This book and its summary are pretty long, I extracted the useful advice in a shorter article.
- Major killers in 1900’s USA were Pneumonia, TB, and Diarrhea that are pathogen based while major killers in 2000s are heart diseases, cancer, and lung diseases that are lifestyle diseases. The developing world, which has shifted to a western diet, is seeing the same fate.
- Aging is tied to Telomeres, a tiny cap at the end of chromosomes, which prevents DNA from unraveling. Some amount of it is lost on every cell division. So, shortening of Telomere indicates aging. Smoking triples that rate. Meat, soda, dairy, fish, and refined foods are associated with shorter Telomeres. Plant diets with rich antioxidants are associated with longer Telomeres. Plant-based nutrition is the only intervention which helps in growing Telomerase, an enzyme which helps in regrowing Telomere.
- Vegetarians transitioning to meat once a week experienced a 146% increase in odds of heart attack, 152% increase in odds of stroke, 166% increase of odds of Diabetes, and 231% increase of odds of weight gain. India, despite a low increase in per-capita meat consumption, is facing high lifestyle disease rate due to an increase in refined foods like white rice. So, don’t just go for a vegetarian diet. French fries + Coke is vegetarian but not healthy. Go for an evidence-based diet. The current evidence suggests a whole plant-based diet is healthy. Calories in junk food are cheaper but when you take nutrition beyond calories into account then junk food loses out to whole plant-based diets. Moreover, farms with animals are associated with a higher rate of cancer. Plant-only farms are not. Poultry farms are the worst. Pet companionship is associated with lower cancer rate though.
- A healthy lifestyle is key. Not smoking, not being obese, 30-mins daily exercise, and a plant-based diet is sufficient to wipe out 80% chance of chronic diseases. Non-genetic factors account for 80-90% of the major diseases today. For example, colon cancer rates were 1/5th in Japan compared to the USA in 1950. Now, due to increased meat consumption, they are almost the same. Diet is a gradual process and not all or nothing. If you eat Pepperoni Pizza once a week, going down to once a month is better than not giving it up at all.
- Thanks to dairy and meat lobbies, you will hear “eat more veggies” message but no “eat less meat” message. The latter message will be made more cryptic by saying “avoid saturated and trans fat”. But in reality, no amount of trans fat is safe as it always leads to a risk of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). However, trans fat is unavoidable in a non-vegan diet. Order of nutrition quality: Unprocessed plant food > Processed plant food = Unprocessed animal food > Ultra-processed plant food = Processed animal food.
- Patients regularly overestimate the benefits of drugs. Doctors are hesitant, to tell the truth since no patient would take a drug which has only a 5% chance of success. Big pharma spends a lot on advertisements. They advertise drug, not diet changes. Drugs make money for them, diet changes do not.
- Washing vegetables remove 50% of pesticides. Washing in 5% vinegar (expensive) or 10% saltwater (cheaper) is much more effective. Rinse again after saltwater though.
- After consuming acidic food, rinse the mouth with water to avoid enamel decay. However, don’t brush since that will damage the already softened enamel.
Daily Dozen checklist of Good Health
- 3 servings of Beans
- 1 serving of Berries
- 3 servings of other fruits
- 1 serving of Cruciferous vegetables
- 2 servings of Greens
- 2 servings of Other Vegetables
- 1 serving of Flaxseed
- 1 serving of Nuts
- 1 serving of Spices
- 3 servings of Whole Grains
- 5 servings of Beverages
- 1 workout session
Why Nations Fail
The book is a good read on why some nations are rich today while others are poor. While the book Breakout Nations provides useful information on the current situation in many countries, Why Nations Fail offers valuable historical lessons on critical aspects of economy and politics that have shaped countries around the world. The theme of this book includes:
- Inclusive vs. Extractive Economic and Political Institutions
- The Myth of Geography/Culture
- Path-dependence of the Past
- Centralization of Power
- Creative Destruction
- Critical Junctures
- Defending Prosperity
The book talks about randomness, associated maths, and the psychological biases which interfere in a more stochastic approach to thinking about life.
