Financial Fiction Review: ‘The Billion Dollar Sure Thing’ By Paul E. Erdman

Love financial fiction? So do I. And I review them for you!

In this post I’m reviewing…

The Billion Dollar Sure Thing by Paul E. Erdman

The purest form of financial fiction… one of the originals!

The Billion Dollar Sure Thing by Paul E. Erdman

OVERVIEW: The Billion Dollar Sure Thing is THE original financial fiction book! It’s set in the mid-1970’s when America’s currency (which had been decoupled from the gold standard) was facing devaluation. In spite of the decoupling from gold, the US currency was still the financial standard of the day. (That much is true). In the book, the US President is concerned that various European governments are grouping together to take control of the financial markets away from the US dollar, so the President takes a financial gamble to recouple the dollar to the gold standard. Along the way, several different groups from all over the world attempt to profit from the potential financial ripples that this change will create.

REVIEW: This book, written in 1973, is Paul E. Erdman’s first book. Erdman had worked in the financial industry for many years before this book was written, so it’s not surprising that his experience and knowledge comes through. The style is classic 1970’s fiction: I don’t just mean that the telephones require talking to operators or that gold is valued at $100 an ounce… I mean, it’s slightly racist, slightly misogynistic, everyone has a mustache, and there’s always a layer of cold war anti-Russian fear lingering on every page. Just like every other 1970’s work of fiction. If you can get past that, it’s a great financial fiction book. I read this book before — many years ago — and didn’t love it at the time; I just didn’t like the old school feeling of the book, plus I barely understood what was going on. Since then, I’ve spent nearly a decade in the financial industry (or closely associated with it) and have a stockbroker’s license and an MBA… and those things really help. haha

I’ll warn you, this book is actually pretty advanced, financially. Although the author does try to explain everything, there are times when some readers may wonder what’s going on if they’re not experienced with the financial markets. This book covers currency, FOREX, shorting, and futures trading, so it can be heavy reading if you’re not familiar with those things.

Like many books of the age (which always trumpet “soon to be a major motion picture!” across the cover), the book includes plenty of international intrigue. In this book, characters zip back and forth between many of the major financial centers and power centers of the world — Washington, New York, London, Zurich, Moscow, and Beirut — as they make deals with different groups (all of whom end up being an ethnic stereotype, a la 1970’s fiction).

But what makes this book a “pure” financial fiction (in my opinion) is that it’s not about murder (which a lot of financial fiction books include in order to ramp up the conflict in the book) but it’s really just about a lot of people trying to make A LOT of money. Period. So if that’s enough of a conflict to motivate you to read the book then you’ll love this book.

I loved the deep financial aspect of the book and the purity of the financial storyline. And as you can probably infer from my earlier comments, the book does feel dated in many ways… so make sure you read it with an understanding that it’s a slice of fiction written in a very different time. (In some ways that adds some context and authenticity to the book, even if it does get distracting).

FINANCIAL FICTION QUOTIENT: As I’ve said, this book is the granddaddy of financial fiction and the financial quotient is VERY high and fairly advanced.
Here’s a quote from page 210-211 of my copy of the book to give you an example:

“… in the foreign exchange department, the phones had just begun to light up. At eight forty-five twenty traders went into action simultaneously. The Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt was offering $25 million spot. The General Bank agreed to take them at the rate of 3.3015, the absolute floor price for the dollar, a level that had never been reached before. The Deutsche Bank accepted. The Credit Lyonaise in Paris offered $50 million. They did not like the price. They would come back in ten or fifteen minutes. The Banque do Bruxelles wanted to sell $35 million three months forward. The trader consulted Zimmerer. They decided to put a 5 percent discount on the forward dollar: they offered Brussels the corresponding rate of 3.136. They did not even hesitate but accepted immediately. Two minutes later the Bana Nazionale de Lavoro was offered the same rate on $50 million. They also accepted. The traders huddled with Zimmerer. The decided to drop the three months forward rate another full percent. Then came the break.”

