Saturday, May 31, 2014

Cootner, The Random Character of Stock Market Prices, I

One of the most important scholarly books ever published about the financial markets was The Random Character of Stock Market Prices, edited by Paul H. Cootner (M.I.T. Press, 1964). I recently got hold of a copy through interlibrary loan—a lot cheaper than the $2540-$3247 price tags on Amazon for used, library copies of the book (of unknown copyright date, but perhaps the 2000 reprint--geez, guys); AbeBooks’ prices are more realistic.

The book contains a translation of Louis Bachelier’s 1900 doctoral dissertation “Theory of Speculation,” a seminal account of how to value financial options—since retranslated and published along with an intellectual history of stochastic analysis and financial economics in Louis Bachelier’s Theory of Speculation: The Origins of Modern Finance (Princeton University Press, 2011).

The authors of the other papers in the volume make up a who’s who of early financial theory: Harry V. Roberts, M. G. Kendall, M. F. M. Osborne, Holbrook Working, Alfred Cowles, Arnold B. Moore, C. W. J. Granger and O. Morgenstern, Sidney S. Alexander, Arnold B. Larson, William Steiger, Eugene F. Fama, Benoit Mandelbrot, Richard J. Kruizenga, Case M. Sprenkle, A. James Boness, Herbert F. Ayres, Paul A. Samuelson, Henry P. McKean, Jr., and the editor himself.

Since this book is hard to come by, I’m going to devote a few posts to extensive quotations from Cootner’s introductions to the four parts of the book. These introductions give a sense of the arguments of the individual papers; they are more than “teasers.” Readers who are intrigued can pester their local librarians to locate a copy for them (or, in my case, find a source in a digital catalogue).

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Collins, The Nature of Investing

For over twenty years Katherine Collins was an investment professional, serving as head of research and portfolio manager at Fidelity Management & Research. She then “set out to re-integrate her investment philosophy with the broader world, traveling as a pilgrim and volunteer, earning her MTS degree at Harvard Divinity School, and studying biomimicry and the natural world as guides for investing in an integrated, regenerative way, in services to our communities and our planet.” She subsequently founded Honeybee Capital, “a research firm focused on pollinating ideas that reconnect investing with the real world.” As befits the name of the firm, she herself is a beekeeper.

The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies through Biomimicry (Bibliomotion, 2014) lays out her ideas. Let’s start with the alleged advantages of the biomimicry-based framework: it is the ultimate in sustainability, it is nonjudgmental, it is an inherently integrated approach, it is inspiring and comforting, it is flexible and durable, and it is un-fluffy. Explaining the last point, Collins writes: “Nature is not all rainbows and kittens, and natural systems certainly do not sit in a romantic state of perpetual balance and bliss. It is the disruptions in nature, and the responses to them, that can teach us the most.” (p. 13)

Biomimicry asks us to look to nature as model, mentor, measure, and—Collins adds—muse. So how can nature help us reframe our investing ideas? Collins proposes a series of natural scorecards to rate investment options. For instance, in assessing the mutual fund investment option, she asks: Does it use multifunctional design? Does it employ low-energy processes? Are all materials recycled? Does it fit form to function? She suggests that mutual funds get a B or B-.

Investments can also be judged according to the principles of life-friendly chemistry. Conventional mortgages are pretty well aligned with these principles. They get a grade of A- or B+ on the following test: Is there “chemistry in water”? Is the product built selectively, with a small subset of elements? Does the product break down into benign constituents? CDOs, by contrast, fail the test.

Then there are the “integrate growth and development” principles: combine modular and nested components, build from the bottom up, and self-organize. How does high-frequency trading stack up? HFT “sort of” aligns with these natural principles of growth and development, rating a grade of C or C+. If you’re at a loss to figure out how to measure HFT against these principles, let me quote Collins at some length. First, “Each trade is an individual action, and each piece of a trading algorithm is also discrete. When these pieces are nested together, that’s when the whole firm and whole algorithmic approach are revealed. So, there is some evidence of using modular and nested components.” Second, “These firms do not begin by examining the entire market and then carving off slices where they’ll participate. Each trade, each security, each exchange presents individual opportunities, and these aggregate to form overall activity. So, there is some evidence of building from the bottom up.” And finally, “The concept behind a trading algorithm is to create simple rules to guide activity (of course, the simple rules are wrapped in elegant, perhaps complicated, code). And the business concept behind most HFTs is that gathering up tiny profits over and over again creates good business results. In theory, at least, this idea is not so far from life’s principle of self-organization.” (p. 58)

The problem with HFT as we know it is that its growth was “not supported by commensurate development in all of the structures needed for healthy function.” In its overgrown version there is much less alignment with the principles of “integrate growth with development.”

