Monday, April 5, 2010

Ten(ish) Books

I'm a bit undecided about this recent blog meme started by Tyler Cowen in which we learn which 10 books the blogger finds most "influential." On one hand, I think it's an interesting idea, and it's probably a good insight into where that blogger is coming from. On the other hand, it just seems ripe for self-congratulatory elitism. Somehow I have a hard time believing that so many popular bloggers were that into Proust and Nietzsche. (Then again, I suppose philosophy majors need to do something after graduation. These guys seem to think it could have gone even further. Rabelais? Seriously?)

At any rate, after reading a few of these posts, I decided to put together my own list. It was at this point that I realized that the word "influential" is a pretty subjective term. Influential how? Influential in terms of shaping my career path? I could put that together fairly easily. Influential in shaping my outlook on life? That's another story entirely. And what about books that haven't really shaped my life in any meaningful way, but are just books that I really really like? Isn't that influence as well?

And then I realized, I'm not sure I can even think of enough books to make a list.

It's not because I don't read much - I'm actually a voracious reader on a very wide variety of subjects. I admit that philosophy isn't well represented in my personal library, but I think that's a result, not a cause. There were a few times I remember reading something that made me stop and say something along the lines of "Yes - this is how things really are;" however, in all of those instances, it was a case of an author eloquently describing something I had already conceptualized, but not really figured out quite how to articulate. (Also, almost every one of these instances has been very specific to work.)

The one big exception was Michael Lewis' book Moneyball. The underlying concept of mathematically quantifying the value of something, and then trying to either buy it when it's cheap or sell it when it's expensive, is the essence of derivatives trading. What I hadn't internalized, though, was that this concept can be applied well beyond derivatives, or even finance in general. That was a big revelation for me - the concept of value goes beyond finance. Almost immediately, I started trying to apply the ideas in the book to all sorts of situations. If there were such obvious mispricings in baseball, what about other sports? What about in other assets? What about online?

Unfortunately, the world is pretty efficient when there's money on the line. Still, that doesn't mean that the right opportunity isn't out there if you know where to look. About a year ago a colleague told me about a huge mispricing in certain types of life insurance that allowed his firm to profit handsomely. And, post-Katrina, I remember being totally engrossed by an article in the NY Times Magazine about catastrophe bonds and how our understanding of hurricane risk on the East Coast is totally wrong.

The author of that article? Michael Lews.