a moral tale. He suffered from same fate as other men who dealt in innovation fashion with money. The second Bank of  US was rechartered by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and was declared bankrupt in 1839. He was arrested and charged with fraud. ”

Men who suffered similar fate:

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Book Review: History of Corporate Finance

August 27, 2015

With a title of a book like History of Corporate Finance, the expectations are running high even before one starts reading. It is written by Jonathan Barron Baskin and Paul J. Miranti Jr. It was started by Baskin but due to his untimely death was completed by Miranti Jr. 

The book was released in 1997 and could easily have been a finance classic but somehow does not hold the reader’s attention. The essays do not connect seamlessly and one does not get a complete picture. It ends up being a mesh up of history of firm, money, governance and so on.

Having said that, it is still a compelling read and tells you a lot about how different financing mechanisms emerged – debt, debetures, common stock, preference stock and so on. Then one also understands how for finance to work one has to look beyond finance. Things like law, information flow etc are as critical. The initial essays especially point to the role of information asymmetry. There was hardly any information on the firm wanting to raise finance. This was problematic in large scale and risky projects like railways and canals. How information asymmetry was curbed by various entities and government guarantee is quite a read.

Above all, it tells you how finance and its various arrangements are as old and historic as it can get. All this talk of financial engineering. modern finance, finance/banking revolutions are just bunkum really compared to what was achieved back then. The way these ideas were shaped and difficulty with which they were sold to public was the real revolution.

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Book Review: Railways In Modern India

August 13, 2015

There is a lot of discussion going on the subject of Indian railways. As always, much of discussions on India are just about some reform/efficiency and all that. Much of the ideas have been known for a long time. You can’t run any enterprise where expenses are more than revenues. Period. This has been the case with Railways for a long time. Some committee is formed, some decisions are taken. The engine starts chugging again only to lose steam again.

This book by Ian Kerr has a couple of essays on historical impact of Indian railways from different perspectives. So there is an essay on how railways helped more people go to pilgrimage places, how the various rail lines were built given the adversity and so on. India was one country which had one of the largest railway system in the world but industrial development remained negligible. This itself is a paradox of sorts thanks to the policies of British who made railways just to serve themselves. Then there is the classic debating question – Whether railways integrated India as a nation or it actually impoverished India as the resources began to be shipped to Britain in much quicker time and speed. This also is debated by scholars in the book.

It also has a brief interview of Mahatma Gandhi on why he thought railways to be more of a problem than a gain. He belonged to the second came and just thought railways  was mainly built for British interests.  There is Karl Marx too debating role of railways in India.

A useful book to learn a thing or two about Indian railways.

 

Book Review – A banking odyssey: The story of Canara Bank

July 31, 2015

This book by eminent journalist MV Kamath could have been a great book on history of Canara Bank and Indian banking as well. However, the book emerges more like a script written to please Canara bank officials. It does not offer that critique, a skill in which journalists usually excel. Having said that such books are really rare as Indian history is usually limited to political arena. Things like finance and banking are rare, so one has to be content with what one has.

The first edition was published in 1991 commemorating 85 years of the bank (found in 1906). A subsequent edition was released in 2006 on the Bank’s centenary. The first one till 1991 is still a great story but the later edition post 1991 is one where one could have added more spice to the story. The banking game changed post 1991 and the challenges etc. faced by the bank amidst rise in competition could have been explained better.

The book has a fair share of pictures which make it a more engaging reading. Usually history books are dry with just text and more of text. This one is different. Some pictures like that of the founder A Subbarao going in a bullock cart to convince people to subscribe shares of the bank is amazing. Tells you couple of things. First, there was an equity culture way bank in early 20th century in a town like Mangalore. Second, how overall work remains same just that technology changes. Earlier it was bullock carts and now the internet. Third, setting up banks in India was much easier in colonial India than free India.  You just had to get the logistics of setting  a bank in place. Now it is all so stringently regulated with one committee recommending more banks, other sitting on the advice and then another one granting licences. Why can’t setting banks in India be easier?

Why was the bank started? Well the Swadesi movement was rife in early 20th century. Many banks came up during that time. There was a need to lend money to small businesses etc in Mangalore region. There is also an interesting story that there was a tradition in GSB community that when any child was born, certain sum of money was kept with a trusted person. This money  was given to the person on reaching adulthood without any interest. But what if the trusted person became bankrupt or depositor died?  There were also cases of the trusted person refusing that such money was given to him at all. Such complaints did come to the founder Subbarao who was an eminent lawyer of his region. The Presidency Bank of Madras had a branch but was mostly for elite. Similar logic was used for setting up Indian Bank in Madras as well which was established in 1907.