Although Collins gives several more examples of grading financial markets according to natural scorecards, let me jump to what I consider a more fruitful line of inquiry. Collins suggests that the following transformations are needed if we are to reclaim the true nature of investing: from efficient to effective, from synthetic to simplified, from maximized to optimized, from disconnected to reconnected, from mechanical to mindful, from static to dynamic. “When we put them all together,” she claims, “we move our entire system from fragile to resilient, from extractive to regenerative, from disconnected to reconnected.” (p. 108)

Collins’ book is not intellectually rigorous, and much of her analysis is forced. But since by now I think it is commonly accepted that financial markets are, like ant colonies or beehives, complex adaptive systems, we need to keep pressing to develop models and to devise regulations that properly reflect these qualities.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Petram, The World’s First Stock Exchange

In his famous book Confusión de confusions Joseph Penso de la Vega wrote: “If one were to lead a stranger through the streets of Amsterdam and ask him where he was, he would answer ‘among speculators,’ for there is no corner where one does not talk shares.” And, Lodewijk Petram adds, “the people of Amsterdam were talking about options, too, and forward selling, quotations and prices, risk and speculation—all relating to the trade in the shares of the Dutch East India Company (the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC), which had been established in 1602. Fortunes were made and lost, and the men who engaged in this trade were wholly in thrall to it.”
(p. 1)

Petram did extensive archival research, including mining the records of active traders, to shed new light on de la Vega’s account of the Amsterdam stock market. The Dutch edition of his book appeared in 2011. Columbia Business School Publishing/Columbia University Press has just released the English edition, The World’s First Stock Exchange, skillfully translated by Lynne Richards. It’s an engrossing tale.

Futures contract 1611

Traders in Amsterdam occasionally used questionable strategies--strategies that have endured, in both legal and illegal manifestations. They engaged in “short selling through forward contracts, spreading rumors, buying even more shares.” (p. 78) These “vile practices” were decried in petitions to the government by the directors of VOC, who argued that they were “very disadvantageous to the investors and particularly the many widows and orphans.” (p. 61) Petram notes that “the number of widows and orphans who were dependent on an investment in the Company would have been very small indeed, but playing on their painful situation pricked the puritanical conscience of the authorities.” (p. 62) In February 1610 the government issued an edict banning naked short selling, a ban that share dealers blithely ignored.

Large numbers of VOC investors had no direct experience in trading. “If these shareholders wanted to sell their shares … they had to [travel to Amsterdam and] brave the bear pit of the exchange, where they were complete novices.” (p. 102) By 1633, however, they were offered an alternative—to do business with a market maker (initially, the Raphoen brothers) who would make “a small margin on every deal because they always offered a little under the market price when buying and asked for slightly more when selling.” (p. 103)

The Raphoen brothers also played a major role in standardizing the VOC share at 3,000 guilders, a huge sum at the time. “And as the share price rose, the amount that actually had to be paid for a share became even larger. In the 1640s the price of a Company share stood almost continuously at above 400, which meant that over 12,000 guilders had to be paid for a share with a nominal value of 3,000 guilders. To put this in perspective, in 1645 the substantial and prestigious canal-side mansion (with a rear annex) at 105 Herengracht was sold for 5,100 guilders.” (p. 110) The always shrewd Raphoen brothers bought up odd lots of VOC stock and combined them into 3,000-guilder shares, which could be sold for a better price.

