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Some Good Stories from the Era of Wall Street Titans.
on November 11, 2005
"My Own Story" are the memoirs of Bernard M. Baruch, which he published in 1957 at the age of 87, after a long career as a public servant following a couple decades of fortune-making on Wall Street. Baruch starts with histories of his parents and tales of his South Carolina childhood before his family moved to New York when he was 10, where his father, a physician, became a pioneer in public sanitation and physical therapy. Baruch got his big break on Wall Street in 1891 when he joined the firm of A. A. Houseman, where he would enjoy great success for over a decade. Although Baruch retired from Wall Street, gave up his seat on the Stock Exchange, and sold all of his stocks when President Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the War Industries Board in 1918, "My Own Story" is dominated by his days investing, making deals, and building companies before middle age. Baruch says next to nothing about his role on the War Industries Board or the Treaty of Versailles. He mentions his duties on the U.N.'s Atomic Energy Commission only in passing at the end of the book.
Most of Baruch's experiences with the stock market are found in Chapters 7-14 and in Chapter 19, entitled "My Investment Philosophy", where he lays out his rules for speculating. Baruch's method was nearly identical to Gerald Loeb's, which Mr. Loeb articulated in his 1935 book "The Battle for Investment Survival". Both men were investors, not traders, who succeeded because they knew when to get out of the market. Chapter 12 is dedicated to the "Waldorf crowd", the glamorous and fabulously wealthy businessmen who frequented the Waldorf-Astoria. Baruch gives us his personal take on the extravagant "Diamond" Jim Brady, reserved and optimistic James R. Keene, and the boisterous "Bet a Million" John Gates. Baruch also discusses his involvement in founding and financing several ventures in raw materials after he retired from A.A. Houseman in 1904, among them the International Rubber Company, the Utah Copper Company (which invented strip-mining), and the Gulf Sulphur Company.
The last few chapters of the book recall Baruch's adventures at his South Carolina estate Hobcaw Barony, where several presidents went for rest and relaxation, including Roosevelt during WWII. Baruch ends with some discussion of his political philosophy, which seems to have vacillated with the wind over the course of his lifetime. From anti-carpetbagger Southern Democrat to laissez-faire capitalist to Prohibition advocate to New Deal Democrat to Cold War crusader for high taxes and arms build-up. Yikes! Baruch seems like a generous man, but his politics are incoherent. His prose style is direct and clear, his tone always amiable. I think Baruch is at his best when discussing Wall Street's era of "unrestrained individualism", dominated by "the titans of finance at the zenith of their power", and contrasting it with today's more regulated and more diverse financial market. Too bad Bernard Baruch was always on the outs with J.P. Morgan. But he has interesting stories to tell about Morgan's contemporaries, including his own role in the panic of 1901, precipitated by a corner on Northern Pacific stock.