Jan

20

 Eccentricity/degree of crazy is class based. If you are rich and like to chase dogs down the street while naked, you're considered to be eccentric, but if you are poor and do the same thing, you're crazy.

Gary Rogan writes: 

Eccentricity at the top is also somewhat cyclical as people often want the opposite characteristics to the last package that didn't work or simply became boring. You could argue that Hollande is far less eccentric than Sarkozy, that Putin, Yeltzin, and Gorbachev were/are significantly more eccentric than anyone between Khrushchev and them, and that the highly non-eccentric Bush Sr. led to a string of Presidents that were each differently eccentric, to coin a concept, with the last one being more non-orthodox in a number of parameters than eccentric.

That same principle works on Wall St. It's seems highly predictable (in retrospect, of course) that the dot com crash would result in a reversion to the mean in the investment bankers' wardrobes. Animal spirits that clearly go back and forth between extremes work the same way, as revulsion with past failures is probably one of the strongest forces in investment trends. The Depression and the subdued consumer spending in the US lead to the consumerist paradise which itself reversed to a kind of malaise, with a few more minor cycles that followed.

Eccentricity is in many ways like the periods of fast mutation in evolution, which themselves tend to revert to the mean. And speaking of Churchill the reversal he suffered after being thrown out of office after the war had a profound influence on him, and likely his health and was used as an example of being extremely powerful and then suddenly not, and the effects of such changes, in the book I'm currently reading. Nothing is forever, and I'm sure eccentricity will return to the British political scene in due time.

Richard Owen writes: 

Winston Churchill would sit starkers in his bathtub and dispense to his secretary notes and instructions for the Great Offices of State. Soak complete, he would towel off, don a Chinese floral silk dressing gown with matching fez hat and take bedside visits from his Cabinet. Part of the game was to leave the odd setting and peculiar garb unmentioned. Out for duty, he would don a custom made Siren Suit - a glorified boiler suit - and set forth to whichever geopolitical circus he had budgeted his day to. Sartorial fruitiness featured throughout.

What does one look for in a great leader, thinker or doer? An ability to act independently? Think differently? To consider the facts of the matter and take provocative, even painful action?

Siegmund Warburg - perhaps the only individual in the modern era to create a full service European investment bank from scratch and entirely within his own lifetime - upon his death bequeathed a large library of fine literature and other books. Within sat a unique folio of pornography, surgically extracted, before handing over to St. Paul's School for Girls for posterity. Some of Siegmund's business rules included: good manners; consideration of others, particularly juniors; ignore the fashionable; non-conformism as a right, not a duty. This does not feel familiar in today's Wall Street.

To be branded an eccentric these days can be terminal. Particularly in the American paradigm. Instead of independence, determination, or contrary thinking, it is a signal of unreliability and cause for suspicion Some of the driving factors are positive: the British eccentric has class-based roots. The public schoolboy, assured his place in the firmament, could afford to transport his playground hijinks into the world of work. Just as investment bankers re-donned their suits after the dotcom crash, so did the pressures of openness and assessment mute some of the rakish public school excess. But a paradigm can swing too far.

Who do we have leading the Labour left in the UK? Mr. Edward Miliband, an impressive man whipped into a strait jacket of conformity. He arrived by Faustian deal with the trade unions; everything he utters is calculated for short term gain. Even the passion moments - the big conference set-piece speeches - feel badly scripted with an insipid instinct for popular policy.

The batty leaked clip of Miliband repeating the exact same soundbite answer to every question thrown his way at a media scrum - whether it made an iota of sense or not - gave the impression of a malfunctioning replicant whose circuitry had badly fused. The semi-autistic response mechanism was a guerrilla tactic to cope with today's minefield 24-hour news loop.

The irony is that Miliband's constituency - the unions - have backed a man who's supposed state educated, humble upbringing, disguises a militant intellectual father, likely private tuition, and all the other bells and whistles of hidden cultural advantage. The socialistic Labour left's distaste for the British grammar school has hamstrung a generation of intelligent working class and closed off their main vein of progress to the upper-echelons. Eccentric this is not.

