Investor Warren Buffett enjoyed learning more about how his son tries to tackle world hunger, while fellow billionaire Carlos Slim studied how General Motors Co. and AT&T Inc. reinvented themselves.
Pacific Investment Management Co. Chief Executive Officer Mohamed El-Erian zeroed in on U.S. politics and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew sought insight in the work of his predecessors. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked at American prosperity, while World Bank President Jim Yong Kim probed innovation.
These were some of the responses to the annual Bloomberg News survey, which asked CEOs, investors, current and former policy makers, economists and academics to name their favorite books of 2013.
The most popular selection was The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil. What follows are the choices of some of the individuals who participated:
Howard G. Buffett, chairman of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation
The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk: Illuminated the flaws of trying to impose Western thinking on Africa. “Jeff Sachs’ ‘Millennium Villages’ tried to create a recipe for lifting regions out of poverty through massive aid and development plans designed from a distance by people who lacked a deep understanding of farming. This book is stark proof that approach just does not work. Farming is context-specific, and any plan that is not created from the ground up in partnership with local people who are invested not only in increasing agricultural productivity, but the development of sustainable markets, is doomed. The world needs to pay attention to these lessons and stop wasting resources.”
Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World by Howard G. Buffett and Howard W. Buffett: He thought he knew his son Howard’s story pretty well, but he says he was surprised to read his book. In it, he realized the evolution of Howard from a child of limitless energy but little direction into a serious philanthropist was dramatic. “It’s an absolutely authentic story, every chapter of it. I actually went back and read it again because I could watch how he became a man with all the best qualities of his mother, but also gained so much knowledge about farming. The book’s format involves relatively short stories that tell you about human beings that very few of us have ever encountered who are living in extreme and extraordinary environments. Howie has gone to these places and met the people. He understands their needs. His empathy fuels his passion to deliver real results to those who have hope and not much else.”
Paul Achleitner, supervisory board chairman of Deutsche Bank AG
Why the West Rules -- for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris: Helps to illustrate the intersection of time and change in human history.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Asserts that institutions cannot only withstand volatility but also have the opportunity to get better because of it.
Anat Admati, professor of finance and economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business
Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth: Recounts some of the disastrous aftermath of rigid austerity policies over the years. He rightly points to reckless banks and bailouts as key to the current crisis in Europe, but this problem can be traced to failed regulation and the symbiosis of banks and governments. Citizens everywhere must demand better financial regulation. Blyth warns that austerity can threaten democracy.
Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government by Joshua Kurlantzick: Provides an insightful explanation of the recent setbacks in achieving quality democratic systems in the developing world. Kurlantzick points to why U.S. governments have not done as well as they could to bring about democracy’s most important benefits such as freedom and civil rights. It’s particularly difficult to view Washington, D.C., as the source of good policy and wisdom after reading.
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!-in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich: Made me laugh but also want to cry at some of the silliness and the increasing disconnect of This Town from the rest of society. The corrosive impact of “Big Money” and politics, lamented by others, is in full display.
The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida (translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell). I urge everyone to read this. We take too much for granted, particularly our ability to communicate. Some brains are very different. More empathy would help.
Carlos Slim, chairman emeritus of America Movil SAB and the world’s second-richest man
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”by Christopher McDougall
My Way: An Autobiography by Paul Anka
American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM and the Way We Do Business in the U.S.A. by Ed Whitacre
The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan.
Vindi Banga, operating partner at Clayton Dubilier & Rice LLP and a former president for global foods, home and personal care at Unilever
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone: Full of management lessons and an inspiration for every young entrepreneur on what can be achieved in half a lifetime.
The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire by Neil Irwin: A fascinating story of the three central bankers. Each a very different individual with his own beliefs, combating the crisis in very different political contexts.
Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier: If the last decade belonged to those who used the Internet to invent new business models; the next decade will belong to those who possess and harness the power of Big Data.
Fiona Woolf, lord mayor of the City of London
Giving is Good For You: Why Britain Should be Bothered and Give More by John Nickson: Made me confront my own attitude to giving. It made me want to do more of it in a way of actually feeling good about the contribution you can make to the sort of societal issues you undertake in the role of lord mayor. And it read like a novel.
Jacob J. Lew, U.S. Treasury secretary
The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy by Thomas K. McCraw
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group and global research professor at New York University
Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen: A highly informative read, unpacking a key factor underlying the growing inequality taking shape in the U.S. today: The middle class is thinning as a top echelon of high achievers makes good on structural advantages that the system affords them while the rest of the working population faces stagnation. Cowen’s book serves as both a cutting economic history of the past thirty years, and a predictor for where new trends and technologies are taking us. It is highly analytic, thought-provoking, and debate- inducing...yet refreshingly non-polemic.
China Goes Global: The Partial Power by David Shambaugh: I have long argued that we have entered the era of what I call the G-Zero, a global order where no country or group of countries can sustainably drive the international agenda. Shambaugh’s compelling thesis is likely the single biggest structural reason behind this breakdown in global leadership. China’s growing international reach cannot be denied; it has become sufficiently important economically to scuttle many international policies that do not suit its interests. But as China grows rapidly, its willingness and ability to engage in global affairs and promote its own values and priorities has come along much more haltingly. The result is a “partial power:” a China that can upend the global order, but cannot spearhead a new one of its own. This book offers a balanced, thoughtful, critical understanding of why China mustn’t be ignored -- but why it won’t be replacing the U.S. any time soon.
Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data by Charles Wheelan: From smartphones that track our coordinates and even our sleep patterns to the rise of Fantasy Football and social media sites that log our every written thought, the prevalence of big data is plain to see -- but how do we digest it? Any lover of lists and data needs a primer to cut through it. Whelan takes a complex subject and gives it new sheen. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants an accessible, entertaining lens into the nature of data and statistics.
Philip Clarke, CEO of Tesco Plc
True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George: An inspirational book about authenticity in leadership. It reminded me to appreciate differences in people and that there is no perfect profile of a leader.
Steve Kuhn, Partner and co-head of fixed income trading at Pine River Capital Management LP
Trading Bases: A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball (Not Necessarily in That Order) by Joe Peta: Was my favorite book of 2013. The author shows that the search for “alpha” in baseball gambling could be a fruitful one. The book also has lessons that extend well beyond baseball, indeed to all forms of investment. I bought a copy for everyone on my trading team.
David Cote, chairman and CEO of Honeywell International Inc.
As a lifelong Republican, it’s ironic the two books that stuck out were recommended by high-profile Democrats.
The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes: Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, suggested this. It really was an age of wonder because the whole idea of science was on everybody’s mind. It’s this fascinating tie-in about the early days of science and how that related to the literature of the time.
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson: It was recommended by Steve Israel, a U.S. Representative from New York who headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2012 elections. I find it just fascinating to get a sense of what was being dealt with and how they looked at things and what was a good plan, but just didn’t get executed well or didn’t happen because somebody didn’t make the right decision. As a leader, that’s what I’m having to deal with all the time.
Alistair Darling, former U.K. chancellor of the exchequer
Making it Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy by Iain Martin: An excellent chronicle of the downfall of Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc. The book draws extensively on interviews from members of staff and charts the eventual downfall of one of the world’s biggest banks.
An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris: A fascinating novel based on the notorious Dreyfus affair at the end of the nineteenth century.
Barry Eichengreen, professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley
Misunderstanding Financial Crises: Why We Don’t See Them Coming by Gary B. Gorton: Uses U.S. history to fundamentally undermine what we thought we knew about financial crises.
Prometheus Shackled: Goldsmith Banks and England’s Financial Revolution after 1700 by Peter Temin and Hans-Joachim Voth: Similarly uses history, this time the history of the British industrial revolution, to challenge everything we thought we knew about the connections between finance and growth. While it may not be possible to call either “an enjoyable romp,” both books are exceedingly well written and, given their use of historical evidence, considerably more entertaining than most economic and financial writing. They are two fine examples of state-of-the-art financial history that speak directly to current policy concerns. They will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates seeing conventional historical wisdoms overturned.
Olli Rehn, European Union economic and monetary affairs commissioner
The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil: A great narrative -- both very fluent and well-researched -- on the talks that created the International Monetary Fund and the Bretton Woods system of international economic governance which lasted, mostly successfully, until the early 1970s. John Maynard Keynes is here as much a devoted defender of the British national interest as the world’s leading analytical economist. Harry Dexter White, meanwhile, is shown to be a Soviet spy or at least fellow traveler in first class, which is why he never became the first-ever managing director of the IMF.
Misunderstanding Financial Crises: Why We Don’t See Them Coming by Gary B. Gorton: Less linear than Alan Blinder’s “When the Music Stopped,” which is perhaps the best overall account of the crisis. But this is a more Minskyian and highly original analysis, which shows the recurrence of manias and panics over the past 250 years and why the decisions in the 1930s changed that, and no sweeping and systemic financial crisis occurred in the U.S. until 2007-2008. The Fed’s role as lender of last resort and the creation of the FDIC in 1934 take the credit.
Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman: This is a magnificent biography that combines Hirschman’s personal development as a committed reformist and social liberal, and as committed European, with his scholarly development as a leading political economist of his time. From the streets of Berlin in 1933 to Marseilles in 1940, from the lecture halls of Berkeley in 1941 to Nuremberg in 1945 and Columbia and Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s, it is just an extraordinary life.
David Einhorn, president of Greenlight Capital Inc.
“Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” by Sheryl Sandberg (Einhorn’s cousin): Has been criticized for addressing only a small subset of women, namely women who already enjoy a great deal of privilege but still feel limited by a male- dominated business culture. I think the critics miss the broader issue: while the system needs to change and inevitably will, it is difficult for individuals to change it in the short-term. In the meantime, Sheryl offers pragmatic advice about how to succeed in the world as it actually is. And women aren’t Sheryl’s only audience. Lean In points out systemic problems to people who, until now, might have been oblivious to many of them. Sheryl has started an important conversation, not just in “Lean In” circles, but in boardrooms. I think that in a few years, her critics will take a different view. I appreciate Sheryl’s common-sense approach to what’s been an intractable problem. My cousin has written a brave and challenging book and, on a more personal note, it’s nice to see Grandma Roz get the tribute she deserves.
Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton University
The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton: Tops my list of must-read books for 2013. Deaton tackles big topics -- global improvements to health and wellbeing, worrisome levels of inequality within nations and between them, and the challenges to curing poverty through foreign aid. His powerful, provocative argument combines careful analysis, humane insight, lucid prose, and a fearless willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. Whether you agree or disagree with its conclusions, this book will force you to rethink your positions about some of the world’s most urgent problems.
Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of Pacific Investment Management Co.
Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann: Motivated by a desire to better understand how politics is likely to influence economics and markets, I read a few books this year on what goes on behind closed doors in Washington. I emerged with more than just new insights on the powerful drivers of today’s unusual political polarization. I also gained a better understanding of the changing mix of tactical and strategic influences, the role of political lobbies and the unexpected consequences of seemingly benign political deals.
Double Down provides its readers with even more. Written in a flowing and engaging manner, it takes you through two inter-related political journeys that converged into yet another defining moment for America: the November 2012 elections. Whether it is the difficulties both parties faced in securing their political base while also engaging centrists, or the volatile and competing claims on some politicians’ loyalties and values, Halperin and Heilemann do a great job in explaining some of the disturbing realities of today’s Washington setup.
Importantly, they illustrate why too many of the nation’s counterproductive political outcomes are in fact due to quite rational political calculations and short-term incentives at the level of individual politicians. None of the books I read this year suggest that America’s political landscape will get less problematic in 2014. If anything, we should expect even greater polarization and dysfunction. That is the bad news. The good news is that due to books such as “Double Down,” we can all have a better understanding of why.
Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels
China Goes Global: The Partial Power by David Shambaugh: China is today a consequential nation, but its international economic and political personality is only partial and Beijing remains uncertain about what it wants to achieve through international policy.
The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil: The story of how the postwar system for the world economy was designed -- and how a secret admirer of the Soviet Union, Harry Dexter White, laid the foundation for U.S. global economic power by making the dollar a global currency.
Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard University
War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First-Century Combat as Politics by Emile Simpson: Best book of the year by a considerable margin. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, where he served as a Gurkha officer, Simpson is the most impressive scholar-warrior to emerge from the “War on Terror” (a label he deplores). Described by Sir Michael Howard as “a coda to Clausewitz’s On War ... a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military,” “War From the Ground Up” should also be compulsory reading at every level in the business world. Its paradigm-shifting arguments have implications that extend far beyond the battlefield.
Peter Fisher, senior director of BlackRock Investment Institute and senior fellow at the Center for Global Business and Government at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth
An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases by Moises Velasquez-Manoff: Completely upended my (1970-vintage) understanding of biology and made me think about all ecosystems -- biological and financial -- in a completely new light, focusing on how we can mess things up not just by what we add but by what we take away.
Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century by Christian Caryl: May be the year’s best. It brilliantly documents 1979, when “the twin forces of markets and religion came back with a vengeance” -- through Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Afghan jihad and the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Poland -- and is a must-read for any serious student seeking to understand what has ensued in the 21st century.
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham: Provides remarkable insight about one of history’s great transformational leaders.
The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire by Neil Irwin: Provides perhaps the best account yet of the accidentally transformational leaders that central bankers became with the financial crisis that erupted in 2007.
Jason Furman, chairman of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers
The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig
Misunderstanding Financial Crises: Why We Don’t See Them Coming by Gary B. Gorton: The best pair of economics books I read. Both of them proceed from rigorous theory and careful history to develop a single, all-encompassing narrative of the recent financial crisis and what should be done to prevent the next one. But the explanations, while individually compelling, are also diametrically opposed, with the former focused on solvency and the later on liquidity. Reading them together forces you to make up your mind or construct your own synthesis.
The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendahl: Years ago I was defeated in my attempt to read it but this year I tried again. Once you get past the first hundred pages it turns into a fast- paced combination of court intrigue, romance, adventure, and love story -- all set in the fictional nineteenth century Principality of Parma and told with ironic detachment.
Matilda by Roald Dahl: Reading this to my children (age five and six) was one of my biggest thrills of the year.
David Farr, chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric Co.
Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy: A truly fascinating read about the business people, soldiers, scientists and engineers who made everything work for the political and military leaders -- the real people who got things done to win the war, and the individuals you would never have known about who helped win the war. A very interesting read.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A much easier and very enjoyable read as I flew back and forth from India. It’s a young person’s perspective of the enormous “hell” the youth and normal German families lived through during Hitler’s time. About life in a small town outside of Munich and how she survived and helped people survive -- including an unexpected Jewish friend. It’s a powerful and moving insight unlike any other World War II books I have read -- through the eyes of “Death.” It does make you think about untethered power.
Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman
Coolidge by Amity Shlaes
The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White and the Making of a New World Order by Benn Steil.