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July 31, 2002

Survival Skills in Financial Services: Strategies for Turbulent Times

By Gregory Bresiger

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  • Survival Skills in Financial Services: Strategies for Turbulent Times

by Julian Lowenthal

(John Wiley & Sons, New York, 250 pages) $49.95

Reviewed by Gregory Bresiger

This book isn't worth the effort. It is all things to all people. Consequently, it made almost no impression on me.

Julian Lowenthal, a consultant with his own firm, professes to admire the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, who once said that he who defends everywhere, defends nowhere. Or, to go one step further, there is also the wisdom of Frederick the Great: He who wants to defend everything defends nothing.

Lowenthal has a similar problem. He wants to explain everything in the financial services industry. His focus is too broad. He tries to encompass the entire industry within the covers of one small book.

There's no surprise here: He fails. He ends up with hackneyed writing. His conclusions are commonplace. He breaks no new ground. For example, in trying to explain all the changes in the industry, Lowenthal, early in the book when I still had some hope for this work, starts to flounder.

Competition and Consolidation

"So we've got competition and consolidation," he writes (page 39). "Have we not been told that competition is good?" (Who is we? Adam Smith? Carl Menger. I don't think Lowenthal knows who he is talking about. If he doesn't know, then how is the benighted, average Babbitt - yours truly - expected to follow his argument?)

Lowenthal continues in this section, taking me down this road to befuddlement: "Many providers, lower prices for customers, survival of the fittest, all that stuff."

(What is he talking about here? Herbert Spencer? Charles Darwin? Sam Walton? And how, exactly, does this relate to the average financial professional? Please, if one has a clue, drop a line to Traders Magazine.)

But there's more to this enigma. Lowenthal writes, "We have also been told," (There's that pesky we person again. This person aggravates me endlessly!!!) "that consolidation and large companies are bad. Concentration of power; big, bad monopolies; greed is good thinking. Confused?"

The problem is the author appears confused! What, exactly, is wrong with big companies, per se? If a company wins the top position in any industry, what's wrong with that? No one forces us to buy the product.

Intelligent readers aren't confused by this book, just disturbed by its poor logic. The author is the one who has made a muddle of analyzing the financial services business. This is probably because he began with a flawed concept - I can teach one about survival skills in the entire financial services industry, a philosophy on par with trying to read the classics via comic books - and a major publishing house egged him on.

Traders should read something else this summer. There is very little, for example, in this book that addresses the needs of trading professionals. They may want to read this book out of a sense of curiosity about survival skills needed in other parts of the financial services industry.

Rough and Tumble