The Ways You Are Rich

Young people, you want to be rich, but you already are beyond your imagination.

You measure wealth in currencies, cryptocurrencies, investments and things that are interchangeable into such currencies: stock, timberland, bonds, real estate, art, cars, etc.  This is what people typically default to when they think about wealth.

But money is a currency, which is something that can purchase or exchange other stuff.  And there are a lot of things that the older you get, the more money you would spend to exchange into: while young people have these things in abundance.

Time:

The younger you are, the richer in time you are.  And the phrase “time is money” is literally true, as people willingly pay to free up time, whether in the form of time-saving devices, freelancers, gig economy workers, etc.

This is such a trite phrase that I hesitate to start with it, but when you consider that people like billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight, in the closing pages of his autobiography states that he would give everything up to do it over again, or when Warren Buffett, speaking to students, says, “you want to be me, I want to be you,” then you begin to realize to a very rich old man, a young person’s life could be valued in the billions of dollars.

As you grow older, the price you’re willing to pay for time increases exponentially.  Although I’m not as rich as the aforementioned gentlemen, what I would give to go back 10 years.  Even 5 years.  Probably in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Out of all the “alternative” sources of wealth I’m about to list in this post, time is the only thing that can’t be purchased or created.  It can only be utilized where it exists, or exchanged into, by money or financial instruments – i.e., spending money to use time that you already have, but are burning every second.  Maybe this makes it the most precious.

Time also has the characteristic that by default, adding time to money causes money to grow.  This is why when you’re young you might hear the phrase “time is on your side”.  Well, it really is.  Someone who’s 27 literally has 10 more years for their investments to compound and grow than I do.

Options:

This is a source of wealth that is often overlooked, because it is really hard to measure, unlike money or time.

Options, or opportunities, are a form of wealth that work in the background, and do not manifest themselves until they’re exercised.  And young people have an almost infinite array of Options at their disposal, as a function of having more time, energy, boldness, less responsibilities/lifestyle drag, than older people.

This is hard to explain, but when I say they do not manifest themselves until they’re exercised, it’s because it’s hard to know how they will create value to you until you actually use them.

But, consider that us older people – well, all people, spend a lot of money to travel, read, learn languages, move to different cities, obtain knowledge, attend educational institutes, physically train, etc. etc., all of which create Options, which at the opportune time or place, can create money or jobs, or be exchanged for time and other higher-level forms of wealth, like relationships, wisdom, love, happiness, and so on.

The younger you are, the easier you can pick up these invisible options.  You can learn things quicker when you’re young.  You have less opportunity costs and responsibilities.  You have more energy.  You likely have a larger social network than someone whose been working for, say 20 years in the same industry and town.  

Many people who appear lucky, are in fact just awash in the wealth of invisible options.  This is not a great example, but say someone buys 80% of the lottery tickets, and wins.  Was he lucky?  Or did he buy a lot of options?  This is kind of a bad example because the cost of buying that much will likely be higher than the payout, but I hope you get the idea.

More thoughts on why options are really hard to quantify and measure, but are still there in the background.  When people say “right place at the right time”, they are ignoring the fact that you can engineer this kind of ‘luck’ by picking up a whole bunch of invisible options.

Two college graduates with the same intelligence level and achievements: one job is in a stable, blue-chip company, the other in a fast-growing startup.  The first job is located in an old, industrial city.  The second is in a coastal, high-priced one.  The two jobs pay the same.

Right now, I would bet that the competition for the second job is higher, despite it being more expensive to live in the coastal city.  I would even wager that possibly, college graduates would accept a slightly lower salary to take the second one.

This is because the value of the myriad options embedded in the second job is enormous, hard to quantify, but still intuitively there.  As you get older, the cost of those options becomes so astronomical that it is hard to justify their potential value.  I would like to think I could take an opportunity like that, given the same scenario.  But I might not.  Ten years ago, I definitely would have.

Energy:

This is the raw stuff from which both options and money/financial instruments are created.  Energy is costly to obtain and generate, but as with all of the aforementioned, way more abundant when you’re young.

