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The Economist Guide to Country Risk
The Economist Guide to Country Risk
by Mina Toksoz
Edition: Paperback
27 used & new from $12.54

3.0 out of 5 stars Country Risk: Moving Target Escaping from Easy Formulas to Manage It, February 25, 2015
Mina Toksoz focuses her analysis on country risk, i.e. the losses that could result from the interruption of repayments or the operations of entities engaged in cross-border investments caused by country events. Therefore, country risk does not cover commercial, technical, or managerial problems specific to the transaction. To her credit, Ms. Toksoz clearly demonstrates that there are no easy formulas to manage country risk at the global, country, enterprise, and transaction levels. Enterprises are advised not to turn risk management into a box-ticking exercise. Furthermore, there is no easy way to mitigate country risk at the transaction level. At times, the book under review is a very dry read. In summary, whoever is involved with cross-border trade and investments will gain further awareness about this moving target that represents country risk.

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon
Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon
by Kim Zetter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.74
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4.0 out of 5 stars Thriving Market for Zero-Day Vulnerabilities and Exploits: Blessing or Curse?, January 25, 2015
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Kim Zetter uses Stuxnet, the world’s first digital weapon used against Iran’s nuclear program, to make her audience aware of the challenges and opportunities that zero-day vulnerabilities and exploits represent for the nations with the greatest connectivity. Critical infrastructures represent a juicy target not only for cyber criminals (a.k.a. the black market), but also for law enforcement and intelligent agencies (a.k.a. the gray market) around the world. Ms. Zetter clearly highlights the numerous challenges that the software makers and web site owners (a.k.a. the white market) experience in trying to make their offerings as secure as possible. To her credit, she strikes the right balance between telling a riveting story accessible to a wide audience and offering much technical detail in the footnotes of her book. Furthermore, Ms. Zetter demonstrates with much clarity that the legal and policy issues surrounding the use of zero-day vulnerabilities and exploits have not been appropriately addressed in public in the United States. Like other countries involved with cyber warfare, the United States has to play both defense and offense in order to secure its interests. My only regret is that the author does not deal with the fast-growing Internet of Things. “Big Data” is a juicy target for the black, gray, and white markets mentioned above. In summary, Ms. Zetter succeeds with much talent in making an arcane subject understandable to a lay audience while simultaneously satisfying the appetite of a more tech-savvy audience.

Reluctant Meister: How Germany's Past is Shaping Its European Future
Reluctant Meister: How Germany's Past is Shaping Its European Future
by Stephen Green
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.24
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Peregrination of Germany's Zeitgeist through the Ages, December 20, 2014
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Stephen Green deftly illuminates both the mindset and modus operandi of Germany and its inhabitants over the past two millennia. Mr. Green makes a clever use of disciplines such as history, politics, economics, arts, philosophy, and theology so that readers better understand why Germany, today, displays a reluctant style of economic leadership both within and outside Europe.

The author shows with much dexterity how the Germans developed a strong sense of victimhood at the hands of their neighbors such as the Romans, the Poles, and the French by the 19th century. Furthermore, the Germans developed a culturally ingrained sense of duty rooted in the fear of chaos, which devastated the German lands during the Thirty Years War, and the fragility of Germany's identity, which was reflected in the fragmentation of these same lands for centuries. That fragile German identity persisted even after the formal unification of Germany in 1871. Many German-speaking people continued to live outside the borders of the Second Reich. The above-mentioned strong sense of duty produced the supine loyalty that most Germans displayed towards their leaders until 1945. Paradoxically, the fragile German identity was intertwined with a growing sense of destiny. Finally, the German age had come to allow Germany to assert itself on the world stage, turning the abused into the abuser. Like Faust, Germany sold its soul to the devil, culminating in the horrors of the Third Reich. That toxic cocktail should remain top of mind for a resurgent country like China, which also suffered repetitive humiliations and defeats at the hands of foreigners.

Subsequently, Mr. Green retraces the transformational journey on which Germany has embarked since Stunde Null. Germany has rebuilt itself, first in the West after 1945, and then in the East, after the formal reunification of the country in 1990. Today, Germany is known for its technical excellence, even if its macro-economic performance has been at times uneven. Furthermore, the country stands out for the atonement that it has genuinely displayed since 1945, in sharp contrast to other countries such as Japan and Russia. However, Germany has refused to take on the mantle of political leadership due to its deeply felt revulsion against anything that would look and feel like the Führerprinzip, i.e. the leader principle. Despite its ambivalence, Germany has reluctantly taken on the economic leadership of the European Union in the aftermath of the debacle of the Eurozone. The country is by far the strongest member of the Eurozone.

In conclusion, the history of Germany reflects the journey of the chastened Faust, which ultimately traded his self-destructive male assertiveness and aggressiveness for an essentially feminine Zeitgeist.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 14, 2015 4:08 AM PST

The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor
The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor
by Martin Meredith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.45
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Africa Punching Well Below its Weight around the World, November 9, 2014
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Martin Meredith offers his readers a sweeping overview of Africa for the last 5,000 years. Local elites as well as invaders from outside Africa have too often exploited the inhabitants and resources of that diverse continent for their own purposes. To his credit, Mr. Meredith does not sugarcoat the ongoing scramble for the manpower and resources of Africa. The chapter 67, which covers the lost decades since the independence from Western colonialism, and the chapter 71, which covers the ‘platinum lifestyle’ of Africa’s ruling elites, clearly demonstrate that the continent has failed to live up to its many promises. The author should have delved deeper into the impact of China on Africa. Reducing that impact to a few pages does not do justice to that important development in the recent history of Africa. In summary, the book under review is a comprehensive introduction to a continent which is called to play a more important role in the future of humanity.

The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned-and Have Still to Learn-from the Financial Crisis
The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned-and Have Still to Learn-from the Financial Crisis
by Martin Wolf
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.48
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Financial and Monetary System Reform Is Still Unfinished Business, September 27, 2014
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In his newest book, Martin Wolf relentlessly explores the ins and outs of the financial and economic crisis which began in 2007-2008.

Mr. Wolf first reviews the shocks that have humbled many high-income countries, whose subdued performance stands in sharp contrast with the strong showing of many emerging and developing economies in the aftermath of that crisis.

1. A credit crash that has forced many households and businesses to stop spending consistently more than their incomes.
2. A reconfiguration of entire sectors of activity such as construction and finance in many high-income countries.
3. The higher cautiousness of chastised financial institutions in a changing regulatory environment.
4. The specter of deflation, or at least, consistently falling inflation rates in many high-income countries, especially in the Eurozone.
5. The vicious circle behind the weakening of the “animal spirits” of businesses in the same economies.

The author then clearly articulates the shifts that have led to the fragility of the world economy:

1. No living memory of the large financial and economic busts of the distant past, which bred complacency among the economic, financial, intellectual, and political elites of the West before 2007-2008.
2. No clear understanding of the ramifications associated with the evolution of the financial system, i.e., liberalization, globalization, innovation, leverage, and incentives, among the same elites.

Subsequently, Mr. Wolf reviews what has been done to make the financial system more resilient than it was before the above-mentioned crisis. The author is clearly not impressed with the post-crisis central-bank orthodoxy as it is embraced in the high-income countries of North America and Europe. He dubbed it the new orthodoxy, i.e. inflation targeting, macroprudential policy, the strengthening of the role of central banks as lenders of last resort, and the orderly resolution of troubled institutions. Mr. Wolf is especially critical of the sheer complexity of the regulatory structure that will probably be dead on arrival in the recurrence of a major financial and economic crisis. Unsurprisingly, the author pleads for a significant increase in the capital requirements of banks as a key improvement to the new orthodoxy.

Finally, Mr. Wolf makes the case for radical reform. Radical reform does not include liquidationism light as practiced within the Eurozone under the influence of Germany. Fiscal austerity, asymmetric adjustment of competitiveness, and limited assistance with recapitalization of banks in crisis-hit countries will probably not turn around the fortunes of these countries that are operating in less auspicious external circumstances that those that benefited Germany previously.

The author mentions as examples of radical reform the creation of a global currency to replace the national currencies currently used as anchors of the system, or a partial break-up of the open world economy. Mr. Wolf makes himself no illusion about the feasibility of these radical reforms. It will depend on 1) what sort of recovery emerges and 2) how much risk societies will be prepared to tolerate.

In summary, the author calls for a reassessment of the merits of the new orthodoxy which will probably fail too many economies in dealing successfully with the recurrence of a major financial and economic crisis.

Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power
Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power
by Michael Reid
Edition: Hardcover
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shining a Bright Light on the Benevolent South American Gulliver, August 21, 2014
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Michael Reid gives his readers a much-needed overview of the history, economy, society, and politics of Brazil since 1500. Too often, the country seems to live in the shadows of the other BRICS, i.e. Russia, India, China, and South Africa. To his credit, Mr. Reid examines with much objectivity the repeated disappointments that Brazil has had to endure both domestically and abroad. In summary, the book under review will hopefully give its readers a better appreciation for a country which is called to play an increasingly important role in the 21st century.

Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion
Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion
by David Zweig
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.71
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12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Invisibles: Anachronism or Healthy Push-Back against Relentless Self-Promotion?, July 26, 2014
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David Zweig brings to light the invisibles and their achievements. Mr. Zweig defines the invisibles as highly skilled people whose expertise and performance are highly valued within the organizations for which they work, and more generally, in their respective industries. Think for example about a "wayfinding" specialist, a perfumer, or a structural engineer of "megatal" buildings.

These invisibles share three characteristics that make them stand out in an age of relentless self-promotion:

* Ambivalence towards recognition;
* Devotion to meticulousness;
* Desire for and reveling in responsibility.

The author comes to that conclusion after conducting lengthy interviews with a selection of these invisibles.

The healthy life philosophy of these invisibles is in sharp contrast with what one can directly observe in some cemeteries. One can ultimately not escape from the impression that too many of their "residents" thought that they were important in their time, but that nobody today remembers. Death is after all a great "equalizer!"

The better the invisibles do their work, the more they disappear. Too often, their achievements are taken for granted. When something goes (horribly) wrong, their work can quickly become visible at their expense. Think for example about the 9/11 failure of the US behind-the-scene intelligence gatherers or the role of some media outlets in the spread of faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Mr. Zweig ends his book with a review of the perception of invisibles across cultures. Unfortunately, this review is very superficial.

Some readers will progressively realize that the book has too much filler. Chapters 7 and 8 come top of mind on that subject.

In conclusion, the author could have written a 15-page article that would highlight the invisibles and their achievements instead of getting at times bogged down in the weeds in his book-length argumentation.

The Innovation Paradox: Why Good Businesses Kill Breakthroughs and How They Can Change
The Innovation Paradox: Why Good Businesses Kill Breakthroughs and How They Can Change
by Marc J. Epstein
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.61
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4.0 out of 5 stars Breakthrough Innovation Is Also Accessible to Established Companies, July 17, 2014
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Tony Davila and Mark Epstein clearly show that many established companies are ill-equipped to deal with breakthrough innovation. These companies are subdivided into divisional structures and business units that usually favor the aggressive pursuit of operational excellence and incremental innovation at the expense of disruptive innovation. In other words, these companies tend to focus on past successes rather than new technologies. This market strategy is fine as long as their industry does not change radically.

Start-ups, companies with a focus on breakthrough innovation, can also fall prey to the same innovation paradox if they cannot execute better than other companies vying for the same industry. The innovation paradox presents clear similarities with the innovator’s dilemma that Clayton Christensen dissects in his revolutionary book on the subject.

Messrs. Davila and Epstein want to demonstrate that established companies can excel at both incremental innovation and breakthrough innovation. To be successful in this endeavor, established companies must have soft foundations – culture and leadership – together with hard foundations – strategy, incentives, and management systems.

Using examples from start-ups and established innovators such as Google, IBM, Phillips, and Tesco, the authors dedicate the bulk of their book to what they call the Startup Corporation. The promise of that new model is to blend the innovation philosophy of successful start-ups with the experience, access to resources, and network of an established company. The Startup Corporation, which is situated within an established company, targets what the authors dub strategic discoveries, i.e., breakthrough innovation driven by bottom-up management. Messrs. Davila and Epstein have learned from their work that established companies managed in a top-down fashion will struggle to find innovative ideas percolating up from the bottom.

In conclusion, the authors aim to prove that established companies can also develop breakthrough products and services that maximize the ROI on their R&D.

Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)
Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)
by Barry Posen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.41
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Is Restraint a Valid Substitute to either Liberal Hegemony and / or Realism?, July 6, 2014
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Barry Posen first explains to his readers that the grand strategy, i.e., a nation-state’s theory about mainly how to address possible external threats to its power position, that the United States of America has built and pursued since WWII, is both hegemonic and liberal. The strategy is hegemonic because the U.S. aims to overwhelm potential challengers so that they will not even try to compete, much less fight. The strategy is also liberal because it aims to defend and promote a range of western / U.S. values, mainly democratic governance within nation-states, individual rights, free markets, a free press, and the rule of law. In 2011, the U.S. was spending 4.8% of its GDP on defense.

Mr. Posen argues that the consensus grand strategy that he dubs Liberal Hegemony is costly, wasteful, and self-defeating for the following reasons:

1) The U.S. is causing countervailing behavior. Think for instance about China, Russia, and the rogue states.
2) The U.S. is also encouraging “cheap ride,” e.g. Europe and Japan, or “reckless drive,” i.e. hurting U.S. interests, or even their own, e.g. Israel and Iraq.
3) The U.S. is perceived as insufficiently sensitive to identity politics. Think for example about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

The author makes the case for a grand strategy of Restraint that is different from both Liberal Hegemony, which is most concerned about opportunities forgone, and Realism, which is most concerned about costs and risks incurred.

The grand strategy of Restraint calls for the following integrated reforms which should be implemented gradually:

1) The U.S. needs real allies, not the security dependencies it has now in Europe and Asia. These states are wealthy enough to defend themselves or to make much greater contributions to their own security.
2) In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. can defend the flow of oil from the gulf and defend Gulf States from one another. However, the U.S. should not maintain military power to intervene in the internal politics of these countries. Think for example about Iraq in 2014.
3) The U.S. should reduce, if not eliminate its military subsidies to Israel. At the same time, the U.S. should sell Israel the weapons it needs to remain secure in its bad neighborhood, while distancing itself from the occupation.
4) In South Asia, the U.S. should move toward the lowest possible commitment of military force to the region consistent with keeping nihilist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State on the defensive.
5) The U.S. must reconcile itself to slowing down nuclear proliferation, rather than its prevention. The key to U.S. security in a nuclear armed world is a potent secure retaliatory capacity backed by an intelligence and warning system for tracking the source of any nuclear attack on the U.S. The country also needs contingency plans for stolen or lost nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of violent non-state actors. Mr. Posen doubts that preventive war against potential new nuclear powers is likely to be a sustainable answer.

The grand strategy of Restraint is best served by a “maritime” military strategy and force structure that does not require over 2.5% of GDP, barring a major increase in global tensions, to support it.

Mr. Posen bases its 2.5% estimate on three arguments:

1) As mentioned above, there are a limited number of interests that truly matter to U.S. security.
2) Picking a ceiling imposes discipline on one’s choices.
3) This limit responds to concerns about the long-term fiscal health of the U.S.

The maritime military strategy relies on the U.S. command of the commons – naval, air, and space superiority. Under the author’s grand strategy, most active duty troops regularly stationed abroad would be withdrawn and demobilized. Mr. Posen also pleads for the significant reduction of the U.S. overseas base structure and the reorganization of much of what it keeps. In addition, the author pushes for a reduction of the training efforts and exercises with the military forces of other countries. Mr. Posen is here at his weakest because he does not deal thoroughly with the economic and social consequences of his grand strategy for the impacted service men / women, civilians as well as their families.

To his credit, the author reviews the Liberal Hegemony and Realist critiques of the grand strategy of Restraint. Supporters of Liberal Hegemony believe that Restraint cannot work because the U.S. has to systematically take the lead to reform international politics in the current “unipolar moment.” Realists also believe that Restraint cannot work because the absence of a world government forces nation-states to look out for themselves.

Mr. Posen is well aware that the grand strategy of Liberal Hegemony will not be easily abandoned. The author sees three possible paths to the adoption of his grand strategy:

1) The least likely is that politicians will decide to adopt Restraint imminently based on its merits.
2) A second path to reform would arise from a major crisis.
3) The most likely is that the U.S. will reform the consensus grand strategy gradually, reflecting the modus operandi of modern pluralist democracies.

In summary, Mr. Posen invites a necessary debate about the extent to which the U.S. has to engage the rest of the world to preserve its interests and those of its allies.

Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street
Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street
by Eileen Appelbaum
Edition: Paperback
Price: $29.44
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Private Equity Firms: Angels or Sharks?, June 24, 2014
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Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt show with much conviction how much influence private equity (PE) firms have acquired through their ownership and control of Main Street companies across the US economy. Ms. Appelbaum and Ms. Batt also cover PE firms operating abroad whenever appropriate for the understanding of their examination of PE.

To their credit, Ms. Appelbaum and Ms. Batt don't characterize all PE firms as uniformly harmful to the acquired companies and their stakeholders. Some PE firms - especially those that buy and sell small or mid-market companies with enterprise values lower than $300 million - may undertake profit-seeking activities by creating value and increasing wealth not just for themselves, but also for the acquired companies and their stakeholders.

Unfortunately, all too often PE firms undertake rent-seeking activities that maximize their own returns while putting operating companies and their stakeholders at risk. Both authors examine financial engineering activities such as high leverage, the sale of assets, tax arbitrage, dividend recapitalizations, and the use of bankruptcy proceedings under rent-seeking activities.

Ms. Appelbaum and Ms. Batt call for thirteen policies to rein in the PE excesses that they documented in the book under review:

1) Curb private equity compensation to reduce moral hazard and risky behavior. The current legislation on this subject does not have real teeth to reduce the incentives for excessive risk-taking for financial institutions, including PE firms.
2) End preferential tax treatment of carried interest. Both authors argue that the general partners of PE firms are similar to real estate developers and should be taxed accordingly.
3) Reduce incentives to load portfolio companies with excessive debt. The tax advantages of debt amount to a subsidy from taxpayers, contributing substantially to the PE funds' returns.
4) Limit debt. Ms. Appelbaum and Ms. Batt contend that legally binding regulations would be a more effective enforcement mechanism than existing guidelines on this subject.
5) Discourage further PE's contribution to the growth of the shadow banking system. Both authors note that the current reporting is a necessary but insufficient step in the right direction. They call for a legal framework that establishes limits on the use of leverage, subject to review by regulators.
6) Reduce incentives for asset stripping. Removing the limited liability protections of PE shareholders in cases where the assets of a newly acquired portfolio company are sold off would reduce the incentives to engage in such behavior when it is contrary to the company's interest.
7) Prohibit dividend payments to PE investors in the first two years. That moratorium would curb the most reckless use of dividend payments to PE shareholders.
8) Increase transparency. The Institutional Limited Partners Association (ILPA) principles should propose that PE funds report quarterly, using final public market equivalent (PME) values as a more accurate guide to fund performance compared to the internal rate of return (IRR).
9) Update the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act to recognize the role of PE owners as employers. Recognizing the liability of PE owners who exercise de facto control over decisions regarding mass layoffs and facility closings would assure workers and communities of the protections that the US Congress intended when it required employers to provide sixty days' advance notice of shutdowns.
10) Hold PE equity owners accountable for portfolio companies' pension liabilities. The authors argue that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and certain provisions of the bankruptcy code do not offer enough protection to the deferred income that workers earn during their working years and receive when they retire.
11) Update ERISA. Against this backdrop, the US Congress should act to remove any doubt about the obligations of PE funds for employee pensions.
12) Update the bankruptcy code. Ms. Appelbaum and Ms. Batt contend that the US Congress should restore a fair and equitable balance among the competing interests of a bankrupt company's secured and unsecured creditors.
13) Require severance pay for employees linked to years of service. Analogous to the "golden parachutes" that companies typically provide to executives, such severance packages would give lower-level employees comparable protection against the negative effects of job dislocation.

To their credit, both authors recognize that it will be challenging to achieve these policy reforms for four reasons:

1) The financial services industry spends much on campaign contributions and lobbying to defend its interests.
2) "Regulatory arbitrage" can lead to sub-optimal regulations.
3) The "revolving door" between employment in the financial services industry and public-sector employment in regulatory agencies can be shut to politicians and regulators who push "too hard" on this subject.
4) This "revolving door" can lead to "cognitive capture" of regulators who tend to embrace the perspective of their (former) industry rather than that of the public.

Ms. Appelbaum and Ms. Batt contend that PE firms that make their money as advertised by the Private Equity Growth Capital Council (PEGCC) and other industry advocates, by adding value to the portfolio companies they acquire, will see little difference as a result of the policies mentioned above.

In summary, the book under review, especially the policies advocated in chapter 9, is guaranteed to generate controversy.

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