VOC paid a dividend—somewhat sporadically in the first twenty years and then, starting in 1623, every two years, and finally, from 1635 on, every year or every six months. “The dividend was still often paid in kind, primarily in the form of cloves, but the higher frequency and above all the regularity with which the payments were made caused the share dealers to change their forecasts about the Company’s profitability. The future now looked very bright.” (p. 113)

The Netherlands was experiencing a golden age in the first half of the seventeenth century and people’s purchasing power was rising. VOC shares also rose in price, as (more famously) did the price of tulip bulbs. Petram notes that “tulip mania has always attracted a great deal of attention because so much money was offered for something as commonplace and perishable as a bulb, but the scale of the trade in tulip bulbs should certainly not be exaggerated. There were some 285 people actively involved in bulb trading in Haarlem, with an estimated sixty traders in Amsterdam. By way of comparison, in 1639 in Amsterdam 264 people carried out one or more share transfers. The total number of active share dealers … would have been around 350. Amsterdam’s bulb trade was thus nothing more than a peripheral phenomenon compared with the dealing in shares.” (p. 120)

I’ve recounted bits and pieces of only about half of the story that Petram tells. He describes the domination of Jewish traders in the share market in the second half of the seventeenth century, the rise of information networks, and the split between the “princes” and the “gamblers” or “players.” The gamblers/speculators “did not have significant capital in their VOC account but traded in derivatives on a grand scale” (p. 164) in trading clubs. They “played fast.” (p. 172) Petram also recounts the events of the “disaster year” of 1672 when the VOC share price sank like a stone as well as the crash of 1688.

The World’s First Stock Exchange is a fascinating book which I can recommend unequivocally to anyone with even a modicum of interest in the history of financial markets.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kleinfield, The Traders

When I requested temporary access to a digital copy of The Traders: Inside the World of the Billion-Dollar Gamblers of America’s Financial Exchanges by Sonny Kleinfield (Open Road, 2014), I naively assumed that it was a new book. But then I turned to the first chapter and began to read: “Finding space to breathe on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange is a continual worry. The floor is a scruffy, disheveled, high-ceilinged labyrinth that has the general appearance of a flea market.” (p. 3) Oops! That’s no description of today’s NYSE. As it turned out, the book was originally published in 1983, when traders jostled for space on trading floors, not for speed over fiber-optic cables. (Actually, by that time individual floor traders on the NYSE were already starting to become a dying breed, the victims of restrictive exchange regulations enacted in response to a scathing SEC study which had called for the abolition of floor traders on the NYSE. Some NYSE traders decided to set up off-the-floor offices and trade by phone; others defected to the floors of options and commodities exchanges.)

As a reporter for The New York Times, Sonny Kleinfield obviously learned how to make a story sing. Even though the trading floors he describes in five chapters (NYSE, AMEX, CBOT, CME, and NYMEX) are mere shadows of their former selves as traders eventually migrated to digital markets, he successfully captures the immutable, larger-than-life trading spirit, for the most part in the words of the traders themselves. The book is a great read—and a great trading textbook, full of examples of best practices.

Here, however, I’m going to focus on something different, to which I already alluded. For those who are following the debate over high-frequency trading, it’s a reminder that there often is nothing new (or at least little new) under the sun. I’ll quote Kleinfield extensively on this point.

“Little love has been lost between regulators and the floor traders on the New York Stock Exchange. Over a period of several decades, the species has acquired a distinctly unsavory reputation with the SEC, ..., which has waged a tenacious battle to put them squarely out of business. The nub of the Commission’s objection is that traders boast a formidable edge over the public yet serve a questionable good. The suspicion, in short, is that they are earning big dollars by bloodying the public. … The raison d’être of the floor trader, as commonly put forth, was to make the marketplace safer for the public by injecting liquidity, continuity, and stabilization. … Myriad studies of the habits of floor traders, however, have cast a considerable doubt on the soundness of these justifications. Traders actually tend to do most of their trading in the more active stocks, the ones that already enjoy great liquidity, continuity, and stability. … Also, studies show that traders, far more often than not, ride prevailing trends and therefore act not as stabilizing agents but as destabilizing forces.” (pp. 20-21)

Sound familiar?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Jacque, International Corporate Finance

Laurent L. Jacque, Walter B. Wriston Professor of International Finance & Banking at the Fletcher School, has written a first-rate textbook, appropriate for both the classroom and self-study. Investors would do well to put aside some time to read and learn from it. I suspect it will fill in some crater-sized gaps in their (I’m loath to make this personal and use the pronoun “your”) understanding of investing in the global economy.

At over 700 pages International Corporate Finance: Value Creation with Currency Derivatives in Global Capital Markets (Wiley, 2014) may appear to be a daunting book, best left to aspiring CFOs. But it’s eminently readable.