Without energy, one cannot create or have created, money or financial instruments.  Even in the case of generational wealth, someone in the distant past had to have exerted such energies to create a fortune.

Energy diminishes over time, both within a lifetime as well as within the span of a day.  But similarly to time and options, its value increases as a person ages.  Younger people are awash in it.  In the case of my young daughter and others her age (4), it is perpetually pumping through their veins, requires no warm-up, and is converted without any entropic loss into sheer joy and full speed runs at the crack of dawn.  Again, what I would give to have that kind of energy again: tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Look at the number of ultra wealthy people buying blood transplants or other fountain of youth-type stuff.  Energy is undoubtedly a form of wealth, and young people are awash in it.

Summary:

The thing about these forms of wealth, is that they are all interchangeable with each other.  When money is exchangeable into time, options, and energy, then the obsession that people have with accumulating only money at the expense of energy, time, and options is probably a little misguided.

You can cultivate energy and knowledge to create other forms of wealth.  You can use money to purchase options in the form of more options, energy, knowledge, to create other forms of wealth. 

And above all, time must be utilized wisely as this is the only thing that can’t be created or purchased.  

In this way are young people bestowed with wealth beyond their measurement or imagination.  And lacking knowledge or wisdom, so are they also dismissive of them.

Of course, there are higher-levels of wealth that cannot be strictly exchanged into or purchased using money, time, options, or energy.  The previous sources of wealth are necessary, but not sufficient to gain things like relationships, love, wisdom, happiness.  But I’m concentrating only on those sources of wealth that act almost as interchangeable currencies with each other.

At the end of it, I would wager that both Warren Buffett and Phil Knight would consider me a young(er) man.  And that’s why I’m writing this down, so as not to forget..

Living in a Ghost Town

Taipei, Taiwan

The pictures looked great online.  And having no knowledge of the terrain, we judged it not so far from the subway station.

Only 20 minutes away by bus, they said.

After living in small apartments for the past three and a half years, we were ready for an upgrade.  It was an unimaginable size for us, over 1,500 square feet, which in most Asian cities is a mansion.

Little did we know, after settling in, that we were living in a typical Chinese ghost town, developed one of those mainland developers starting with the letter ‘V’.

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In our building of 22 floors, we’ve counted about five families.  We see the same faces in the lobby.  A twin building next door to us, reserved only for owners, has one actual tenant, judging by the lights at night.

Inexplicably, about five of the lights come from homes with no curtains, whose owners just decide to keep their lights on for some reason.  Maybe to ward off ghosts, maybe to give the impression to prospective buyers that the community is not so deserted.

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I’ve wandered a lot of ghost towns and shopping centers in China over the past few years, and the thing that sticks out to me the most, is how quickly a development can be overtaken by nature.

Make no mistake, we are all here by the grace of the planet and not long after we’re gone, there will be no trace.  For an unmaintained building, the process might take less than a year, if that.

Next to us a set of villas have a plastered wall around them, literally whitewashing over the fact that they lie in a decrepit, dilapidated state, although you can glimpse the broken windows, missing walls, above them.

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But our twin buildings are pristine.  The staff who work here, outnumber the residents, and it results in an echo chamber of a residence where you are never really out of surveillance range.

Four children under the age of 10 live across forty-four floors of residences, and two of them walk to a school down the street.  And the whole way, from their exit out of our buildings, to the corner of the development, and finally to the converted villa that is their school, vigilant guards with walkie-talkies announce their progress.

Of course, it’s nice living here.  It’s serene.  When the weather is right, you can see almost the entire expanse of Taipei.  And sometimes when it’s cloudy below, it’s sunny up here.  Other times, the clouds envelop us, making it seem as if we’re literally floating.  And there are no problems with our building.  In fact, it’s like a 22-story hotel being maintained for just the ~20 of us.

All of it is maintained, but at what cost?

It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where all this is being maintained profitably.

Especially since next door lays a work-in-progress, triplet of a tower that has been under construction for the past few years, where a single worker shows up several days of the week to operate a drill that reverberates loudly throughout the entire neighborhood, but is otherwise ineffectual.

