Risky Adventures in 'Riches Among The Ruins,' by Robert P. Smith

by: Low Sweat Investing

If you've ever thought of risk as buying stocks in October or as a complex math formula filled with nested exponential functions, you'll want to check out trader Robert P. Smith's book, Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy (AMACOM: 2009).

Dodging death squads, bandits, mobsters and insurgents’ IEDs, Smith recounts how he made a fortune trading obscure emerging market debt with his “boots on the ground” in 1980's El Salvador, Nigeria, newly capitalist Russia and war-torn Iraq, among other dark corners of the globe.

And they were dark. Those who’ve seen the DVD Salvador (with James Woods) got a digital view, albeit a Hollywood one, of those horrific times in that country, including the in-your-face assassination of an opposition Archbishop and the shocking killings of a group of nuns attempting to escape on a jungle road.

And yet Smith traveled there, and other places equally frightening. Most often alone and operating out of a hotel room, Smith exploited what was then an almost non-existent but quite profitable market brokering certain local debt instruments in emerging economies. He details buying these instruments from one division of a large company so he could immediately resell them to a different division of the same company, as well as buying then immediately reselling on different floors of the same building.

And though the market for this debt was comically inefficient, the danger in these places was not. (Smith’s stories of Nigerian bandits’ robbery tactics might keep you awake at night.)

He gives this dry introduction to a chapter on post-Soviet Russia:

"It was one of the most chaotic, confusing, corrupt and often murderous economic transformations to ever unfold. In short, it constituted the perfect conditions for me to visit and do some business."

Despite all of his death-defying adventuring, Smith, who now trades debt the easy way at a Boston firm he founded, was not a James Bond wannabe (more like a near-sighted, less imposing Indiana Jones with a currency-conversion calculator instead of a bullwhip). Throughout his book, instead of steely-eyed smack-downs he gives us a study in sheer tenacity, never wanting to give up, even when events rivaled what you might find in a best-selling suspense thriller.

The book is mostly arranged as one stand-alone adventure per chapter, making it perfect for quick in-again, out-again reading. Though once you’re in, you probably won’t want out anytime soon.

In addition to suspense and adrenaline surges, Smith gives readers an inside look at some lessons learned about holding the spread, trusting your trading partners and gaming local currency rates, as well as some amusing stories about his own family relationships. But at its core Riches Among the Ruins is a rip-roaring read filled with amazing tales from the far edge of risk.

Disclosure: No positions or relationships.