The book is divided into six parts: the international monetary environment, the foreign exchange market and currency derivatives, international financing, managing foreign exchange risk, cross-border valuation and foreign investment analysis, and managing the multinational financial system. Each chapter concludes with questions for discussion, references, and (in most cases) problems.

Let’s look very briefly at a single issue that is dealt with in the book: currency hedging. We often hear multinational corporations cite foreign currency headwinds as a reason for suboptimal performance. How should these firms handle their foreign currency exposure?

This question is the theme of the fourth part of the book, which “develops a risk-management framework and offers operational guidelines within which currency risk can be (1) consistently hedged across different risk situations and over time, (2) tightly integrated with other types of financial risk such as interest rate and commodity price risk, and (3) managed consistently with the firm’s overall strategic plans so that the financial engineering dimensions of risk hedging are fully integrated with strategic management.” (pp. 399-400) No mean feat.

What benefits does the corporation gain from hedging its currency risk? Jacque suggests that hedging lowers the cost of financial distress, decreases taxes, reduces agency costs between shareholders and managers, and decreases the firm’s cost of capital. But currency hedging, to the extent that it is “associated with surgical strikes aimed at neutralizing exposure to foreign exchange risk through a forward contract, a currency swap, or some fancy currency derivatives,” is not an end in itself. Moreover, since no one can forecast exchange rates with great accuracy, making individual currency hedging bets cannot be a stand-alone solution. Rather, hedging “is best embedded in a year-round and year-in, year-out management process, which is far more than the case-by-case use of derivative instruments to neutralize specific transaction, translation, or economic exposures.” (p. 407)

Once upon a time I had a fleeting thought that I would make a good CFO. As this book clearly demonstrates, I was wise to let that thought go. But, even investors have to deal with some of the same issues as the CFO of a global company, albeit on a smaller scale. Which makes this book a valuable guide for them as well. So dig in!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Wiley, The 52-Week Low Formula

Luke L. Wiley has written what might be described as a one-trick pony book. But that doesn’t make The 52-Week Low Formula: A Contrarian Strategy That Lowers Risk, Beats the Market, and Overcomes Human Emotion (Wiley, 2014) any the less useful. In the course of explicating this strategy, the author employs his version of the Jacobi/Munger principle “invert, always invert” and sheds light on some principles of value investing.

Wiley does not advocate buying a stock just because it has made a 52-week low. Each stock that is a candidate for his “buy” list is subjected to a five-question filter: (1) Does it have a durable competitive advantage? (2) What is the purchase value of the company relative to its free cash flow? (3) What is the return on invested capital of the company? (4) Can it pay off its long-term debt quickly with free cash flow? And, only then, (5) Is it trading close to its 52-week low? Wiley’s strategy is “a logic-based, disciplined approach to narrowing down the 3,000 publicly traded companies in the market to the 25 that represent the best opportunity for creating real value in the coming months.” (p. 13)

Each chapter of the book begins with an inversion, as Wiley tries to follow in the footsteps of Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, the nineteenth century mathematician, and Charlie Munger, one of the chief proponents of the process. Jacobi suggested, in Wiley’s not quite historically accurate interpretation, that “when it comes to problem solving, we start by understanding the desired outcome and then identify all the factors that will ensure it can’t be reached. Through the process of identifying the ways we won’t succeed and eliminating them, what are we left with? The building blocks of a strategy for success.” (p. 17)

Wiley doesn’t make especially good use of his interpretation of the inversion process. For instance, in the second chapter on herding and the bandwagon effect he begins with a quotation from Howard Marks’s The Most Important Thing: “If you want to achieve above average outcomes you must be willing to take an unconventional approach. If your approach is conventional and commonly used then you guarantee average results.” Wiley’s Jacobian inverse is: “I would prefer to invest alongside the masses to ensure I achieve average results. It feels comfortable, as there is safety in numbers. I realize there is no use to thinking differently than the investing public, as it is much easier emotionally to be one of many versus one of few. We will all win and lose together.” (p. 19) Unfortunately, the inverse doesn’t provide new insights or clarify Marks’s statement.

A more useful description of inversion in the investing context comes from Tim Richards’ Psy-Fi blog: “Always look for reasons to do the opposite of what you’re considering, because then you’re pushing against your biases, even if you don’t realize it.” For instance, to disrupt an ingrained bullish mindset, ask how you can lose money rather than how you can make money.