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I can’t help but note that if this building were located anywhere else in China, where there was an actual market for this stuff, the whole building would be taken to completion from its present state, in a matter of weeks, if not days.

I have a problem with the way the media portrays China’s “ghost towns”, because a lot of the developments are in a state of waiting, built in advance of the demand.  Sometimes they actually do fill in over time, while sometimes they don’t.

But I’ve always had an underlying anxiety with isolation.  And this lays bare why.

Something so far from an urban center has great costs to maintain.  The cleaners and clerks commute here by scooter or bus.  The landscaping.  The maintenance of two minibuses an hour that service the residences.  It all seems fragile.  Because if for some reason the owner of the development decided one day to stop financing it, it would no doubt within a few years, look as if no one had ever lived here.

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What I Learned in the Jungle

 

Last week, a client called me to join him for a site visit in the jungles of Southeast Asia.  It was the first time I had ever been sent a packing list that included things like: emergency rations, waterproof boots, first aid kit, and “materials for showering in the river”.

One thing I learned was that unlike later models, iPhone 5’s are not waterproof, especially when your kayak tips over in a tributary to the Mekong River.

Another thing I learned was that fire ants blend in really well to tree branches, and that ignoring the packing list’s suggestion for “hiking gloves” was not a good idea.  And that no matter how many times you dunk your hands in the river, fire ants do not wash off.

Now, one cool thing I learned was that inside caves, you can be surrounded by total darkness, and if there’s a hole at the top of the cave, the sun really does shine like a light beam through the blackness, in almost a straight line.  Kind of like a movie effect, Indiana Jones-style.

One last thing.  We toured a number of rice paddies with other members of the team, who were Malaysian farmers.

What I had assumed about agricultural practices in not only Southeast Asia, but around the world, was that if generations of farmers had been farming rice for about 10,000 years, it must be pretty optimized, right?

But no.  The consultants pointed out seed spacing problems.  They pointed out the use of inferior fertilizers.  They pointed out the fact that despite an abundance of water, many of the fields were not irrigated properly, if at all.  They basically said that yields could be increased by 50% to 300%, easily.

In many places in Southeast Asia, farmers often ‘forget’ the practices of their grandparents.  Exacerbating this is that use of GMO crops make them indebted and dependent on large companies for their livelihood, as GMO crops do not seed.

It strikes me that something so fundamental and as ancient a technology as farming can be forgotten in just a few decades.

I don’t have any profound realizations related to this except just a reminder that life, on all fronts, is subject to entropy and decay: what things in my own life, and what practices or values in our society are we forgetting?

XIAOYI

XIAOYI

XIAOYI

A Real Estate Career: Lessons Learned (2014-2015)

In 2014, my tax business was winding down, and during the summer I was getting anxious again.

As these things tend to happen, while randomly talking to a friend, he asked me if I wanted to join his hedge fund as an analyst.

Completely putting aside the fact the position was in Hong Kong, I accepted.  And for the next 18 months, I helped them analyze real estate and Korean stocks.

This was my first real job in finance.

When you work in finance, you get spoiled – especially if you’re on the buyside, and you have all sorts of service providers working for you.

Finance draws hard-charging, intelligent, and driven types, and when you have Ivy Leaguers and graduates of Asia/Europe’s top 10 universities as your service providers – your bankers, brokers, traders, accountants, and researchers, well, I’m not sure I’ll ever have that level of service again.  Emails were written to me in clear prose.  If there was a problem, I received a phone call explanation within seconds.  Things got scheduled, presentations were efficient, full of information, and if I asked for anything, things just got done.  No one passed the buck, and if they did, it was to actually find the person who could solve the problem, and these problems got solved in hours, if not minutes.

Sigh.  Maybe this is the daily reality for many people, but for me it was new.  This meant that literally all I had to do was focus on the thing I had been hired to do, which was to stay plugged into the markets, pore through financials and industry reports, think, and analyze.

Never before in my life had I woken up so early, before 6, to catch the bus into Central to start fielding the calls and get work done before the Korean and Japanese markets opened at 8am.  Never had I had so much energy as when I was plugged into the information flow and market chatter every day, hearing from analysts, companies, and brokers spanning Tokyo to Mumbai.  The financial markets are an arena where the biggest game in the world – the exchange of capital – is played out on a daily basis, against some of the smartest people, with huge sums of money at stake.

