THE RANDOM SELECTION of books under review touches most bases in a genre with which, until now exposed to it in the line of duty, I have been generally and intentionally unfamiliar.
For the last 20 years I have had direct or indirect responsibility, as a fiduciary, proxy or principal, for investment accounts large and small. I have jumped on tips, taken reasoned advice and granted investment discretion. The results, like life, like art, have been sometimes good, sometimes bad. Through it all--up or down, profit or loss --has run a constant: an obbligato of claptrap punctuated on rare, welcome occasions by piccolo-pure notes of common sense and foresightedness. I have heard enough investment gabble over the teak majesties and tinkling crystal of Wall Street and Geneva dining rooms to keep the blinders on when passing the "Investments" section of lay and professional bookstores. Having read through the following books, I am now, frankly, prepared to congratulate myself on my forbearance.
When I first came to Wall Street ("the concrete heart of our discrete cosmogony," according to L.E. Sissman, and ain't that the truth), it was 1961 and the world was revving up to be every stockbroker's oyster. At the heart of the shucking process was a paradox. On one hand, Mr. G. Keith Funston, then president of the New York Stock Exchange, was busying himself across the nation, salesmanly afterburners aflame with a PR and advertising campaign that proclaimed the necessitous virtue: "Own your share of America." At the very same time, the operative motto of Street professionals--brokers, investment bankers, traders, specialists--was: "The public is always wrong."
Today the mantle of presumptive fallibility has shifted from tens of thousands of grinning rubes "out there" to the battalion strength of vest-armored sheep who manage the big pension and mutual funds and thus make the waves by which the condition and direction of the market is commonly judged. This transfer of power has created a serious (some might say, critical) shortage of investment snake oil--which, no doubt patriotically, the nation's publishers have hastened to replenish. Thus, in recent years, how-to investment books have done their part in turning the nonfiction best-seller lists into a solipsistic bedlam.
So be it. Yet there's an elementary lesson to be gleaned from the very proliferation of books which propose investment alchemy in one form or another. Which is that the name of the game, on Wall Street or Publishers Row, has ever been action, volume, turnover. Book royalties or brokerage fees are all the same to the pleasant chap at the bank.
With that in mind, let us go then, you and I, and see what's up. In my schooldays, we were much taken with an explicative fantasy titled Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera. Now, as befits grownups with cash in our jeans, we can observe the end product.
Of the books under consideration, two seem worthwhile indeed: The New Contrarian Investment Strategy by David Dreman (Random House, $16.95) and Investing for Profit in the Eighties by Alfred L. Malabre Jr. (Doubleday, $15.95). They share the virtue of realism based on certifiable experience. Apart from meritorious suggestions regarding technique and perspective, they effectively preach the lesson that it's a lot farther from here to El Dorado than many would have you believe.
The Dreman book comes garnished with laurels beyond reproach: encomia from the legendary Templeton, the immortal Biggs. The author takes a cue from Chaucer. Value will out. Recognizing that the market's principal occupation is reinventing (and inventing) the wheel, he urges us to count and price the spokes. The book is written in English; Dreman's not one to call a spade an "entrenching tool." He's objective about the condition of the emperor's tailoring. He understands that data is only sufficient unto the mind's ability to deal with it, which is less than most vidiots would like to claim. This is a book I would give my son, not only for its contents, but because its heft might be effectively laid upside his head when he speculates his allowance on an option on shares of International Logogenetics.
Dreman stays inside the market. Alfred Malabre posits an investment policy based on the macros, on business cycles, curved by Phillips, waved by Kondratieff. Which is all well and good, but the distinctive strength of the book is its cri de coeur. Here's a man who's been burned by investmentdom's best and brightest; he displays his scars, tells us wherefrom they came, and thereby teaches a lesson to be ignored at our peril. He, too--and as a journalist who could know better-- speaks tellingly of the investment hazards of trying to absorb too much information. He also writes English.