Wiley devotes five chapters to his filters and nine chapters to more general thoughts on investing, some from behavioral finance. Because, let’s face it, it’s very difficult to buy 52-week lows, even if the candidates have emerged unscathed from the other four filters.

Wiley is quick to admit that the 52-week formula is “just that: a formula, a recipe, an approach. When you are cooking at home, you follow a recipe and expect certain results. … But a proven recipe is not a promise of a good meal. … Any number of things can go wrong and ruin the meal. Does that make it a bad recipe? No. It just shows that recipes, like stock formulas and investment strategies, represent a path toward a desired outcome, not the outcome itself.” (p. 180)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Booth, Emerging Markets in an Upside Down World

Jerome Booth, a British economist, investor, and entrepreneur, has written a refreshing book. Emerging Markets in an Upside Down World: Challenging Perceptions in Asset Allocation and Investment (Wiley, 2014) is not the usual whirlwind trip around the emerging market world—“if it’s Tuesday it must be sub-Saharan Africa.” Rather, Booth looks at some generally accepted notions that both inform and misinform emerging market investors and tries to set the record straight. The book is, to labor the travel metaphor, a tour of ideas conducted by a knowledgeable, articulate guide.

Booth challenges the reader, as the title indicates, to turn the world map upside down (and, for good measure, make it a Peters projection—that is, an area-accurate map). We no longer see emerging markets as peripheral. They occupy much of the middle area on the map and account for most of the land mass. Moreover, as the map doesn’t show, they also account for “over 85% of human population, the bulk of industrial production, energy consumption and economic growth, and around half of recorded economic activity using purchasing power parity.” And, contrary to standard perceptions of the investing world, “many emerging markets are now safer from some of the worst loss investment scenarios than many developed countries.” (p. 2)

The goal of the book is to help the reader develop new frameworks for investing, “frameworks which may cope better with structural shifts and risk.” (p. 179) The first step, and perhaps the most important, is to become conscious of starting assumptions that require reevaluation. Booth suggests four areas that investors may want to reexamine: “i) risk, uncertainty and information asymmetry assumptions; ii) investor psychology and behaviour assumptions; iii) structure, efficiency, equilibrium and market dynamics; and iv) asset class definitions.” (p. 180) Fortunately, these are areas that Booth himself explores in the book, so the investor has a leg up—whether or not he agrees with all of Booth’s conclusions.

One of the central themes of the book is risk, and one often neglected component of risk (a dangerous oversight) is the nature of the investor base. Prior to the ruble crisis in 1998, “perhaps a third of the investor base in emerging market dollar-denominated debt was highly leveraged and speculative.” But, as hedge fund money and other speculative investment left the emerging debt market, a more stable investor base took their place—long-only Western institutional investors and local institutional investors. “With local liabilities, these [local] investors do not have the same propensity to flee the market when risk perception rises. Indeed, since the mid-2000s local bond markets often rally in most of the larger markets during episodes of risk aversion—because the dominant movement of funds is by domestic investors moving from domestic equities to domestic bonds. At the time of writing,” Booth notes, “local currency debt, largely locally held, is over 80% (and growing) of all emerging markets debt.” (p. 47)

Although Booth focuses on emerging markets, much of his analysis can be extrapolated to other markets. He explores some key investing principles and defines areas ripe for further research. Investors as well as students of the financial markets can profit from his thorough work.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Richards, Investing Psychology

If you haven’t already read a dozen books on the subject (and perhaps even if, like me, you have), you should definitely take a look at Investing Psychology: The Effects of Behavioral Finance on Investment Choice and Bias (Wiley, 2014). Written by Tim Richards, a former physicist, computer system designer, and psychologist and a sporadic blogger (, it does an excellent job of surveying the literature and explaining how behavioral finance accounts for many of our less than optimal investing decisions. In the process it takes the reader on a self-reflective journey, eventually offering him tips on how to “debias” his brain and become a “good enough” investor.

Although Richards warns the reader not to jump ahead in the book (because “the journey is every bit as important as the destination”), for purposes of this post I’m going to ignore his warning. I think it’s important to realize that Richards is not promising the reader a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. In fact, this metaphor has no place in the world of investing. For Richards, the destination is every bit as scary as (if not scarier than) the journey.