And looking back at that time, that’s what I miss the most.  There’s no feeling or job quite like working in the financial markets – the pace, the energy.  It’s like being plugged into an IV of chatter and information and raw sentiment.  You can actually feel, around town, when the markets are up or down.

Now onto the actual job.

Our fund had a value bent, which meant that we were looking for undervalued or overvalued companies to buy or sell.  Before joining, I had a romanticized notion that it was all about digging through data and research, coming up with some sort of brilliant, deviant opinion and using that to make money.

There is that.  But I learned I was quite naive, because identifying the stock to buy/sell is only a fraction of the job.

Being good at analysis, and picking the right name, is only one leg of the stool.  It doesn’t matter if you’re good at analysis if you buy in at the wrong time or sell at the wrong time.  It also doesn’t matter if you buy/sell too much or too little of it, or if you can’t or don’t have the conviction to hold during the hard times.  Also, since you’re never going to be 100% right, 100% of the time, you have to be constantly evaluating your own decisions, your decision-making process, your own thoughts, in context with the present and history of the market.

In short, not only do you have to be brilliantly analytical, you have to have the instincts of a gambler to size and time the bet, the temperament of a stoic to not let gains or losses affect you, and the introspection of a monk.

Only by getting all four of those things right, can you succeed in the job, and it’s why investing is so hard.

It’s always been my opinion that investing is the best interdisciplinary exercise you could ever conduct, or learn.  And one of the biggest reasons is for the last point above.

Constantly evaluating your own thinking and process for making decisions will serve you well not only in investing, but in life in general, and is the foundation for success in general.

At the fund, though, I found myself teetering on the edge of this.  If you’re not careful, endless introspection can lead you to have massive self-doubt all the time, and start going down epistemological rabbit holes, like ‘how do I know I know this’, or ‘am I sure that I know this, and with what probability, and how do I know this probability is even correct’.

In my job, I found a lot of parallels to surfing.  The financial markets do not have sympathy or other human sentiments, just like the ocean.  You can’t fight them, just as you can’t fight or force a wave to do anything.  You can only react to what’s given to you.  You can’t argue about rightness or wrongness.  The markets, and the ocean alike, do not care about you.

Working in the markets is one of the most humility-inducing jobs you can have, and those who get arrogant get crushed.

In many ways, the job gave me an appreciation for knowledge in general.  When you can sit in a room with extremely intelligent people discussing a company, and everyone has extremely divergent, completely opposite viewpoints and opinions on the company’s prospects, you begin to see that it’s hard to purport to ‘know’ or declare anything with certitude.

And that states of the world are best expressed in probabilities, and the smartest people are always questioning and changing their minds.  They’re comfortable with uncertainty, and don’t let it paralyze them.

I learned a lot on the job, but that might have been the greatest lesson for me.

A Real Estate Career: Lessons Learned (2012-2015)

It’s weird the things that stick with you.  For the next few years, I worked three full-time jobs at a time.  I was in full execution mode as a property tax agent, international theme park consultant, and commercial property agent – and I don’t remember much about the period.

When I look back, I think it’s because I wasn’t growing.

There was little new to the jobs.  I was just executing on processes I had put in place years earlier.  I had become proficient, an ‘expert’.  And so the result was that financially, they were some of my peak earning years, but overall I’m not sure it was that fulfilling.

If you can find jobs where you get paid handsomely for personal growth, now that’s the holy grail.

But there were a few things that stuck with me.

I had a client who was an ex-Drexel Burnham Lambert banker.  He predated Michael Milken give/take by a decade, and had apparently made so much money that there was nothing else to do with it but plow it into real estate.

He worked out of one of his apartment properties in Brentwood, in a ground floor office strewn with papers and newspaper clippings.  He was in his 70s and his main tactic in any negotiation or even discussion was to immediately pretend he was slow.

