Best of Book Bits 2011 (Part I)

The year behind us delivered one of the better runs in publishing for finance and economic books. What follows are some of the more memorable names from my weekly Book Bits column over the past 12 months. Next week I’ll follow up with Part II. Meanwhile, here’s the first installment of a somewhat arbitrary listing of worthy titles from 2011:

Expected Returns: An Investor’s Guide to Harvesting Market Rewards
By Antti Ilmanen
Excerpt via publisher, Wiley
We should humbly recognize the limits of our understanding. Realized returns are dominated by randomness, structural uncertainty, and rare events. Expected returns are unobservable, at best estimated with noise. We should resist hindsight biases wired in us—the outcomes that materialized seem more inevitable or predictable than they truly were. It is worth recalling that experts can only explain a fraction of realized return variation afterwards, and this is an inherently easier task than predicting. Any observed return predictability is mild, possibly spurious, and rarely robust. Therefore I stress humility in interpreting empirical results and even more in making predictions and in trading based on them.
The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World
By Daniel Yergin
Review via The Economist
Providing sufficient energy to seven billion increasingly affluent humans without burning up the planet may be humanity’s greatest challenge. “What is at stake”, writes Daniel Yergin, “is the future itself.”
Mr Yergin’s previous book, “The Prize”, a history of the global oil industry, had the advantage of an epic tale and wondrous timing. Years in the making, it was published, to critical and popular acclaim in 1990, two months after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, thereby putting Saudi Arabia’s oilfields in peril. “The Quest”, as its more open-ended title suggests, is a broader and more ambitious endeavour. It is, first, an account of the many ways in which people have sought to produce energy—by burning fossil fuels, harvesting the wind, brewing biodiesel and trapping the sun’s heat. It is also an analysis of the increasingly fraught political context in which this business is conducted, especially with regard to three big and longstanding fears: energy scarcity, energy security and, more and more, the environmental ruin that energy can cause.
Red-Blooded Risk: The Secret History of Wall Street
By Aaron Brown
Summary via publisher, Wiley
From 1987 to 1992, a small group of Wall Street quants invented an entirely new way of managing risk to maximize success: risk management for risk-takers. This is the secret that lets tiny quantitative edges create hedge fund billionaires, and defines the powerful modern global derivatives economy. The same practical techniques are still used today by risk-takers in finance as well as many other fields. Red-Blooded Risk examines this approach and offers valuable advice for the calculated risk-takers who need precise quantitative guidance that will help separate them from the rest of the pack. While most commentators say that the last financial crisis proved it’s time to follow risk-minimizing techniques, they’re wrong. The only way to succeed at anything is to manage true risk, which includes the chance of loss. Red-Blooded Risk presents specific, actionable strategies that will allow you to be a practical risk-taker in even the most dynamic markets.
Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers
By Ellen E. Schultz
Review via Publishers Weekly
The retirement crisis is no accident, claims Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Schultz; large companies have played a significant role in its creation to protect the wealth of its top executives. When GE, IBM, Verizon, and others slashed pensions and medical benefits for millions of American retirees, they pointed fingers everywhere but at themselves–but who was really at fault? Pension funds were not bleeding the companies of cash. GE hadn’t contributed a cent to the workers’ pension plans since 1987, but still had enough money to cover all current and future retirees. Executive pensions at GE, with a $6 billion obligation, are a drag on earnings. These are largely hidden, however, lumped in with the figures for regular pensions. Schultz’s methodical cataloguing of these abuses paints a highly unflattering picture of companies that cut benefits to boost earnings, lay off older workers who are entering the years in which their pensions will spike, inflate retiree health benefits to boost profits, lobby for laws that keep the system inequitable, hoard death benefits, and fire whistle-blowers.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman
Excerpt via The New York Times
Although professionals are able to extract a considerable amount of wealth from amateurs, few stock pickers, if any, have the skill needed to beat the market consistently, year after year. The diagnostic for the existence of any skill is the consistency of individual differences in achievement. The logic is simple: if individual differences in any one year are due entirely to luck, the ranking of investors and funds will vary erratically and the year-to-year correlation will be zero. Where there is skill, however, the rankings will be more stable. The persistence of individual differences is the measure by which we confirm the existence of skill among golfers, orthodontists or speedy toll collectors on the turnpike.