- Probability is not about odds but a belief in the existence of an alternative outcome.
- The right way to judge the performance in any field is not by the results but by the cost of the alternatives. A million dollar earned through dentistry is more valuable than a million dollar won via playing Russian roulette. The alternative outcomes in the case of Russian roulette are far worse.
- Our habitats have evolved faster than our ability to evolve with it. Things like probability do not come naturally to us.
- When a random process scales (“repeated”), its results regress towards the mean. A 15% return with 10% volatility implies a 93% chance of a positive return in a year (=> 7% bad years) but only a 67% chance of having a positive month (=> 33% bad months) and 50.02% chance of a positive second (=> every other second will have a negative return).
- Over a short time, one sees variability in the portfolio not returns. Over a long time, one sees returns, not variability.
- The wise man listens to the meaning; the fool only gets the noise.
- Law of large numbers – A population consisting of a large number of bad managers is virtually guaranteed to produce some who will have amazing track records. Moreover, the extent of the greatness of their results depends more on the initial sample set than their ability to produce results.
- In real life, a lot of events have skewed payoffs. The likelihood of an event can be lower but the corresponding payoff (or damage) can be much higher. Maximizing the probability of such events does not translate into maximizing the payoffs.
- An option seller makes continuous “small” amounts of income while an option buyer loses money and makes money in one-shot only in case of the occurrence of a rare event. Selling options gives psychological kicks while buying is economically optimal.
- Path-dependent outcome – Computer keyboards are QWERTY because typewriters are QWERTY and that’s because that was the preferred way to slow down the typists to avoid jamming the typewriters. It is not rational to have them today but path-dependent outcomes are the cornerstone of life.
- The same effect can explain why Microsoft’s Windows was able to win by creating a networks effect around its operating system.
- The endowment effect is a manifestation of that.
- Polya process is a more accurate model of the real world than “independent events” approach. Economists fail to realize that.
- We have two systems of reasoning – one is for fast decision making, the other one is for the slow decision making (more details in Thinking Fast and Slow).
- One major implication of it is that ideas do not sink in when emotions come into play.
- Consumers consider 75% fat-free hamburger to be different from only 25% fat hamburger. Mathematically, they are the same.
- Affect heuristic – the emotions associated with an outcome determine the probability of that outcome in our mind
- Attribution bias – People ascribe skills to their success and random unfortunate events to their failure.
- Simulation heuristic – playing alternative scenarios in the head. “I was about to exit the market right before the 2008 crash, I just missed it”
- Hindsight bias – We an incident happens, we believe that we knew that it was going to happen all along. Even though, if earlier, we were asked about our belief in the occurrence of the incident we would not have been that certain. The worst aspect is that it fools us into believing that we can predict the future.
- History appears deterministic even though it is just a manifestation of the potential random paths that were realized.
- Unlike hard sciences, one cannot experiment in history.
- Survivorship bias implies that the highest performing realization is most visible since the loser never speaks up (or survives).
- Availability heuristic – We assign probabilities based on how easily can instance of that incident be recalled.
- People don’t like to buy insurance against something abstract, only the vivid risks merit their attention, therefore, it is easy to sell travel insurance against terrorist act vs travel insurance against loss of life.
- Representativeness heuristic/Conjunction fallacy – We assign the probability of a person belonging to a particular group based on how similar the person looks to that group.
- A feminist student is deemed more likely to be a feminist bank teller than to be a bank teller. Even though the latter is a superset of the former
- Wittgenstein’s ruler – If you have a scale, whose accuracy you aren’t confident of, and you use that to measure the table then you are measuring the scale as much as you are measuring the table. Or more formally, unless the source of the statement is a qualified author the statement is more revealing of the author than the information intended by him.
