Liar’s Poker (Michael Lewis) #3

Look away from the initial focus of investor interest and seek secondary and tertiary effects.

Remember Chernobyl? When news broke that the Soviet nuclear reactor had exploded, Alexander called. Only minutes before, yet Alexander had already bought the equivalent of two supertankers of crude oil. The focus of investor attention was on the New York Stock Exchange, he said. In particular it was on any company involved in nuclear power. The stocks of those companies were plummeting. Never mind that, he said. He had just purchased, on behalf on his clients, oil futures. Instantly in his mind less supply of nuclear power equaled more demand for oil, and he was right. His investors made a large killing.

Minutes later, Alexander called back. “Buy potatoes,” he said. “Gotta hop.” Then he hung up. Of course. A cloud of fallout would threaten European food and water supplies, including the potato crop, placing a premium on uncontaminated American substitutes. Perhaps a few folks other than potato farmers think of the price of potatoes in America minutes after the explosion of a nuclear reactor in Russian, but I have never met them.

But Chernobyl and oil are a comparatively straightforward example. There was a game we played called What if? All sorts of complications can be introduced into What if? Imagine, for example, you are an institutional investor managing several billion dollars. What if there is a massive earthquake in Tokyo? Tokyo is reduced to rubble. Investors in Japan panic. They are selling yen and trying to get their money out of the Japanese stock market. What do you do?

Well, along the lines of pattern number one (contrarian approach), what Alexander would do is put money into Japan on the assumption that since everyone was trying to get out, there must be some bargains. He would buy precisely those securities in Japan that appeared the least desirable to others. First, the stocks of Japanese insurance companies. The world would probably assume that ordinary insurance companies had a great deal of exposure, when in fact, the risk resides mainly with Western insurers and with a special Japanese earthquake insurance company that’s been socking away premiums for decades. The shares of ordinary insurers would be cheap.

Then Alexander would buy a couple of hundred million dollars’ worth of Japanese government bonds. With the economy in temporary disrepair, the government would lower interest rates to encourage rebuilding and simply order the banks to lend at those rates. Japanese banks would comply as usual with their government’s request. Lower interest rates would mean higher bond prices.

Also, the short-term panic could well be overshadowed by the long-term repatriation of Japanese capital. Japanese companies have massive sums invested in Europe and America. Eventually they would withdraw those investments, turn inward, lick their wounds, repair their factories, and bolster their stock. What would that mean?

Well, to Alexander, it would suggest buying yen. The Japanese would buy yen, selling their dollars, francs, marks and pounds to do so. The yen would appreciate not just because the Japanese were buying it but because foreign speculators would eventually see the Japanese buying it and rush to join them. If the yen collapsed immediately after the quake, it would only further encourage Alexander, who sought always to do the unexpected, that his idea was a good one. On the other hand, if the yen rose, he might sell it.


1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for information.
    many interesting things

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