Whenever you began speaking, he would tilt his head and look at you curiously before responding with a set of ‘is that right’s and ‘you don’t say’s.  He didn’t say much, but you could tell he was processing everything.  With so much office space all around LA, he offered free space to young brokers as a way of being plugged into deal flow.  Essentially, to listen.  He was always listening.  Sometimes his ‘you don’t say’s were sarcastic, as if he couldn’t keep listening to our stupidity anymore, but he was always listening.

We had another client who was a movie mogul.  Over a few decades, he had opened a regional chain of movie theaters and plowed the proceeds into real estate.  And about a mile down from our office, he owned 25 condos in the heart of Redondo Beach.  We brought him multiple offers on the property.  $18 million.  $20.  $22.  But he wouldn’t budge for less than his number, which was a million dollars per unit.

And although we had clients who probably would have bit at $22, he didn’t.  Something about his patience struck me, sitting in his office modeled after a miniature theater, cracking a grin at each new offer we brought him, and sitting back, a picture of consummate contentment, and telling us, if we could please try to get a higher number.

Years later, he was proved right.  Actually, the value of his condos probably exceeded a million dollars a unit.

The thing that both these clients had in common were that both owned and controlled more than $100 million in properties, each, both were well into retirement age, and both arrived at their offices at the crack of dawn.

This is just a sample.  There are people like this all over the country, all over the world.  It was just another lesson about wealth.  In so many ways, wealth is not the goal.

I wanted to be like them.  It would be nice to have the level of wealth they did, but I’m talking about their working for the purpose of their work itself.  And having a purpose that made them work harder than people half their age.

No doubt, it’s what made them great.

Then we had another client.  She had emerged as a buyer for another client’s property in Hermosa.

She made us work.

Among other things we had to do to close the deal, we had to chase down people to get them to sign estoppels.  The existing owner didn’t want to do it, because he preferred to be liked more than he preferred to sell the building.

This meant we had to camp out in front of all 12 units and try to get the tenants to sign a document verifying that they were paying, exactly what the rent rolls said they were paying.

Naturally, a lot of them were suspicious.  Was the new owner going to kick them out?  Was she going to convert the apartment into condos?  They were nervous.

No, no, I answered confidently.  I reassured them there was nothing to worry about, that the new owner had no intention of redeveloping.

But there was something else I had forgotten about.

After dragging the deal across the finish line, I felt a sense of relief as we pulled up to the new owner’s $10 million house in Palos Verdes, with a tennis court in the back.  In the living room, she proudly showed us a rent roll of the $80 million portfolio she managed, from her living room.

And later, she even more triumphantly emailed us to say that she had doubled rents, because the previous owner had been undercharging.

It left me with a bad taste for these kinds of deals and people in general.  All part of the industry, but I couldn’t help but think that while knocking on doors to get those estoppels, I had led some of those people astray.  Some of them, kids younger than I was.

It turned out to be my last deal there.  That, combined with the diminishing fortunes of the property tax appeal business, a countercyclical business if there ever was one, led me to other things.

One last reflection about wealth.  I spent half this time period in Hong Kong.

And in Hong Kong, a summer rite is the boat trip.  On the weekends the waters around Hong Kong and its myriad islands teem with junks and yachts that anchor off a secluded beach, then descend into drunken orgy-level partying.

One of our friends was dating a guy who was as close as you could get to Hong Kong royalty.  He was the scion of a billionaire tycoon, which made him one himself, but you wouldn’t know it to meet him.  Well-educated, low-key, soft-spoken, there is no way you could pick him out in a lineup, as is often the case with billionaires.

Anyway, this weekend we had use of his dad’s yacht.  For seven of us, a uniformed staff perhaps double that number helped us board, navigated, helpfully pointed out the amenities, cooked us a hot lunch, and generally gave us the kind of five-star service you would expect from what was basically a floating villa, way larger than my childhood homes, combined.

After anchoring, there are only a few things you can do.  We rode jet-skis.  We bounced off of inflatables.  Some of us read a book on the upper deck.  Some of us just floated in the water.

Which is what I did.  Bobbing, I could see all the other boats around us.  Some of them were like us.

Splendid, sleek yachts.  Barely any people on them, though.  There were kids on some of the nicer yachts, towards the front, and they looked bored out of their minds.

