Factfulness – A Book Review

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World-And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

This is a book written by Hans Rosling (and his son and daughter-in-law) who was a physician in a third world environment in Africa and who studied an outbreak of a paralytic disease across rural Africa.  He devoted the rest of his life following Africa to studying global health and the statistics around global health.  In Factfulness, he describes the state of the world today and why we have such misconceived views on how the world is doing as far as economic development, agriculture, poverty, and health.

Rosling begins by dividing the entire population of the world into 4 different levels of income.  Through his research, he found consistencies in overall health by what level of income people were living in.


Level 1 – This is extreme poverty with people living on less than $2 each day.  They probably walk on bare feet, sleep on dirt floors, fetch their water, and cook over an open fire.  Children work to help survive.  1 billion people today live in this category.


Level 2 – People live on $2 to $8 each day.  Life is typically a little easier than Level 1, as people have shoes, sleep on a mattress, may have a bicycle to make transportation easier, still fetch water, and might have a gas stove to cook with.  Children are able to go to school instead of work.  3 billion people today live in this category.


Level 3 – People live on $8 and $32 each day.  These people have running water, a refrigerator, a hot plate or some sort of multi-burner cook stove, and maybe some sort of motorized transportation.  Children may be able to finish secondary school.   2 billion people today live in this category.


Level 4 – People spend more than $32 each day.  These people have indoor plumbing, stove (gas or electric) with more than 2 burners, and they can afford a car or truck for transportation.  All have at least a high school education and can take a vacation once in a while.  1 billion people today live in this category.


It may not surprise you that 6 of the 7 billion people in the world live in what most of us would consider poverty.  However, people are moving up on a worldwide basis over the last 50 years.  The author gives us facts that (worldwide) girls are going to school, children are getting vaccinated, people live in two-child families, etc. It is projected that the trend of moving up levels will continue worldwide.  Things in the world still aren’t great, and some of us would consider them bad.  However, the authors point out that conditions can be bad and better at the same time.  Overall conditions worldwide are better than what we perceive them to be.


My parents and I discussed the 4 Levels and my dad pointed out that in the 1940’s and 1950’s growing up in rural Iowa that he possibly could have been on the verge of living in Level 3, and they were a happy middle-class family.  If rural Iowans lived in, or on the verge of, Level 3 today it would definitely NOT be considered middle-class.  This is just an example that not only are things getting better in other parts of the world, but living conditions and income are getting better everywhere.


The author describes to us the reasons why we have such misconceptions of what is going on in the world.  He describes 10 human instincts that keep us from seeing the world as it is…factfully.  With each of these instincts, he gives us advice on how to overcome our biases and how to use factual data to be able to realize that “yes, indeed living conditions worldwide are improving!”  His advice will also help you in seeing other things that we care about realistically (factfully) without falling to our human instincts – such as the following, to name a few of the ten:


  • the fear instinct (frightening things get our attention, but may not necessarily be the most risky)


  • the size instinct (standalone large numbers are more shocking/impressive than they really are)


  • the gap instinct (we categorize things as black or white, A or B, liberal or conservative, wealthy or not wealthy, developed and developing, etc…when most of the world falls somewhere in between)

Here is one last bit on investing (since we’re investment advisors).  In the chapter that he describes the size instinct and why it leads us to misconceptions, he also talks about the PIN Code of the World.  This code today is 1-1-1-4.  It represents today’s world population.  1 billion people live in North and South America, 1 billion people live in Europe, 1 billion people live in Africa, and 4 billion people live in Asia.  If the United Nations’ forecasts for population growth are correct, by the year 2100, the PIN Code of the world will be 1-1-4-5.  Keep in mind that income levels are migrating to the better on a worldwide view.  Today, 11% of the world’s population makes up 60% of the Level 4 consumer market…basically the countries surrounding the North Atlantic.  By 2040, if personal incomes keep growing as they are doing now, then 60% of the world’s Level 4 consumer market will reside outside of the North Atlantic and more around the Indian Ocean.

A fairly bright Ballast Capital Advisors client suggested this book to me.  I’m glad he did.  I hope it forever changes the way I process data that is given to me.

Liar’s Poker – A Book Review

As some of you may already know, Liar’s Poker is the first book published by Michael Lewis in 1989. It is basically a synopsis of his career at Salomon Brothers in the 1980’s. If you are not familiar with Michael Lewis, he is also the author of Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short.

