Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Three Books, briefly

1. I wrote last week of a forthcoming book about the demise of Bear Stearns, BEAR TRAP, and about my efforts to obtain a review copy.

I'd like to report now that I have seen a copy, and that the book is something of a disappointment.

The opening paragraphs, in which the authors compare themselves to Shakespeare and Dreiser, should have been a tip-off. If you have a good story to tell, you can launch right into it and let it tell itself.

2. A more interesting read by far, Joe Nocera's GOOD GUYS & BAD GUYS. The bulk of this book is a "best of" collection of articles and columns going back to the 1980s. The new material generally updates or seeks to draw connections amongst the collected material.

Some oil-industry history: In 1982, when T. Boone Pickens, founder of Mesa Petroleum, offered to buy a much larger company, Cities Service Company, which was more generally known by the name Citgo, the target company responded by offering to buy Mesa. High drama played out in the suites of southern Manhattan for weeks as the two fish struggled to see who would swallow whom.

Neither offer ever actually closed, but the upshot of it was that Pickens made his name as a wheeler-dealer on a very big scale, and Citgo was put "in play" in the markets. By the end of that decade, it had been sold (through steps I won't relate here) to the nation of Venezuela.

Anyway, Joe Nocera got a journalistic coup out of this intense bidding war. He was there, in the hotel suite with Pickens and his brains trust, through the thick of it, and it became the October 1982 cover story for Texas Monthly. That chapter makes a very compelling read and a great jumpstart to this book.

3. Or consider Roger Lowenstein's latest, While America Aged, about (as the lengthy subtitle aptly says), "how pension debts ruined General Motors, stopped the NYC subways, Bankruptcy San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis."

The "devil's pack" that too many managements have struck with too many unions over the years in the US is: labor peace in return for unfunded pension promises. The managers who strike this deal may be either private, quasi-public, or fully public. The bargain is the same. It is the sort of bargain that a credit-card addict makes with himself. "I'll save my cash and soothe my spending impulses at the same time by using the plastic."

One neat detail from the San Diego case study: In October 2001, that city's chief of human relations, Cathy Lexin, expressed her growing unease about the pension's earnings numbers vis-à-vis its liabilities in a very eloquent way in an email she sent to the assistant city auditor. The subject line of the email read: EEEK.

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