Book Review: Panic, Prosperity, And Progress

by: David Merkel, CFA


Click to enlargeI love economic history books, and I believe that most investors should read economic history. History offers a broader paradigm for analyzing investment situations than mathematical models do.

Mark Twain is overquoted on this, but only because he deserves to be quoted:
"History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

You can get a lot of insights into the present by reading this book. So many disasters occurred because people presumed that the future would be much like the past, and they ended up being the ones that took the large losses.

Further, this book will point out that how an asset is held will make a difference in its future performance. When there is not a lot of debt behind an asset, there may be good prospects. But when there is a lot of debt behind an asset, prospects are not so good because those that own the asset are relying on the asset to perform. Those who own an asset free and clear may get hurt if the price falls, but they won't be ruined like the guy who has borrowed to own it.

This book takes on every major systemic crisis from the Tulip Bubble to the recent Housing/Banking crisis. This is my bread & butter, but I learned things in many of the chapters regarding things I thought I knew well. Truly, a great book.

What Could Have Made the Book Better

Financial crises don't appear out of nowhere. Leaving aside war on your home soil, plague, famine, communism, etc., there is usually a boom that gives way to a bust. In some of his chapters, he could have spent more time describing the boom that led to the bust. This is important, because readers need to learn intuitively that the boom-bust cycle is normal. NORMAL!

Ignore the economists who think they can control the economy. They can't do it, and this book helps to say that. Economists are always behind the curve. Politicians are even further behind the curve. Regulators are still further behind the curve, and usually do the wrong thing during crises as a result.

The author could have done more to suggest how individuals and policymakers should respond to financial crises. Better to have a book that advises us, than one that just reports.

Quibbles

On pages 421-422, he shows that he doesn't get securitization, and blames the rating agencies, who were forced to rate novel debt for which they did not have a good model because the regulators outsourced credit risk measurement to them.

Summary

Most people would benefit from this book. It will teach you about financial crises and their aftermath. If you want to, you can buy it here: Panic, Prosperity, and Progress: Five Centuries of History and the Markets (Wiley Trading) (Hardback) - Common.

Full disclosure: The PR flack asked me if I would like a copy and I said "yes."

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission. This is my main source of blog revenue. I prefer this to a "tip jar" because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip. Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don't do in full, and I typically do. (When I don't, I mention that I scanned the book. Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website. Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites. Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don't change.