Lewis – through acquaintances and the fortune of being seated next to the wife of the managing director of the London office of Salomon Brothers – received an invitation to the highly coveted Salomon Brothers training program.  At that time, it was considered by many to be THE Wall Street bond trader training program.

Salomon Brothers was thriving in the 1980’s as they basically invented the mortgage backed security, and they had a monopoly on the packaging and selling of these securities to banks, insurance companies, pensions funds, etc.  Prior to this, institutional investors shied away from investing their funds in residential mortgage loans, as the homeowner could always prepay if interest rates were going down (and the homeowner could refinance at a lower rate).  Institutions like to know the duration of what they own.

Even though this is a story of happenings 30 or more years ago, there are lessons in this book that apply both to today and to the future.  First, Salomon Brothers was thriving with their newly invented mortgage backed securities that gave investors some comfort in the duration of what they were buying.  They had all of the intellectual capital and the relationships in this space.  A couple of the reasons they didn’t maintain the good thing they had going was greed of upper management and jealousy of people in the organization that weren’t in the mortgage trading department.  Individuals who were integral in the buying of loans from thrifts throughout the U.S.(packaging them into mortgage backed securities and selling these packaged instruments to investors throughout the world) were aware that what they were doing was highly profitable.  Other Wall Street firms also became aware that it was highly profitable.  Competing firms (Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, etc.) came with 7-digit salary offers to key personnel, and within a short time, many of the key people were successfully doing the work they had done (at Solomon Brothers) at other Wall Street firms.

So, Lesson #1…reward your good people.  Stay in tune to what is going on in your organization culturally, and do whatever you need to do to keep your key people engaged and excited about the growth of the organization as a whole.  In addition, ensure that their production will be rewarded fairly.


Lesson #2… Make sure your investment professional is on the buy side. This lesson is highlighted when Michael Lewis is assigned to the bond trading desk in the London office of Salomon Brothers.  This lesson is one that we (here at Ballast) talk about frequently.  Upon assignment to the London office, Lewis was told to call on investors and get them to entrust their funds to the firm.  He wasn’t great at this, but he did get a good lead one day and called on a local bank that wanted to invest $20 million with Salomon Brothers.  A bond trader within Salomon Brothers told Lewis that he should sell the bank some AT&T bonds.  Lewis went with the trader’s advice and suggested to the bank representative that they invest in some AT&T bonds.  Little did Lewis know that these bonds were in a loss position, and the trader had been trying to get them out of the Salomon Brothers’ portfolio.  The local bank’s first position (the AT&T bonds) with Salomon Brothers was down in price the very first week they owned it.  Lewis felt terrible about putting the bank in a bad investment from the get go and asked the bond trader who suggested it if Salomon Brothers could buy them back from the investor at cost as a goodwill gesture.  The trader responded, “Who do you think you work for, Michael?”


Even though it appears that Lewis was on the buy side for an investor who was definitely on the buy side of the AT&T bond trade, Lewis was with Salomon Brothers who was on the sell side of the trade (therefore Lewis was on the sell side as well). And so the lesson is…if you are working with an investment professional to put your savings to work, make sure they are on the “buy-side.”  I want to reiterate this point, because it’s important: In the example above, Salomon Brothers had the appearance of being on both the sell side (the bond trader telling Lewis to push the AT&T bonds) and the buy side (Michael Lewis trying to do a good job for an investor).  But their strategic interests were purely sell side.

This structure still exists today.  Wall Street investment banks have their own portfolios and are underwriting securities that they are selling to investors.  These same banks (sell side) have thousands of investment advisors in the retail arena advising individual investors (buy side).  The charge of the Wall Street banks is to collect capital via selling debt or equity securities to investors.  The charge of the investment advisor is to act in a fiduciarily responsible manner, investing clients’ funds in positions that are strategically aligned with their clients’ financial goals.  It seems that there is a conflicting set of goals when firms are acting on both the sell side and the buy side, and this is how many Wall Street firms grow their business (Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, etc.).  Yet, many individual investors feel comfort and safety when investing with a large, “reputable” Wall Street name.

You, as an investor, are always on the buy side.  Make certain the investment professional you are paying and trusting to put you in good, productive investments that are accomplishing your financial goals is also only on the buy side!!  You want your interests aligned…always!