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Barbarians at the Gate

Bryan Burrough and John Helyar • 1989

This book is meticulous. It has an incredibly clever cover. It was eye-opening (not in the "oh, LBOs are bad!" sense 1, but in the the "oh, industrial multinationals are a lot more interesting and sprawling than I had previously conceived!" sense). It is, for the most part, immensely entertaining. If you like books about business, this is a really good one — in the general atmosphere as Liar's Poker ↗, though Burroughs is much more of a grounded and journalistic writer than Michael Lewis.

What didn't I like? For starters, I think the greatest writers have a talent at turning exposition into powerful vignettes in their own right — think of The Path to Power ↗, where Caro turns the sprawling progeny of the Texas hill country into a compelling novella in of itself. Burroughs introduces a character and you are immediately thrown into an excursus about where they grew up, what firms they bounced around, broad snippets of their personality, and so on — it's useful, but it quickly feels so rote.

Reading through my writeup of Days of Rage ↗ (written by the author twenty-five years later), I am struck at how I took umbrage with Burroughs' level of prescriptivism, and how it didn't always vibe with his journalistic style. Maybe that take deserves re-evaluation, because I think I had a bit of the opposite feeling here: the back half of this book, once you settled into a sense of "here are the three-to-four competing parties and they are jockeying for control", it felt...very unsatisfyingly narrativistic, as if I was reading through a patchwork of Wall Street Journal columns pasted together. It wasn't bad prose, but it didn't go beyond a very persuasively thorough relation of the facts and conversations at hand.

And, here's the thing — "a very persuasively thorough relation of the facts and conversations at hand" is still pretty interesting! It was a fascinating story. But the thing that makes me pause from putting this on the tier of Caro is the lack of, I don't know, revelation.

Read this book; don't expect the world from it, just expect a great story.

Footnotes

  1. Though along these lines, I hadn't quite realized until reading just how similar the '08 financial crisis was to the LBO crisis. It turns out that if a financial instrument is objectively risky and fosters an environment where the goal is fee collection over value creation, bad things happen — who knew?

7/8/2022
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Business

Highlights

Ross's philosophy is, "We're going to have a party, a very sophisticated, complicated party."
"When a banker is talking about raising money, he’s your employee,” Sage would say. “When he starts writing the checks, you become his."
And it would include what Johnson dubbed the three rules of Wall Street: “Never play by the rules. Never pay in cash. And never tell the truth.”
“My God, that’s crazy!” he exclaimed. “How could this be a good investment? I don’t think he ought to do it, do you?” Goldstone thought it was time for some Merger 101. “Listen, Ross, they have their reasons for doing this other than just buying the company,” he explained. He mentioned the $200 million in upfront fees Shearson would reap from a successful deal. He talked about the unmatched franchise benefits it would reap from having completed history’s largest LBO. Johnson’s problem was that he insisted on thinking in terms of the real world, real money, real investments. In effect, Goldstone said, this wasn’t the real world. This was Wall Street.
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