- Sandpile effect – “The last straw on the camel’s back” are examples of how a linear change can have a non-linear impact on the complex systems (causing a collapse).
- Firehouse effect – A group of people with a similar mindset, after spending too much time can come to the conclusions which are ludicrous to an outsider.
- Psychologically, the frequency of positive events matters more than magnitude. A negative event of the same magnitude is more devastating than the positive event of the same magnitude.
- The inverse skills problem – The higher up the person is in a corporate ladder, the lower is the repeatability of their work, and hence, lower is the actual evidence of a contribution. A person engaged in repeatable work is easy to judge. One engaged in non-repeatable work cannot be easily judged since their results might be a pure manifestation of randomness.
- Humans and even non-humans start seeing patterns in randomness and develop superstitions around how those patterns can benefit or harm them.
- Rational thinking has little to do with risk avoidance, most of it is about rationalizing one’s actions by fitting some logic to them.
- Some details of our daily life like career decisions and investments can harm us or even threaten our survival, it is good to be rational and scientific about them. Other mundane details like the choice of religion can be a very irrational one.
- It does not matter how frequently something succeeds if the failure is too costly to bear.
- Common sense is nothing but a collection of misconceptions acquired by the age of 18.
- Depending on the use-case, extreme values are noise or devastating signals. Average temperature (excluding extremes) is great to decide next vacation destination but for climate scientists, it’s the extremes that matter. Similarly, extremely rare events can bankrupt a company.
- As per Karl Popper, there are two types of theories, falsified and yet to be falsified. Something which can not be falsified is not a theory.
- More knowledge does not always lead to more information, sometimes, it just leads to a stronger belief in meaningless noise.
- Markets always go up in 20 years more or less holds but only a few markets have really survived over time and it was not obvious with hindsight that which ones will survive. For example, Germany, Imperial Russia, Argentina blew up completely.
- Most humans stop when they are satisfied (satisfied + suffice) with a result than working towards the most optimal outcome. Satisficers are happier; optimizers end up being more successful on any traditional metrics of success. The causality is not clear though.
- At a given point in the market, the most successful traders are likely to be those that are the best fit for the latest cycle. This does not apply to dentists since that profession is more immune to randomness.
- People become leaders not because of the skills they possess but the superficial expressions they make on others (“charisma”).
- When people merely work hard, they lose focus and intellectual energy. Work ethics, however, draw people towards signal than the noise.
- Extreme empiricism, an absence of a logical structure, and competitiveness can be quite an explosive combination.
- Someone’s raw performance and personal wealth can sometimes (but not always) be an indicator of their success.
- We learn from mistakes by doing them not by reading/listening to them. Learnings from history cannot be acquired via pure reading either.
- Listening/reading current news neither provides one with any predictive ability nor improves one’s knowledge of the current world.
- Spontaneous remissions of cancer can suddenly cure the disease and the patient might think that whatever pill they have consumed in the meanwhile has the cancer-killing property.
- The unpredictability of the behavior is a deterrent. Sometimes, the government has to overreact on small things, so that, others cannot figure out the precise limits of tolerance.
It consists of 12 chapters, with one story each, most of them from the Wall Street of the 1960s. On the surface, the stories will appear completely unrelated but underneath the idea is to touch all aspects of the business. The stories can roughly be divided into two parts
- R&D – The story of Xerox is a company’s dangerous bet on making photocopying work
- Product – The story of Ford’s Edsel is about the failure of overhyped products
- Communication – The story of GE is about illegal price fixation and intra-company communication
- Trade Secrets – The story of Goodrich engineer leaving the company for a competitor is about the role of trade secrets
- Insider Trading – The story of Texas Gulf Sulpher is about employees ability to trade on insider information
- Public vs private sector – The story of Lilienthal is about the role a person coming from the public sector played in the private sector
- Market manipulation – The story of Piggly Wiggly is about how publicly traded companies have to face market manipulation
- Market fraud – The story of Haupt is about the role of exchange in protecting customers of the exchange member firms against fraud by those members to increase confidence in the market for the retail investors
- Market Crash – The story of the small market crash of 1962 is about the role of exchange and the mutual funds to prevent the irrational behavior from causing wide swings in the market.
