Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

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.



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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:


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).


Book recommend: Long Walk to Freedom

June 26, 2015

Such books cannot be reviewed. Just recommended.

An autobio of late Neslon Mandela(some say ghost written by American Richard Stengel). It is a must read for all our politicians and policymakers especially in today’s environment where all humanity and humility has been lost. There is a strong belief amidst all these members of polity that they are here to change the world and so on. Here is a story of a person which just humbles you given the years of struggle and horrible experiences one has to go through in his fight.

The best part about the book is that it is a breezy read. Such books usually awe you and be preachy. This book is nothing of the kind and despite being 600 plus pages, is just so light.


Book Review: 1971 – A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh

June 18, 2015

This is a terrific book by all means. How an academician ends up writing a war thriller is a huge achievement. Dr Srinath Raghavan also has a unique background of serving Indian Army before dipping into academics. So, he brings the essence of war politics like few can.

This book is on how Bangladesh was created and the dynamic (and tragic) global politics around the 1971 that led to creation of the country. The book undoes many a myths in the process like Indira Gandhi wanted to control both West Pakistan and East Pakistan  (Indian polity was more bothered with the huge influx of migrants; they actually erred by not interfering in the war earlier), Nixon/Kissinger played a crucial role (the duo actually messed up the whole affair), China did not play a role due to extreme winter conditions (this was a really lame myth by all means, China did not play a role as it was worried this would antagonise Soviets with whom it fought a recent war)..and so on..


Book review – War and Gold: A Five-hundred-year History of Empires, Adventures and Debt

June 17, 2015

This book is a good historic account of evolution of various currency systems and importance of gold. Written by Kwasi Kwarteng, a historian and a politician in UK. Earlier quite a few politicians could write really well, now it is such a rarity.

The book starts from conquest of Inca empire by Spanish empire. This conquest led to inflow of precious metals (read gold and silver) in the European country which helped finance further wars. The Spanish did a bad job of maintaining this conquest and led to build up of debt.  The high debt leads to issues of currency and inflation. This is how all these things are connected and becomes the theme of the book:


Book Review: A Swadeshi Bank from South India

June 15, 2015

While reviewing/recommending old historic books, one does not know how to help interested people find the book. This is one such book and is a gem on history of Indian banking and finance.

This book narrates the history of Indian Bank which the author calls it as a Swadeshi Bank from South India. It is written by RK Seshadri, former deputy Governor of RBI. The author does a great job of fitting the evolution of the bank against both domestic and global backdrop.


Book Review – The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational

June 12, 2015

This book by Nick Robins could have been a classic. However, the author lets slip of the opportunity. The timing was also a crucial factor as the book released hjust before the crisis in 2006. If the book was written around the crisis time. am sure the author would have got a much better perspective and publicity. After all, the recent crisis has shows us the evil side of many a corporation, which the book also discusses on East India Company.


Book Review – Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Powe

June 9, 2015

Yesterday was World Ocean’s Day and a perfect day to read this book by Robert Kaplan. Kaplan is  a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Ideally one should have read a book on importance of oceans in human lives but even to know the role oceans play in geo-politics is quite interesting and important as well.

I am sure there are better books on history of Indian ocean and South Asia. But this one is a great way to be introduced to such an important and fascinating subject.  As economics textbooks have taken out politics, history and geography (even economics) from them, one is just amazed to read all such accounts.

The main thesis of the book is that geography matters in determining destinies of countries. This is against the institutional view which says only good institutions matter. But having favorable geography does determine the state of nations over a long term. Having access to sea routes and good ports, is a huge natural advantage on which one can build on.

The author picks why Indian ocean and countries around the ocean will play a key role in coming years/decades. He says just like Atlantic Ocean played a crucial role since the World Wars, same will be the case with Indian Ocean. US was the key player in importance of Atlantic Ocean and China (along with others) is likely to play a key role in Indian Ocean. This is also nothing new really. Indian Ocean played a dominating role earlier as well when European colonisers navigated through the ocean to make most of Asia their colonies. Even before them, when India and China ruled the world Indian Ocean played a key role as well (though Silk Route or land route played the dominant role then).


Book Review — Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown

June 5, 2015

This is really a must read book for those interested in the economics subject and profession.Written by Prof Philip Mirowski, a scholar in history of economic thought. Someone who has explained in several texts how economics has become a machine like, mathematical subject over the years.

In this book, written post crisis Prof M takes a stab at the Neoclassical school of economics which he calls it nicely as Neoclassical Thought Collective (NTC). As he is a scholar of thought, he painfully builds this entire NTC thinking before the crisis and the cheerleaders of this thinking. This NTC group was the go to group and had all people placed at the right places to push their ideas and make it the mainstream thinking.

During and post crisis, most of these ideas were found wanting. But guess what? It did not harm the careers or thoughts of any of the NTC brigade. They have actually only become bigger and their influence has only surged.