That’s just one small example that is fairly easy to follow. There are many others. If you like that kind of thing, as I do, then you’ll enjoy the book.

SUMMARY: Eerdman’s work is financially solid and engaging, although there are times when his experience may outpace the reader’s ability to understand. And although the book is dated, it’s still a great story of big money. If you’re into financial fiction, you should read this book just because it started the whole thing.

Click here to check out Paul E. Erdman’s The Billion Dollar Sure Thing on Amazon.

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Financial fiction review: ‘Graveyards Of The Banks’ by Nyla Nox

Love financial fiction? So do I. And I review them for you!

In this post I’m reviewing…

Graveyards Of The Banks by Nyla Nox

 

Financial fiction meets Dante’s Inferno meets The Office.

Graveyards-of-the-Banks_Nyla-NoxOVERVIEW: This is the story of a young woman in London who is strapped for cash after her anthropology career falls short, so she gets a job in an investment bank and navigates the complex inner workings of a bureaucratic, multinational hell.

REVIEW: Wow. This was an amazing, moving book. Most of the financial fiction I read is best described as thrillers or mysteries, but not this book. At first I wasn’t sure what to expect… the first couple of pages had a pace and a style that I wasn’t used to. But once I got into the writer’s rhythm, I was hooked. This book is a semi-autobiographical fiction (?) viewed through a poetic filter. And it really struck a chord with me: I have faced the exact same things that the protagonist faced — I worked the life-altering long hours, endured the crazy, condescending assholes, navigated the fiefdoms and bureaucracies and hypocrisy, and scraped by on a pittance while talking to others about millions or billions of dollars. The main character was me; I haven’t connected in a book in a long, long time. I was transported back in time to my early career in the financial world.

FINANCIAL FICTION QUOTIENT: There isn’t a huge amount of finance in this book. The main character works in an investment bank (“The Most Successful Bank In the Universe” as it’s called throughout the book) as a graphic designer who creates complex financial documents for the investment bank’s corporate clients. But what the book lacks in actual financial references, it more than makes up for in its accurate portrayal of the inner workings of a multinational behemoth of a company — including the various competing departments of bankers and designers and IT and training, the levels within each department, and the paint-everything-optimistically CEO writing encouragingly oblivious weekly emails.

SUMMARY: If you have ever worked in a large financial firm you will see yourself and the people you work with in this book. (I’ve worked in 4 large financial firms and this book painted an accurate picture of each one). You know how a show like The Office perfectly captured everyone you work with in an office setting? This book does that with the financial world, while at the same time making you feel like you’re walking through this financial hell with Dante.

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DISCLAIMER: The author sent me a free copy of the book to review.

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Financial fiction review: ‘Margin Call’

Love financial fiction? So do I. And I review them for you!

In this post I’m reviewing…

Margin Call

Great financial fiction movie.

In the the world of finance, traders can trade “on margin”, which (in VERY simplified terms) means they can trade more than they have… this is called “leverage”. Trading on margin is completely legal and potentially very profitable. However, if the traders are unsuccessful, they can take big losses. To help avoid big losses, traders will get a “margin call” from their brokers telling them that they have to clear things up right away.

In the movie Margin Call, one investment bank learns that it has over-leveraged itself with mortgage-backed securities and they make the bold and risky step to sell their securities even if it means causing catastrophic losses to the market and to their customers. This movie is a fictionalized account of what happened during the early hours of the market crash in 2008.

Below is the trailer for the movie. There are some great actors in the movie and the movie does a good job of trying to portray the drama of the crisis without becoming overly technical. There are a few inaccuracies about the situation and what it’s like to work at an investment bank — obviously this is fiction — but the movie is entertaining nonetheless.

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Financial fiction review: ‘The $treet’

Love financial fiction? So do I. And I review them for you!

In this post I’m reviewing…

The $treet

Entertaining short-lived financial fiction TV series.

