Friday, June 9, 2017

Friday Feature Book Review: Ugly Americans (Ivy Leaguers Making Millions) :Ben Mezrich 東京ゴールド・ラッシュ: ベン メズリック (バブル時代の物語)

The bubble days of Japan, had both winners and losers. This is the story a winner, in fact, a very big one. Back in the mid 1990s Japan's economy was just past its peak, and a few who knew, could still make a fortune from the Nikkei. One of these new traders is our hero. John Malcolm is an Ivy League US football hero who went to Princeton free on scholarship for his athletic abilities. He made it as far as an NFL pro team try out with the New York Giants, but was too small to make the final cut. What do you do when your football dreams end? If you come from an Ivy league college, you find new dreams, as in "mounds of money" dreams only found on Wall Street. New York Times Bestseller Ben Mezrich, certainly knows how to spin a fascinating tale.

At least our hero had one real shot. It is often who you know, not what you know. As part of a special football exhibition game in Japan, he runs into a fellow Princeton alumni now working in finance, doing "derivatives" in Tokyo. "Give me a call if you football journey does not work out". A year later, after graduation, that call takes place. How is "Friday for you?" As it was Wednesday in New York, he said "fine". Great, there will be a plane ticket waiting for you at JFK airport. Just like that, no real harcore interview, he was on his way to Osaka, not Tokyo, for a career in financial derivatives. If only it were that easy for all.

Tokyo & Osaka back then, were pretty wild and fueled by bubble times money. Jason Akari, a fellow graduate from Princeton, meets John at Itami airport, and shows him the ways of Index Arbitrage for Nikkei 225. This is before high frequency trading and the cloud. If you wanted to deal, you got on the phone. Margins were "truck wide" and the biggest price differences between Osaka and Singapore which also ran Nikkei futures, were a gold mine for traders arounds the world. The futures pit however, was hardly easy, even in Osaka. He needed his athletic background to make it in the Nikkei pit, just to survive. Concentration and focus from his football days came very handy indeed.

The fun never ends after market where big deals, big bonuses, and big hangovers are all usual daily hurdles. This is the same timing of Nick Leeson, formerly of Barings Securities, made famous when the Nikkei was a major market mover and few wanted to get in the way of any major move. The first day on the job, has our hero putting on a USD4 million dollar trade on his first time out. More money than he could ever need, enough money to retire on, he thinks. That was the thought of a newcomer to the markets. 

The market continues to change and evolve. Today's traders  in 2017 may find the software changed and faster, but the basics remain the same. The story goes on to amazing opportunities in an amazing market of financial excess. All is realistic and all sounds so attractive, if you share that cowboy mentality of a young dealer willing to take on the world as it was then.The learning curve is steep and full of difficult to understand twists that make no sense to those used to a New York mind set. Such is life far away in a land called Japan. All of these stories are in large part true, with the names changed to protect the innocent or many more less so.

The Top 3 Takeaways from this book that really impact any reader are:

1) There is a lot of economic history in Japan when it comes to commerce. Osaka, not just Tokyo, has had a long history of businesses making a lot of money over time

2) The value of the Japanese yen is high for many countries. The nightlife in major cities is a large portion of the economic GNP of any nation like Japan.

3) The gangster element of Japan has many tentacles in many businesses. This was more the case in the past but still the case now. It may not be seen, but is still clearly there.

Any reader of this great novel will find it nostalgic in many ways. It is a time when yesterday's PCs had a lot less speed, just when Windows 95 was rolling out. Mobiles were just coming out and were not smart. This is even before Blackberry. The nightlife of Japan with its bars, strip clubs, massage parlors and brothels are still around, but now less vital today compared to the past. The worklife and nightlife scenes are all very authentic for its time. Tokyo & Osaka certainly had some crazy wild times in the heyday, but so did New York or London. Nothing has changed or everything has changed depending on your point of view. The hero is a real life hedge fund manager today, but what parts are true and which are less so? Many love to speculate. No matter if you lived it or not, it all rings very true and is a great relaxing fun read. Highly recommended!

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