Marshall E. Blume and Jack P. Friedman's Encyclopedia of Investments (Warren, Gorham & Lamont, $47.50) is a serious, scholarly (glossaries and bibliographies) introduction and guidance to 60 investment categories, from "Arbitrage" to "U.S. Treasury Bills." Unadjusted for inflation and taxes, this works out to six bits a category. Good value, although essentially a reference book. John R. Dorfman's The Stock Market Directory (Doubleday, $29.95) touches, if that, on 1,500 companies. The statistical ice on which it skates is too thin to be useful. William E. Donoghue (a brand name among fund list-makers) in No-Load Mutual Fund Guide (with Thomas Trilling, Harper & Row, $13.95) intersperses rankings with investment advice. There may be not a load among the funds listed, but the intervening text strikes me as nothing but.
Next, the bright dawn of tomorrow. Max G. Ansbacher, in How to Profit from the Coming Bull Market (Prentice-Hall; paperback, $6.95) assembles masses of data and spangles it with amusing assumptions (such as that Exxon is a well-managed company). There may be something newly insightful here, but my dowsing rod wasn't up to the task. This book may find a specialist audience, however. So excruciatingly small is its type that I can't imagine that any ophthalmologist worth his tax shelter won't recommend it to his patients. Thomas J. Holt's Successful Investing in the Coming Devaluation (Rawson, Wade; paperback, $5.95) was published in this form in 1980. Freshly retitled, it's like a leopard with new spots. I don't see any point to it. It is, however, endorsed by Senator Hatch, which brings to mind something Thurber wrote about boobies. Kiril Sokoloff, Joseph E. Laird and Thomas H. Mack, in Investing in the Future (Rawson, Wade; paperback, $5.95), haul out the entrails, fondle them for auguries, and suggest business sectors which will at some future point be hot. Robots, data technology, that sort of thing. Which is all very well, but what am I going to do for dinner tonight?
The Strategic Metals War, by James E. Sinclair and Robert Parker (Crown, $17.50) and The Strategic Metals Handbook, by Mitchell J. Posner and Philip Goldberg (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $17.50), seem to me indistinguishable. The argument is identical--and tired. The world is running out of -iums, which are anyway mostly in the hands of the Russkies or Boers, and there's money to be made. If Krypton's your thing, which of these books you buy depends on whether you wish to do business with Mr. Sinclair or Mr. Posner, both of whom, by chance, are in the racket.
Louis Engel and Brendan Boyd's How to Buy Stocks (Little, Brown, $15.50) is a veteran warrior with an honorable past. It touches on a lot, but it's like a Michelin without the stars. Barbara Lee (with Gretchen Morgenstern) stares down her own exploitative McGuffey. On page 165 of The Woman's Guide to the Stock Market (Harmony, $11.95) is written: "Women investors do not make any more or different types of mistakes than any other investor." So much for the crying need for this tome.
On to the Tolkien area, fantasyland. A.W. Bigus in Make Yours in Stocks and Bonds at Little Risk (Hampol, Box 36, 47 Harvard Ave., Boston, Mass. 02134, $17.50) demonstrates that if a little learning (in America aka data) is a dangerous thing, too much can be catastrophic. There's a table or statistic or citation here for everybody, I'm sure, but this book will live forever in my heart for its "Appendix I. Decline--Western Civilization." William David Montapert perplexes me. In The Omega Strategy (Capra, $10) he hangs his argument on the debt specter and when he's good he's very, very good, but the rest of the time it's Dungeons and Dragons. This is, not surprisingly, a book published in Santa Barbara.
Finally, Julian M. Snyder in The Way of the Hunter-Warrior, from the presumably eponymous publisher Richardson-Snyder ($12.95), offers us Zen-Robert Ardrey-Field & Stream oatmeal. Those tempted to follow him would be well advised to remember that if the slingers with guns couldn't cut it past the '60s, neither Kung nor Fu are likely to thrive in these troublesome times.
A proper investment how-to should display, on its jacket, its author's record as an investor, certified by an accountant of recognized honesty--assuming there is such a thing. Failing that, perhaps a statement by the publisher that he has (as they say in Texas) bet his house, car and boat on the ideas contained therein would be a sufficient earnest. Absent these, this genre might vanish from the face of the earth. But not to worry about the writers; they'll always find work--assisting in the preparation of the federal budget.