- Currency crisis – The story of the British Sterling’s fight against its devaluation is about the role of central banks in preventing a currency crisis.
The book also contains a general discussion on Federal Income Tax and the role of the stockholder meetings. Both of these, in my opinion, can be skipped.
Carlson and Kornei came up with a basic photocopying process in 1938 at a non-profit industrial research Institute Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio. Carlson patented it and sold it to Battelle, who resold it to Haloid for royalty. From 1947 to 1960, Haloid spent $75M (twice its earnings) on the photocopy process, more stock issues were raised, employees were paid in stock. By 1960, the fortunes were completely turned around. The investment, not only made Xerox employees richer but produced tremendous value for Carlson and the University of Rochester which invested in Haloid (now Xerox) in its early days. (ashishb’s note: This is worth contrasting with how Xerox being analogous to photocopying prevented Xerox from ever succeeding in the PC business since consumers never associated Xerox with PCs)
In 1955, Ford wanted to come out with a new compact car for the emerging middle class of the US, they did except by the time car came out it was too late to the market and the compacts had taken over. Edsel is the name of Henry’s son and that didn’t bode well with the employees either who felt that it had dynastic connotations. This was further followed by high-handedness in selecting the dealers. In July 1957, the stock market took a nosedive. It was introduced in the last quarter of 1957 with a lot of fanfare only to be criticized for its poor manufacturing quality, bad appearance, and high price. Eventually, the Edsel division was folded into other divisions and the car was removed from the market. Overall, loss to Ford was about $250M.
From 1956 to 1959, 29 companies selling heavy electrical machinery engaged in illegal price fixation. In 1961, these companies, with GE as the ringleader, were prosecuted for both civil and criminal violations. Two things went wrong, employees in sales were reminded that price fixation is illegal with a wink, and employees who were engaged in such meetings (referred with code words) were being rewarded.
I receive my business guidance from the communication, oral and written, and through a more visceral medium of “impacts” – a GE manager during Senate testimony on price fixation
The actions of people in managers in GE were the impacts that influenced the thinking and taught many what the true attitude of the company is. As the senior managers tried to cut down on these price-fixing meetings, they faced another problem, employees would simply ignore such instructions thinking that what’s being communicated is the opposite. Many were fined, lost careers, and sent to prison eventually.
In 1961, A Goodrich engineer Wohlgemuth working on space suits decides to leave and join International Latex Corporation (ILC), which has recently won a govt contract for spacesuits. Goodrich took this to court claiming that the engineer knew too much about the trade secrets and if he joins the competitor he will leak them. ILC fought back the case. Media attention was on the case since the decision implied whether companies can enforce proprietary trade secrets from leaking or can they just steal it. The other implications were on the career of these researchers who could become a slave for life for a firm if they weren’t allowed to join the competitor. The final decision went in favor of the engineer and consisted of two arguments.
- One free bite – Every dog has one free bite before it is considered vicious. Wohlgemuth would be assumed to be not leaking secrets unless proven otherwise.
- With the number of co-workers, the engineer has, if something is leaked then there is a high chance someone will inform Goodrich.
Texas Gulf found huge Sulpher mines in Eastern Canada. As the discovery for being confirmed, many insiders bought shares. After the public announcement of the news, a director immediately called his family members to buy shares. SEC bought cases on both counts. In the first case, the judge decided that the confirmation was not strong enough, so, information was not material enough. In the second case, the judge decided that as soon as the news is made public, taking actions on that is legal and SEC is welcome to change rules for the future but not retroactively.
Public vs private sector
(ashishb: The chapter focuses too much on a private individual, Lilienthal, and is not of much use except for a few beautiful quotes)
Lilienthal was heading Tennesse Valley Authority and left that to start working in the private sector, he had a great career.
