Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Billionaire's Apprentice By Anita Raghavan

This is a very interesting book about the rise of the Indian-Americans in the US, particularly in the world of finance. It is made interesting by centering the book around the fall of the once powerful Galleon fund managed by Raj Rajarantam. I remember vaguely reading about the scandal of insider trading that broke out around Rajaratnam a few years ago. It stayed in the periphery of my life at that time as being something tied to the Wall Street, stocks, SEC and the likes. This book however has connected the whole thing in a relatable way to the tech industry and silicon valley that I am very much a part of. I did play with stocks at one point in time like everyone else. That was before the bubble and like how the cat who jumped into hot water refuses to touch even cold water, I don't trade in stocks anymore. The average index fund investing is good for me. I remember a veteran once telling me never to play with stocks if you don't have the time for it. This is so true and life has been going on peacefully ever since I decided to keep my small investment portfolio filled with long performing index funds.

Not so for the likes of Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta who are the major players in this book. Raj dabbled in stocks for a living - a grand living- made by managing the hedge fund he named Galleon after the ships that used to dock in Sri Lanka's ports. Rajaratnam is from Sri Lanka and educated in England, but Gupta is very much of the Indian diaspora. A truly inspiring story of the success of meritocracy in India and the US, only to fall from grace so needlessly at the end. This graduate of IIT and Harvard Business School had the dream life he worked so hard for. It is to be noted that the players on the other side are also of Indian origin. Sanjay Wadhwa of the SEC and Preeth Bharara of the U.S Attorney's office had major roles in bringing the insider trading partners to justice. Since this is a white collar crime there is a side that thinks it does not merit so  much attention. But I happen to agree with an observation in the book that likened investors using insider trading info to athletes using steroids.

The book can be tedious at times but Anita Raghavan tries to keep it interesting by offering little tidbits of information about each of the personalities. Like how Sanjay Wadhwa's father was incredulous when he heard that his son was trying to bring a case against 'The Rajat Gupta', a much revered personality among the the Indians in the US as well as in the homeland. I admit that while I had heard Raj Rajaratnam mentioned in the insider trading scandal, Rajat Gupa completely escaped my attention. So the book is when I first heard of him. He seems to be a benign personality who wanted to do good for himself as well as others. He, Raj and others indicted in the scandal had a major role in creating the Indian School Of business. Gupta was in the invitee list to the Obama White House when the then Indian Prime Minster visited and he also had close ties with President Clinton's American India Foundation. Maybe he felt life was too empty after being the  three-times elected chief of the global management consulting firm McKinsey. The personality that comes through the book does not show someone who hankers after money but it does show a driven person who cannot sit still and be in peace unless he is also doing some important stuff on one side.

The tidbits that hold our attention can also be distracting at times as sometimes they have nothing to do with the story being told. Some information is repeated maybe to jog the reader's memory that I found unwanted. However I do have sympathy for Raghavan who has done her research really well and wants to tell us all she has learned. The period and the events and the financial world she is trying to cover is so vast that she did choose an interesting vehicle like the fall of Galleon to bring the whole thing into a book that is readable. She has meticulously outlined the hardships Gupta had to go through as an orphaned elder son taking care of his family which also gives us a good picture of the India at that time. She explains with patience Wall Street talk and SEC dealings for the uninitiated. Not a surprise coming from this veteran journalist of the Wall Street Journal, the European Bureau Chief for Forbes and a current contributor to NYTimes. Along with the downfall the book throws some light into the integration of Indian-Americans into various visible facets of life in the United States. I am glad I had a chance to read this book.