In its introduction, the book has a useful discussion on Gowd Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) as the founder came from the same community. How someone from a Brahmin community ended up setting a bank is quite amazing. In discussion on Indian business. we often lose out the role communities have played in setting up firms and banks in India. This was really well explained by Harish Damodaran in his excellent book.

Infact, Canara Bank maintained its competitive edge for a long time because most of its staff came from the GSB community. There is a nice discussion about a study which compared Canara Bank with Punjab National Bank. PNB had a staf coming from all parts of North India and there was no cohesiveness amidst the staff. Whereas Canara Bank was different with branches having a universal similarity to it with things like pictures of deities on walls, incence sticks and so on.

Canara Bank had much more kinship than other banks. This is how other banks in west have also emerged with most having Jewish origins. This is how trust was built. These qualities are no more valued and people want a more diversified culture. This is an interesting aspect of research as to when the qualities of homogeneous staff began to become a weakness.

The book then goes onto discuss how Canara Bank managed all the banking events (both global and national) like Great Depression, World Wars, Independence, Partition and then Bank nationalisation. Interestingly, bank nationalisation did not impact the bank much as the bank’s policy from beginning were more tuned towards welfare of rural/small scale/agriculture. The time period then moves to 1991 when the bank had to fight competition as new private sector banks cam in the picture.

The book could have been a huge introspection exercise as it was re-published and updated in its centenary year. How does the bank move ahead given the competition from both domestic and global banks? How does it fit technology and still maintain its legacy over the years? Is there a future for a public sector bank in Indian banking? If yes, what should Canara Bank do?

From the state of global banking today, the story of Canara Bank has some lessons. How trust was generated amidst Indian public as banks started springing up? Why people came out to banks to give up their hard earned savings? Why despite so called modernism and development of banking, trust is lacking in banking/finance worldwide?

History of Canara Bank does make you wonder and think through these questions..

Book review: Harold Larwood

July 27, 2015

It is Ashes time and I don’t think there could be a better book than this biography of Harold Larwood by Duncan Hamilton. It was a great read over the weekend just ahead of the third test.

This is perhaps one of the best biographies of an unsung cricketer whose impact on the game is felt even today. It is also a great book on the sheer tragedy a person goes through for little fault of his. He is just made a victim of the cricket politics between England and Australia and does not get his due. Ironically, recognition for his efforts come much later in his life when he had actually abandoned the game. The author is partial to Larwood at times and wants to actually resurrect the bower’s image.

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Book Review: Glimpses of World History

July 14, 2015

There are books on history and there are historic books on history. India’s First PM’s tome Glimpses of World History (GWH) clearly falls in the second category. His book on Indian history -Discovery of India became popular thanks to the TV series, But GWH has been broadly ignored by both scholars and TV people alike.

One does not know how to review this book. Such is the impact of the book. Just that wish had read it earlier.

How can one write world history in a series of 196 letters to his daughter? This is the approach of book. Pt. Nehru has written the book sitting in jails all from his memory without any references. The breadth and depth of the research is breathtaking and awe inspiring to say the least. I mean how can one just do such a thing?

The book is a marvellous introduction to history of several things – societies, cultures, formation of countries, key individuals, wars, dynasties, science and so on.  Unlike the other history books which are outright boring (especially those written earlier), this one is really exciting. The way the author starts a story and connects the dots keeps one hooked to the pages. You will wonder why this history has been started and then in some brilliant words he connects it to something in the past.

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Book Review – Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco Da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1498-1945

July 3, 2015

This is just a tremendous book by late Mr. KM Panikkar. It is an old book and might be difficult to get.

The book has a sweeping account of how West came onto dominate Asia around Indian ocean. How the west used its superior maritime forces to take control over Asia is quite enthralling.

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Book Review — The Chastening: Inside the Crisis That Rocked the Global Financial System and Humbled the IMF

July 2, 2015

It is amazing to read this book by Paul Bulstein on South East Asian crisis (and Russian and Brazil) and role of IMF/Washington to mitigate (actually worsen) the crisis. Why it is amazing is one can just change the country setting and some players (many players like Stan Fischer still remain) and you get a recipe for ongoing Euro and Greece crisis as well.

The book is like a breezy thriller on the 1997 crisis full of plots and sub-plots:

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Book Review – Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World

June 29, 2015

A lot is being written on state of Indian railways and the need to change it. This book is a must read for those who are interested in railways beyond the usual LPG of Indian railways (liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation). Apart from many ways to figure economic and social history, one way s to pick history of some technology like railways in this case and see how it has evolved over the years. It tells you a lot about how things have transpired over the years.

This book is really an encyclopaedia on railways in just about some 300 plus pages. It hardly leaves a single country which built railways or a single technology which changed railways for the better (or the worse). The author even mentions the various railway stations built across the world which were showcased as a country’s strength back then (even now for that matter).

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