What is the fascination of financial markets? They concentrate an enormous pool of natural talent in a small area, whether the area is taken geographically or by computer. The talent is attracted because the rewards are so magnificently and irrationally outsized. Markets have elements of a game—rules, beginnings, endings, the score is kept by numbers. While numbers can be translated into cash, they are deceptive, because numbers suggest science, reason, rationality, precision. That is illusory. For all the quantitative and academic studies done—and they must number now in the tens of thousands—certainty eludes us. It is always just over the horizon, no matter how we move toward it. The most computer-skilled experts have come to the most cataclysmic of ends.
Markets represent not only economic and business fundamentals but also complex human emotions. Some writers have suggested that markets are organic entities, with growth and decay embedded in their DNA. It is perhaps no accident that recently, for the first time, a Nobel prize in economics went to a psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who calculated how much people fear to lose against what they hope to gain. Leverage is a word used in markets; the leverage of the crowd nature of markets is television, through which tens of millions of people can watch the players. Markets have giddy feelings and sweet moments; they also have passages of thunder, tragedy, and grief. You could say they are the opera of business.
Here, in this book, are some of the players on this stage. There is a dashing figure of the Italian Renaissance, there are nineteenth-century robber barons, an American president, railroad builders, swindlers of heroic proportions, and statesmen.
We start with Warren Buffett, who began as a simple down-home investor working from his bedroom, and who has become an icon, very much with us, and quoted in the media all the time. He is not the leadoff hitter in our batting order merely because he made billions through investing. (Buffett loves baseball metaphors.) He is here because, like Babe Ruth pointing his bat at the center field bleachers, he told us what he was going to do a generation ago and did exactly that. His gift for metaphor makes his wisdom comprehensible to multitudes of Americans. His folksy Will Rogers persona has become very much part of the American scene and by consistently repeating his commonsense, middle American approach, he taught us to remember, through both manias and depressions, who we really are.