Business has its man-eating side, and part of the man-eating side is that it’s so absorbing.
Making a million – I was surprised of course. It’s like when you are a boy and you try to jump six feet. Then you find you can jump six feet, now what?
Piggly Wiggly stores were started in Memphis, Tennessee. Once successful, they went in with a franchise model, when some of the franchise closed in 1922, then some players on the Wall street decide to short the share. Adamant at beating the pros at their game, the founder, Saunders decided that he will “corner” the market by buying all the stocks which were being traded and then lend it for short selling, and once no publicly trading stock is available will demand that his stock is returned. Since he will be the only one holding the majority of the stock, he can charge whatever price he can for that. The plan was great, except, the pros had better connection them him. The exchange suspended the trading of the stock. And the pros figured out that many widows and pension funds are holding the stock which cannot be traded anymore. They happily sold those stock certificates. Saunders who borrowed the money to buy this stock was in the deep red (badly under debt). New York stock exchange apologized by stating that the public harm was more dangerous than keeping the southern pride alive. Saunders had to file bankruptcy and his future entrepreneurial attempts were failures.
Haupt, a member of the New York Stock Exchange, was doing Cottonseed trading on behalf of a client, Alliant. The account was not only leveraged and largest for Haupt, but it also turns out later that the collateral receipts were fake. The company was bankrupt and the exchange took a major step in ensuring that the innocent customers of Haupt, should not lose anything in the process. The exchange convinced its members to put the money, it even convinced European banks who were the creditors to let the customers get to the “whole” first. The event was lauded as confidence-inspiring by major newspapers. Eventually, customers got everything, creditor banks got about 50% back.
Psychological gestures on the Wall Street work when they are neither really needed; nor intended.
In 1962, the stocks were trending downwards and the biggest theory was that the small investors were losing confidence and during the panic were pulling money out of the mutual funds which were forced to sell stocks to raise cash for redemption. What turned out is that most of the selling was due to margin calls, so, most sellers were playing the market on the borrowed money. And downward trending forced them to sell. Eventually, a fund manager spotted a deal for Telephone (AT&T) and decided to buy it, as it started trending upwards, the other stocks moved upwards as well. And the market changed from seller dominant to buyer dominant. And as the stocks keep climbing upwards, the mutual funds cashed out on the profit leading to more stabilization. Overall, mutual funds acting in their selfish interest provided stabilization to the market.
In 1964, the British pound was guaranteed to trade in the range of $2.78 to $2.82, if it is trading closer to $2.78 than Bank of England will buy it off the market by making payments in Gold, and in the reverse scenario Bank of England will accumulate Gold. But the balance of payments was against Britain and the pound was tilting closer towards $2.78. As the bank lost more and more Gold, many central banks came together to prevent the collapse of the British pound by pledging $2.85 B. This pushed the speculators back but since the balance of trade was broken, 3 years later, Britain was in the same situation, with the earlier loans unpaid for. This time the market won and the pound was devalued to $2.38 to $2.42 range. This immediately was followed by the buying of Gold (or selling of Dollar) in many parts of Europe including London. It became clearer that France has a hand in this to cause the devaluation of the Pound and the Dollar. Members of the Gold Pool met, introduced many sanctions to cut down the shortage, and then introduced special drawing rights for the paper gold (ashishb’s note: The book was published in 1969 before the US govt. in 1971 decided that convertibility of the Dollar to Gold won’t be allowed anymore).
While the book is overall a good one, unfortunately, it contains a lot of generic financial advice which I decided not to include in the summary.
Choose a sound financial lifestyle
- Borrowers borrow money from the future in the form of credit loans till the lifestyle collapses, consumers consume money paycheck to paycheck, keepers focus on accumulating wealth over time.
- The focus on net worth mentality over paycheck mentality actively works in keepers favor.