How did these so called self appointed guardians of world economy manage this Houdini? This is what the book explains in a really long narrative. The author explains how this club regrouped quickly post crisis and  behaved as if nothing has happened. They actually demonstrated that they are the only ones who can save the world as well. Some of them pointed  vociferously that they did say that  a crisis was emerging and hence they continue to remain relevant. Infact, these predictor guys popularity grew within the club and they were promoted as the new leaders of the NTC.  Within all these people changes, utmost efforts were made to ensure that NTC ideas continue and remain dominant as they were before the crisis. This meant ignoring all calls to make the subject interdiscipinary laced with history and other social sciences.

The brief of the book is:


Monetary Policy and the Onset of the Great Depression: The Myth of Benjamin Strong as Decisive Leader

May 27, 2015

This is the title of a recent book by Mark Toma and is reviewed here.

I mean Great Depression research still remains so relevant. More importantly, scholars are undoing whatever we have learnt about the depression. One such common lesson is role that Ben Strong of NY Fed could have played in resolving the depression if he was alive. After all it was Milton Friedman who made this idea popular.

Not anymore as it has been discussed in this book. AS the reviewer points out:

Mark Toma’s short, but dense Monetary Policy and the Onset of the Great Depression: The Myth of Benjamin Strong as a Decisive Leader provides a revisionist history of the Benjamin Strong leadership years at the Fed leading up the Great Depression. Despite the title, the book focuses entirely on this period and doesn’t delve into the actual causes of the Great Depression. Rather than provide a casual explanation of the Great Depression per se, Toma’s project is to convince monetarist and Austrian economists that both of their accepted histories of the Great Depression are empirically unfounded. Thus, Toma argues that mismanaged monetary policy — tightening per the monetarist narrative or loosening per the Austrian narrative — can be ruled out as a causal factor of the Great Depression.

In questioning the Strong decisive leader theory — the theory that Benjamin Strong played a decisive role in the monetary policies of the 1920’s as the President of the influential New York Federal Reserve Bank and that his untimely death ultimately led to the wrong-headed policies that brought on the Great Depression — Toma does not stand alone. Temin (1989, 35), Wheelock (1992), and Brunner and Meltzer (1968) all question the strong leader hypothesis. However, Toma discredits each of their theories and forges a completely new explanation for why Strong’s leadership was not a decisive factor. Toma makes the case that the Fed operated as a self-regulating, decentralized system. According to Toma, this system operated effectively as intended, so the credit for Friedman and Schwartz’s (1963, Ch. 6) description of the 1921-1929 Fed era as the “high tide” of the Fed system should go to the founders of the Fed, not Benjamin Strong.

Overall, the book would have benefitted from a more thorough engagement with the modern literature. Instead of addressing modern developments and more nuanced and refined arguments in the monetarist and Austrian tradition, Toma sets up the book against the narratives of Rothbard (1975) and Friedman and Schwartz (1963).

Hmmm.. Have not read the book so no comments.

All I can say is we have this tendency to glorify certain individual and try and make him/her accountable for all goods/bads especially in an institutional setting. Reality is a lot different and one has to see a broader political picture.  What matters more is how political systems have designed certain institutions and the structure therein. This is a much more important story and plays out for a longer period of time. Person based stories last only till the luck lasts..

It is also important to note how certain narratives remain despite them being proven wrong/right by subsequent scholars..

Book review- 2014: The elections that changed India

May 26, 2015

The future historians (oxymoronish term) are keenly awaiting to write tomes and tomes on this 2014 election. We still do not know how things will pan out as it is just one year old.

Some accounts have already started and this one by Rajdeep Sardeasai is an intriguing read. The eminent journalist has lost quite a clout from his Mount Everest days especially after the fight in NY. But nevertheless one cannot take away years of his journalism experience and election tracking which he tries to pour into the book.

The author upfront says that this is not a scholarly account but a journalistic one. So don’t expect some neat theories and empirical data to validate them. The book is just like a journalist’s life – breezy and anecdotal.

The focus of the book is 2014 elections. In each chapter Mr Sardesai tries to pick up some party, some individual and eventually tries to bring them to the common theme – what were they doing before the 2014 verdict and how they were campaigning.  In this pursuit of 2014 verdict, Sardesai comes with some interesting anecdotes and stories around the 2014 election. We have seen most of the events so there is nothing new. But then this is the purpose of the book as well – to bring all these events in one book. Given he is a journalist and has vast experience, there are bound to be biases. But overall he tries to put things in perspective and does not spare anyone really.

The book tells you how well managed and focused the campaign was for BJP and listless for Congress and others. The way various resources were tapped into is interesting. One has to especially mention technology which played a decisive role in these elections. It was ironical to see a swadesi party like BJP taking on technology so well and Congress with so many erudite leaders were just no match.

One would have hoped that along with the main theme, Rajdeep also explain some basics of news reporting. But this is missing from the book. It would have brought some interesting insights from the industry which otherwise tells you about how other things work. The author does get into darker insights of breaking news and exit poll phenomenon which has made quality news coverage a thing of the past. This obviously has deeper ramifications as we are reduced to a soundbyte society. This aspect also was captured really well by BJP which tried to capture all possible soundbytes through a slick electoral campaign.

Overall, a nice breezy read with little expectations. I am sure more such journo accounts will follow as such was the impact of this election. And then eventually it will be over to historians and polity scholars to get into details..

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