And the Conservative coalition? Headed by David Cameron, every inch the PR man. A better looking, more charming and affable version of Miliband? Perhaps. But we need not repeat the basic assessment - they are both ultra-Blairs. But without the Blairite flair within.

Blair himself was most definitely an eccentric. He was willing to throw his whole reputation onto the pyre for a self-styled humanitarian war in Iraq. You can assess the merits, but at least it showed spine. Blair was so effective that he construed the ensuing hate into three back-to-back election victories.

Blair, however, left a messy intellectual endowment: the idea that, today, politics doesn't matter and one just acts as intelligent administrator. And just at the very turning point where hard choices, real budgeting, became essential.

What isn't obvious from the public record is that underneath the "call me Tony" demeanour was a burning intellect. A man who insisted on rising early to pen his own speeches. An intentionality. His followers have adopted the outer shell, but are missing the flavoursome crab meat inside.

When discussing interesting investment outcomes on Wall Street, we refer to eccentric or non-systematic returns. Bespectacled, absent minded Leon Levy could thread profitable eccentricity back-to-back. Just don't ask him which subway stop he meant to get off at, next year's EPS to one decimal, or the date of his anniversary.

Wall Street now wants conformism pretending to be eccentricity. Actuaries demand excess return without deviating from the crowd. And yet we're surprised at the aggressive behaviour created.

Ace Greenberg, penning Chairman's memos to his staff would channel the advice of Haimchinkel Malintz Anaynikal, an imaginary and often hilarious business philosopher; a figment of Ace's minds eye. If Jamie Dimon tried that today, he would be carted off the premises and branded a loon. Perhaps private partnership allowed better for private eccentricities. But something deeper, more cultural, is at work.

 To quote British banker John Studzinski: "after the dotcom crash, investment bankers were put through the meat grinder and came out robots." Warburg was so listened to by clients because he actually had something useful to say. His eclectic, eccentric outlook gave him a differentiated, potent opinion. Instead today's bankers collect endless, vapid powerpoint slides rather than bequeathable collections of fine literature. And they have opinions to match. Produce views and analysis like clockwork. But Warburg knew that producing was for the farmyard and generated opinions like manure. Quoth Siegmund: "One general reservation which I feel about some of the US investment banking houses is that they put too much emphasis on measuring, almost from month to month, what a specific partner produces. I don't even like the way they pronounce the word - not produce, but 'prodooce'. All this emphasis on producing - that is all right for a cow, but not for a human being."

Keynes, the great economist, trader, bon vivant, and political adviser was as likely to be found of an evening cottaging with the local bishop as penning a treatise on the National Product. Disraeli, a spectacular Prime Minister, was also a former bankrupt, mining entrepreneur and spiv. Try shoehorning such vitae into a political career today.

What do we have instead in British national life? Andrew Mitchell and the Plebgate inquiry, staffed by thirty full-time police offers, all straining to determine whether a politician muttered the word "pleb" to himself when heading past some cops at Westminster's gates. It's not so much fiddling whilst Rome burns as actively brainstorming more and better fuel supply lines.

Thatcher, every bit the eccentric, would have known what to do. Colleagues stung in the press by petty scandal would be grabbed by the arm and marched through Westminster's lobby. A show of support from the top; a smothering of the flame before it became entrenched in the press.

Straight-laced individuals, politicians, businessmen, forget their independence, their room for originality. Horrific, black swan events demand attention; perhaps a gun review is sensible post Sandy Hook. But don't forget the didactic nature of the Oval; exactly how FDR sucked billions of deposits back into the banks, or a gamely Reagan re-invigorated a whole nation. The lowest cost, highest impact fix would surely be a fireside chat on the benefits of sitting down for dinner daily with the family; taking an interest in your children.

On complex issues, one can't clear one's throat. The free-thinking intellect and the prejudiced have an intersection: the former will at least try on the latter's opinion to see how it fits. But don't dare be caught by the media as such.

Even the thesaurus is gripped by the modern will - it serves up for eccentric: aberrant, abnormal, flaky, crazy. Perhaps all those things. But also: essential.
 


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1 Comment so far

  1. Steve on January 21, 2013 2:56 pm

    “the didactic nature of the Oval”

    Diabolical would be more fitting.

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