The author begins with an old bromide but then takes the reader into a darker place: “[M]y aim is to teach you to fish because if you buy a man a fish he eats for a day but if you teach a man to fish then he eats forever. Only we have to deal with the fact that sometimes the fish disappear, and then the lake. And then the volcano goes off and nothing looks the same again.” Phrased less apocalyptically, “markets are adaptive, people are reflexive, and the ground underneath our feet is unstable.” (p. 187)

And so we have to confront our number one enemy, our brain, with all of its biases, confusions, and self-delusions—understanding what is leading us astray and setting about to improve ourselves along the lines that Richards suggests. Fortunately, even a little progress will make a difference relative to other investors, both retail and professional, who are also biased and confused. This takes us back to page 1 and the journey toward at least partial self-understanding.

Richards knows how to turn a good phrase and how to tell a good story—even as he warns the reader to steer clear of storytellers, especially those investing self-help “Texas sharpshooters” gurus who paint the target after the fact and then point to evidence of their success. He’s no storyteller in this sense. Richards offers the reader a reasonable behavioral investing framework, a meta-method, not a get-rich-quick scheme. His framework is not for the lazy or the overconfident, but then success rarely knocks on either of their doors. With work and a modicum of self-awareness, however, we can become a one-eyed monarch in the land of the blind. That’s good enough for me.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fabozzi et al., The Basics of Financial Econometrics

Don’t be intimidated by the title. The Basics of Financial Econometrics: Tools, Concepts, and Asset Management Applications by Frank J. Fabozzi, Sergio M. Focardi, Svetlozar T. Rachev, and Bala G. Arshanapalli, with the assistance of Markus Höchstötter (Wiley, 2014) is a remarkably accessible book. Yes, it has its fair share of math, but the math is pretty straightforward—what you would expect to encounter in a rigorous undergraduate statistics course.

In fifteen chapters the authors cover simple and multiple linear regression, building and testing a multiple linear regression model, time series analysis, regression models with categorical variables, quantile regressions, robust regressions, autoregressive moving average models, cointegration, the autoregressive heteroscedasticity model and its variants, factor analysis and principal components analysis, model estimation, model selection, and formulating and implementing investment strategies using financial econometrics. Five appendices review the basics: descriptive statistics, continuous probability distributions commonly used in financial econometrics, inferential statistics, fundamentals of matrix algebra, model selection criterion (AIC and BIC), and robust statistics. All told, the book is a little over 400 pages in length.

What contributes to the accessibility of this book is that it centers on “how to construct asset management strategies using financial econometric tools.” It is at its core a “how to” book. The authors discuss “all aspects of this process, including model risk, limits to the applicability of models, and the economic intuition behind models.” (p. xiv)

Let me focus here on a single modeling problem that I think is generally underappreciated. In physics “data are overabundant and models are not determined through a process of fitting and adaptation.” By contrast, “from the point of view of statistical estimation, financial economic data are always scarce given the complexity of their patterns.” Moreover, since “financial data are the product of human artifacts, it is reasonable to believe that they will not follow the same laws for very long periods of time. … The attention of the modeler has therefore to switch from discovering deterministic paths to determining the time evolution of probability distributions.” But, again, “financial data are too scarce to allow one to make probability estimates with complete certainty. (The exception is the ultra high-frequency intraday data, five seconds or faster trading.)”

The authors conclude that “as a result of the scarcity of financial data, many statistical models, even simple ones, can be compatible with the same data with roughly the same level of statistical confidence.” (pp. 292-93) I don’t know whether to find that result heartening or depressing.

Financial professionals of all stripes will profit from this book. It both explains and challenges—a winning combination.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Burger and Starbird, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird (Princeton University Press, 2012) is a book I turn to every time I feel I’m losing my edge. Written by two mathematics professors who have received numerous prestigious teaching awards, it is slim but conceptually powerful. If I could actually follow through on the authors’ suggestions and adopt their five learnable habits, I know I would be a much, much better thinker. (Maybe this time....)

I contemplated summarizing the book but then decided against it. I would only dumb it down. So, instead, I will simply recommend it to everyone who is in search of “practical, proven methods of effective thinking and creativity.” And who isn’t?