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Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004
THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF
Wheeler-dealers can always go home if the going gets dicey
UGLY AMERICANS: The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions, by Ben Mezrich. William Morrow, 2004, $24.95 (cloth).
The financial tycoons depicted in "Ugly Americans" were once dubbed Masters of the Universe, but they emerge here as hedonistic clowns. Their story is something like "Animal House" meets "Bonfire of the Vanities," with adolescent frat boys prowling Japan for babes, booze and big bucks.
Sadly, it never really probes beneath the surface or beyond hoary stereotypes.
Drawing on interviews with these rainmakers about their experiences, Ben Mezrich tells a "true story" that portrays them as brash and pathetic bores obsessed with money. This is a world where the size of deals, profits, bonuses and the number of trophy girls and glitzy sports cars are all that count.
The most sympathetic character in the story, John Malcolm, stands out because he has a private life, is not a fuzoku habitue and actually stands up for his friend. (Of course since he is the main source, the tale may be tweaked in his favor.)
Despite all the debauchery around him, in matters of the heart he remains old-fashioned: "He had never cheated on her, unless you counted the occasional lap dance." In this ruthless world of greed where people are there to be used, basic decency almost seems like a naive indulgence.
Mezrich has a big problem. Inevitably this book will be compared to "Liar's Poker," Michael Lewis' excellent book on the work culture of New York finance geeks. Unfortunately, Mezrich is not nearly as gifted a writer and needs a humor implant; there is so much material here just begging for a comic touch.
Also the intricacies of arbitrage and the nuts and bolts of how the raiders shook down the Asian markets should have been a more compelling part of the story. Mezrich tries hard to pump some drama into this saga, but in the end he never comes close to showing how "Malcolm had been fighting a guerrilla war of sorts . . . he had been conducting a Wild West-style raid on the faltering Eastern markets . . . He had become a hedge-fund cowboy."
Malcolm dismisses the traders depicted in "Liar's Poker," boasting that his world of Tokyo traders are "not a bunch of big swinging dicks making bets on the serial numbers on dollar bills."
In his view, the high-flying bean counters in New York are merely computer jockeys who tamely go home at the end of the day. In "Ugly Americans," we confront the wild side of Tokyo where adrenaline junkies wind down after gambling billions in a world of excess and ambition "with an almost total lack of ethics and proportion."
Mezrich makes every effort to spin a story that "is hard-core, Mission Impossible, the Heart of Darkness on speed," but in the end serves up a far more prosaic story. Try as he does to enliven the story with tattooed men, sexy babes, fetish clubs and fleeting yakuza encounters, it all boils down to arbitrage on computers.
The "hero's" sayonara deal worth mega-millions is no more exciting than betting on a reshuffle of Nikkei index stocks. Not exactly a shootout at the OK Corral. Working and living in their expat cocoons, these traders may have had more self-destructive lifestyles than their Wall Street counterparts, but no amount of embellishment can transform them into gunslingers living in a dangerous world.
Malcolm says: "They [the Japanese] used a corrupt banking system and a closed, arbitrarily controlled market to protect themselves, creating massive inefficiencies along the way. My colleagues and I just capitalized on these inefficiencies." An intriguing idea, but the author never sinks his teeth into it.
We learn that the yakuza are "into every level of finance and politics. You've got yakuza investments propping up some of the biggest banks and corporations in the country. And yakuza interests reach all the way to the top of government. . . . The Japanese banks are selling the loans they can't collect at a huge discount. But the Americans who buy them find they aren't worth the paper they're printed on because the yakuza is all over them." So much for due diligence.
To check out the mob angle firsthand, our intrepid reporter goes to a yakuza-run brothel in Queens, New York, where he has to whip it out to gain entry. There he encounters a tattooed Japanese man, fluent in English and missing a pinky, who tells him that American bankers became unwelcome competitors in post-bubble Japan. He ominously speaks of helping these bankers make right decisions. Mezrich reports that "He grinned, leaning forward so I could watch the dragon dance across his wrinkled chest. 'Gaijin can always go home.' " And so Malcom does, marrying a yakuza's daughter and apparently enjoying the lucre.
Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.