September 08, 2004

Ugly Americans

Ben Mezrich Shifts His Focus from
Card Counters to Expat Derivative Traders in Japan
It's Like "Black Rain" Meets "Wall Street"

I liked Ben Mezrich's first book, "Bringing Down the House". It dealt with super-smart Ivy League types who decided to use their brainpower to make money fast by letting the mathematics of blackjack and card counting work for them. In this latest book, "Ugly Americans", super-smart Ivy League types ("expats") trading in the Japanese stock market (among other things) make the card counters look like pikers.

Now there are plenty of fish-out-of-water books (and movies) out there about the experience of Americans living in Japan. A good one I read several years ago was "Funny Business" by Gary Katzenstein. That's more of a "regular guy gets a job at a Japanese company" book. It's good. Lots of nice touches about how street addresses and directions work a bit differently, how "salarymen" live, how foreigners are treated in everyday life.

Mezrich's book is an account of the life of the millionaire living-on-the-edge day-trader set in Japan. Both stories have a certain appeal, and they both have a lot in common. For example, regardless of how wealthy you are or how much you try to assimilate, in Japan, you are always "gaijin" or foreigner, and there are some things you will just never be accepted as. It's hard to pin down whether it is a racism thing or just a culture thing or both.

The traders also inevitably have to deal with the Yakuza, the Japanese mob. There's even a character interviewed who has his pinky cut off, just like the mobster guy in "Black Rain", and Mezrich talks a little bit about how the Yakuza culture works in Japan, why the police won't deal with them, etc. You may remember the Barings bank trader from several years ago named Nick Leeson who lost billions by making a bunch of bad trades on fraudulent credit, and the characters here have many interactions with Leeson and feel the aftershocks of his actions.

I said above that it's like "Black Rain" meets "Wall Street" (both good movies with Michael Douglas as a major character), but there's also a little Neal Stephenson thrown in. Lots of quirky little explanations about what goes on behind the scenes, how complicated things work, how people deal with sudden wealth (in Japan, apparently, it's all about the "Water Trade"), how they interface with the "real" world. Anyway, I liked it.

Posted by Observer at September 8, 2004 05:21 PM

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