The $treet is a financial fiction TV show that follows the lives of a half-dozen investment bankers who are all young and good looking and ultra-hip and witty and wealthy, and very urbane. The show follows the highs and lows of their personal and professional lives. In one scene, they are putting together a multi-million dollar deal and in another scene they are boozing it up in a way that only investment bankers can. Each character is pretty well-formed — from the obnoxious sales guy to the naive newbie. I stayed very engaged through the show and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Unfortunately, the show was short-lived. It lasted less than one season and only 11 of the 12 episodes were actually filmed. I suspect that financial fiction shows are hard to film for two reasons: Because the real markets can fluctuate so wildly that real events can dictate the story. (West Wing had a similar problem and its storylines were irreparably damaged by the events of 9/11). But you can enjoy all 11 episodes on YouTube, conveniently cut up into 10 minute segments (so each show has about 5 YouTube videos). While you’re watching, see if you can spot all the cameos of relatively well-known actors and actresses who have gone on to modest success in other shows).

(Extra bonus: If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, you get to see a younger Gus Fring… basically playing the same stick-in-the-mud character!)

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Financial fiction review: ‘Cracks In The Ceiling’ by Dave Cornford

Love financial fiction? So do I. And I review them for you!

In this post I’m reviewing…

Cracks In The Ceiling by Dave Cornford

Short stories exploring the aftermath of the global financial meltdown.

REVIEW: When I read a novel, I want an engaging start, a tense middle, and a cathartic ending. But when I read short stories, my personal preference is for stories that are short, introspective, and even a little gloomy. And I’m totally fine if the stories don’t “end” (in the same cathartic way a novel should end). That is what Cornford delivers. His 11 stories are almost like slices of life, as if we are glimpsing the various lives of people impacted by the financial crisis in some way. What is interesting about Cornford’s writing is not necessarily his exploration of the financial part of financial fiction, but of the larger themes of life. Specifically, Cornford’s concept of “home” is explored in-depth in many (or most?) of his stories. Each story seems to be a glimpse into how one person (or family or group) handles the “new normal” of today’s financial turbulence. The stories don’t end in a neat and tidy bow… and sometimes they don’t end at all… which is just the way I like it. Here’s a sampling of a couple of his stories:

  • A Day at the Top: The thoughts and feelings of a CEO whose personal and professional life is starting to suffer from the crisis. This almost feels like a diary entry and I like that it puts a personal (and even occasionally sympathetic) face to the oft-vilified CEOs of The Great Recession.
  • Threadbare: The story of someone who was impacted not necessarily by the loss of money as he was impacted by the loss of his family and close friend.
  • Lost: This is the story of a commuter who loses his iPod… but occasionally hears the music when his Bluetooth headphones pair with the stolen iPod. ‘Lost’ was my favorite story of the collection and the ending is absolutely brilliant.

FINANCIAL FICTION QUOTIENT: When I first read Cornford’s book, I was initially puzzled by what I felt to be a lack of financial fiction… in the strictest sense of the definition. You won’t find stories about high-powered brokers moving millions of dollars around the world (which is what I like about financial fiction). But as I continued reading story after story, the larger themes became evident: These WERE financial fiction stories… but they were financial fiction stories on the “opposite side” of the news. They are the stories that remain untold when the headlines scream “bank closes” or “large corporation lays off employees”. The two stories that, in my opinion, had the largest quotient of financial fiction were…

  • The Tipping Competition: This story explored the struggles that employees face when they learn about the changes that will take place at work.
  • The Project: This story nicely captures a kind financial act (albeit a dangerous one!) that one employee does for a struggling coworker. This was my second-favorite story of the bunch.

SUMMARY: At first, the stories in Cornford’s Cracks In the Ceiling don’t seem to be about financial fiction. Until it hits you that these stories are indeed financial fiction… from a real life perspective. Cracks In the Ceiling gives readers a glimpse into the struggles of the ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ whose lives have been impacted in some way by the financial crisis.

DISCLOSURE: Dave Cornford provided me with a free copy of his book for review purposes.

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