The Partnership - The Making of Goldman Sachs by Charles D. Ellis

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

There are two facets of our global economy which have an enormous impact on all levels of society - financial markets and oil. Both of these industries have experienced massive growth over the last half century that their impact has already played a role in shaping modern history. It is therefore important that I feel comfortable with my own understanding of these subjects even though it can be a tough go at times to read such material. There are plenty of other books I would prefer to be leisurely enjoying on my freetime.

The Partnership is a book about the history of Goldman Sachs - arguably the most successful investment bank in the market. Its rise from a modest American bank into a global superpower of finance is one of the greatest expressions of US-styled capitalism ever witnessed. It will forever make up a part of business history. Even more, several of its CEOs and partners have gone onto important public positions, thus meaning that GS' reach has effects on the political sphere as well.

Even in this time of resentment towards investment banks, there are certain positive traits that Goldman Sachs deserves to be commended for. Its belief in meritocracy, team results, and absence of politicking is commendable. There are lessons to be learned for any business manager in areas such as goal setting for employees, recruiting and running effective meetings.

To fully appreciate the book does require a certain level of financial understanding. I have a basic understanding of the subject and at times struggled to grasp certain concepts being discussed. This leads to another point: what level of understanding is required before you are justifiably allowed to bash the banking sector? Certainly there are plenty (millions) of people who, after having read a handful of articles on the industry since the crisis came into full swing, feel their insights are worthy of getting them on the short list for the Nobel Prize in economics.

I have read several books on the industry, taken a few courses and follow financial papers with regularity and I still do not feel adequate discussing the topic. However, I will make a small observation regarding The Partnership, which was published in 2008 before the crack of Lehman Brothers. Would Ellis have written this book in such a glowing light if he were publishing it in 2009? His praise for the firm rings much more hollow now after seeing how the events in finance have unfolded. Throughout the book he painted a picture of an institution that had made next to no mistakes. The last chapter was written just when first signs of the sub-prime crisis was emerging and he made it look as if Goldman Sachs had if anything profited from the situation. We now know this not to be true.

Goldman Sachs had to convert itself to a holding company so it could gain eligibility to the Federal Reserves emergency lending facilities. Yes, Goldman Sachs has already paid back the US government for lending it received but it did need government assistance to stave off collapse. Adding these points to an additional chapter would have not been enough for this book. It would really require a complete reexamination of the superior, worshiping tone that permeates throughout every page.

Goodbye Germany! For the next few weeks I will be heading to the sunny shores of Italy. In terms of the upcoming summer reads that will be making the journey with me are Bellow"s "Herzog" and Updike's "Couples". I look forward to writing about them when I am back.


What we Talk About When we Talk about Love by Raymond Carver

Sunday, June 14, 2009

This post is really a continuation of my previous one on Raymond Carver

I have not read many short stories in my time. After now having completed the second collection by Carver I am beginning to appreciate the skill involved in delivering messages about the characters using very little text. A full length novel has the luxury of being able to develop characters over time, and often still does not succeed. How do you, therefore, accomplish it in seven pages? Perhaps "developing" the character is not even the right term. How do you give glimpses of insight into the characters that allow you to, even momentarily, understand them? I am finding Carver's writing to rely on the logical thinking of his readers. Each sentence has a purpose in his writing and he leaves it up to us to determine their significance based on our own interpretation.

There are two stories that stayed with me the most. The first one is titled "Viewfinder". It is about a man with no hands who takes photographs of peoples houses and then sells them to the owners. He visits one house where the owner offers him coffee not necessarily because of his hospitable nature but instead due to a nagging curiosity to see how a man with two hooks for hands would hold the cup.

The second has the same title as the book itself. It is essentially a discussion between two couples about love. Their openness to elaborate on the more intimate aspects of their relationships is greatly aided by two bottles of gin. The conversation is good, honest and disturbing.


Will you Please be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I do not exactly recall how I first came across Slavoj Zizek. I believe it was in my search for contemporary philosophers who discuss the events of modern society at a deeper level than journalism is able to do. A few online pieces of his work proved to be rather interesting, especially his fascination in film and the underlying messages it often conveys. So, I was happy to see an interview with him in the Financial Times a few months after my initial introduction. The interview jumps from the financial crisis to Marxism and even includes a brief anecdote on the movie, Titanic. However, it was one reference he made to the film, Short Cuts that caught my attention. He claimed it be a Hollywood film which deserves to be called "art" compared to many "fake" European films. This stuck with me namely because I remember as an early teen looking at the VHS case of Short Cuts at my local Blockbuster. It was a blue case with little cut outs of all the different actors in the movie. I never did rent it, most likely opting for True Lies instead.

Nearly 15 years after having first seen it dawning the wall of the New Release section at Blockbuster, I finally sat down to watch Short Cuts. It did not disappoint. As an American living abroad now for several years, I am becoming more and more curious about my native country. I find myself constantly in search of those cultural works which best describe the true essence of the U.S. This serves two purposes. The first is that it allows me to have a portfolio of recommendations for those individuals who actually show a curiosity in better understanding the U.S. and its people beyond the stereotypes often conveyed by our own pop culture. I have not come across many interested takers yet but I am ready when it does happen. The second is simply because I relate to these albums, books, or films more now than when I am living in America. I appreciate them more, mainly due to nostalgia. Returning to Short Cuts it depicts the real life of normal people living in the more mundane neighborhoods of Los Angeles and confronts the difficulties they face in their day-to-day lives.

The film was based on the short stories of Raymond Carver. The director, Robert Altman, took a dozen of Carver's stories and weaved them together. The Criterion Collection of this film included a documentary on Carver. Thus my introduction to Carver began here with the first scene being of his widow reading one of his poems above his gravestone in Port Angeles. I only discovered he was buried there after the fact. However, I only needed to see the evergreens in the background running up to the cliffs edge above a large body of water to know that she was in the Pacific Northwest. Such an interesting string of connections served as the sign to me that the author's works deserved reading.

Will you Please be Quiet, Please? is Carver's first collection of short stories. He lived his entire life on the West Coast and this comes through in the stories. I found myself relating with his words. I have two more collections of his short stories to read and will describe in my future posts those that I enjoyed the most. In the meantime, go and rent Short Cuts. It is certainly no longer in the New Release section of Blockbuster, especially the one on N.E. 8th in Bellevue which closed down two years ago. Actually, the action "go and rent" isn't really valid any more either. It can be substituted with "go to 'Your Favorites' folder on your browser, left click, Search on Netflix 'Short Cuts', left click three times".

15 years is a long time.


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