MoneyWeek book reviews: December 2023

A bumper crop of book reviews from the front lines of business and politics.

Colourful Spectrum of books between A & Z bookends
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Our expert MoneyWeek team takes a look at the books that you need to know about from finance and business to politics and culture.

Book of the Month: The Fund

The Fund: Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates and the Unraveling of a Wall Street Legend
Rob Copeland

You can’t fault Ray Dalio for lack of ambition. Bridgewater Associates, which he founded and still runs at the age of 74, is the world’s largest hedge fund, managing around $100bn in assets. He has also attracted a cult following as an economic thinker and management guru, writing several bestselling books on the subjects. In The Fund, Wall Street Journal reporter Rob Copeland tries to uncover the reality behind the legend. 

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Copeland’s argument is that, although it’s hard to deny the success of Bridgewater, the two other pillars on which Dalio’s reputation rests are less solid. He was slightly earlier than most to predict the 2008- 2009 financial crisis, but his forecasts have proved to be wrong as many times as they have been right. During the 1980s, he consistently predicted a global depression that failed to materialise. He also failed to predict the economic recovery that took place after 2009.

Meanwhile, his promotion of “radical transparency” – a management philosophy that says everyone should be brutally honest all of the time – is bunk, suggests Copeland: it has achieved little more than making Bridgewater a horrible place to work. Failure to meet Dalio’s expectations brings the risk of being humiliated by the boss in meetings, with the whole experience captured on video and circulated to the rest of the company. Unsurprisingly, while radical transparency is supposed to apply at all levels, anyone giving Dalio the same kind of blunt feedback apparently receives a rude awakening.

The constant turmoil that you’d expect from this culture has forced Bridgewater to pay well above the going rate for staff, claims Copeland. Meanwhile, time and money have been frittered away on developing ever more elaborate systems of analysing people, rather than investment matters. Only a fraction of Bridgewater’s staff appear to end up working directly on trading or research, with many of the rest seemingly employed to evaluate each other.

So how has Bridgewater managed to be so successful? The official version is that it’s a meritocracy, dispassionately selecting the best ideas among its investment teams. The reality is different, suggests Copeland: key decisions are mostly based on simple trading rules and overseen largely by Dalio. In the 1980s and 1990s, this rules-based approach was radical and worked well. More recently, computer-driven trading strategies have eroded this edge. Yet the mystique that Dalio has generated meant that many investors have been willing to keep paying high fees for lacklustre returns. Perhaps the most important lesson of this eye-opening book is to be a bit more sceptical about investment and management gurus.

Book in the news: The Plot

The Plot - The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson
Nadine Dorries

Given Rishi Sunak’s recent decision to bring back former PM David Cameron as foreign secretary, you might think it would be impossible to write a more surreal political story. Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries manages it in The Plot. Like a bad TV movie, it begins when Dorries receives a tip-off, prompting her to begin an investigation into the “real” reasons for Boris Johnson’s removal as PM in 2022. This puts her on the trail of a supposed cabal of aides and MPs responsible for the political demise of Johnson and other Tory leaders. By the end of it, she is interviewing “Bambi” and “Thumper”, who regale her with tales of orgies and shadowy “big money” figures. This last part, like much of the book in fact, seems simply preposterous.

The back-stabbing and constantly shifting alliances that Dorries outlines are the stuff of politics and so probably contain an element of truth. Her interviews with Johnson on his last days in office, as well as his thwarted comeback, are probably the only words we’ll hear on the subject until his memoirs appear– although the main thing we learn is that even he seems to have moved on. And Dorries’ claims that many of Johnson’s professed “supporters” only backed him out of opportunism, while privately despising him, are echoed by Rory Stewart, who in his recent memoir comes to a similar conclusion, though from the opposite perspective. 

Still, while Dorries may have a point that Johnson’s lack of a political base within the Conservative Party, or even parts of Downing Street, made him particularly vulnerable to scandal, she doesn’t seem to realise that it was his responsibility to secure this base. As one of her contributors points out, several members of his staff may not have been fully loyal, but Johnson was responsible for hiring them in the first place and for keeping them on even after they had made their intentions clear. The only person responsible for Johnson’s demise is Johnson himself – we don’t need the wild claims advanced in this book to understand why he fell.

The Chile Project

The Chile Project The Story of the Chicago Boys and the Downfall of Neoliberalism
Sebastian Edwards

Until recently, Chile was seen as one of the success stories of Latin America. Its free-market economic policies, put in place during the Pinochet dictatorship, laid the foundations for the highest per-capita income in the region. 

However, the 2019 political protests and the ongoing debate over a new constitution, have thrown this success into question. In The Chile Project, Sebastian Edwards, who worked for one of the central planning agencies of the Allende government before studying at the University of Chicago, sketches a brief history of the free-market policy revolution. 

The story begins in the 1950s and 1960s when the University of Chicago made a conscious effort to train a generation of Chilean economists and develop links with policymakers. When the socialist president Allende was replaced by a military junta, this group found themselves in an ideal position to influence the new government. The policies were so successful that they were largely retained after Chile’s return to democracy. 

The Chile Project balances the positive outcomes with the fact that free-market policies are now tarnished by association with Pinochet’s regime and that the privatisation of health and education, along with the parsimonious benefits system, have led to gaping inequalities. It remains, however, on balance, broadly sympathetic to the “Chicago boys”, and is a nuanced study of a fascinating period in Chilean history.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri