Monday, 19 February 2018

Book Review: The Secret Life of Money

Sometimes books over-promise and under-deliver. I think I'm pretty good at spotting those and avoiding reading them, but occasionally one slips through. And that was the case with The Secret Life of Money, by Daniel Davies and Tess Read. The promise is big and on pages 2-3 of the book:
The problem is that the kind of economics they teach in universities is all too abstract... What you need to know is the smallest possible set of general principles, but much more about the way in which the various bits fit together...
That's what we're trying to do in this book.
The problem is that Davies and Read have created a sort of straw man argument. The kind of economics I (and many others) teach in universities is very applied (at least, I think so). So, in the very next chapter when they cover lifts (elevators for those in some countries), what they were essentially discussing was customer lock-in, which we cover in ECONS101. In the third chapter, they talk about the economics of trade shows, which are a platform market (also covered in ECONS101). Not exactly an auspicious start, if you're claiming to explain things that aren't taught in university economics. And made worse when, a few chapters later, they discuss the economics of credit cards but completely miss the fact that credit cards are also a type of platform market.

Many of the chapters are exceedingly shallow, such as a chapter on money laundering that could be best summarised as "don't do it". I'm not sure why we needed four pages to tell us that. On top of which, a surprising amount of the book is actually accounting, not economics. We can quibble over where the disciplinary boundary lies between accounting and economics, but most of us would agree that depreciation belongs in the former.

There are some highlights. Despite picking on those first two chapters above, I think they included the most interesting material and examples (perhaps that's why they were at the start of the book), and the chapter on blood diamonds ends with the key observation that there are no 'blood emeralds' (because emeralds are genuinely scarce, but diamonds are not, so emerald miners do not need to create artificial scarcity by shutting out some of the competition). There are also a few examples of epic cynicism, like:
If you want to value a brand, you have to make a discounted cash flow (DCF) model (see your favourite business school textbook - if you don't have one, then mentally substitute 'a magic spreadsheet that gives you a usually rather spurious but toothsomely precise number for the financial value of a company or project').
However, those rare highlights are not enough to redeem the book, which will tell you less about the secret life of money than about the secret life of business consultants with a book deal and too much time on their hands. Give this one a miss.

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