And, the people on the nice yachts were all looking in the same direction I was, which was towards the bacchanal boats, the ones thumping music that could be heard hundreds of feet away, with the people backflipping off the upper rails, doing keg stands, sliding headfirst and belly up down makeshift slides into the water, floating around the boat suspiciously in pairs.

Of course sometimes it’s nice to be alone.  But also sometimes I think that with great wealth comes great isolation.

I noticed this during my brokerage days in LA.  Sometimes it seemed like our richest clients called…just to talk.  Or when we went out in Hollywood – there is type of person, usually male, who buys drinks for everyone, is exceedingly generous, talks a lot, is best friends with everyone at the bar, is also exceedingly rich, and then at some point during the night…leaves alone in a nice car.

In the summers in LA, you can ride a bike from Venice Beach down to Redondo.  Over the course of 15 miles, the crowd changes.  Rowdy and larger up around Venice and El Segundo, Playa del Rey, huge barbeques with organized beach football games.  Then you reach the $10 million houses (at least) in the South Bay, along the Strand.  Nice organized picnics going on, some beach volleyball games, more individual, more rich, smaller.  Sometimes just a guy on the upper balcony of his home sipping coffee and looking out over the ocean.  Of course in some of the houses in between were always some frat antics going on, but still.  Richer, more individual.  In many ways, more alone, although there’s nothing wrong with alone.

But, now why is that?

True Hustlers

There’s no leisurely setting to the pace and speed of life in Hong Kong.  You can feel it the moment you land at the airport.  Suddenly, everything is fast and you are too slow.

From the subways and trains that arrive at sub-1 minute intervals, to the buses that will run you over, or at least off, the road – because they, and not pedestrians, have the right of way, or the taxis will take off before you shut the door, because they’re Japanese cars where the driver can close the door with a button, or even the people, who will not just graze elbows, which might be common in major cities, but actually smash their shoulders into you without apology.

Hong Kong is a city made for work, and by work.

It was literally created by a trade treaty in which one party got to sell drugs in exchange for gold, on a barren rock in the middle of the ocean with so little flat land that half the downtown area is built on artificially created land.

It was made so people could go there, trade freely, and then leave with the fruits of their labor.

While people settle in Hong Kong, many also have ancestral ties, homes, and families on the mainland, where they retreat during vacations or during retirement.  And for an entire class of expats employed in the financial services industry, well, Hong Kong allows you to make 1%-er money, pay some of the lowest taxes in the world, generate wealth, and move back home.

Everyone is a hustler in Hong Kong.

But the realest hustlers?  They’re not the investment bankers working all-nighters deep in the recesses of the IFC, Cheung Kong, or ICC.  They hustle too, but they party just as hard.

The real hustlers don’t get to party.  The real hustlers are almost invisible except on the weekends, when they come out on their one day off and congregate in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay.  And you could make the case that Hong Kong is run by them.  The city wouldn’t be as productive, as operationally leveraged, or as able to work, if they didn’t exist.

The maids.

In Hong Kong, the Indonesian and Filipina “domestic helpers” (maids) have standard working hours of between 12 to 15 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Often, their only space to themselves is a small closet that is as long as the length of a single bed, and just as wide – and sometimes if their households employ two maids, well, the bed is a bunk.

Working from 6am to 10pm is not uncommon, with household duties that include cleaning, cooking, taking care of the elderly and babies alike, and being the first point of call when the baby wakes up in the middle of the night.  Also, household shopping, miscellaneous chores.  Six days a week.  At least 10 hours a day.

Also, they do it without having basic rights or representation in the cities where they literally raise the next generation.  Sometimes they get kidnapped, their passports taken away, funds due to them not paid.

This is a note of gratitude to them.

Working and living in this part of the world, you come face to face with an entire class of manual laborers who are invisible.

Sometimes, working hard is no guarantee of success.  Sometimes it’s just a guarantee that you’ll survive.

A Real Estate Career: Lessons Learned (2010-2012)

The optics of business school are great because being a student gives you a halo – you appear to be “studying”, hard at work, transforming yourself.

Whereas if you took two years off to just actively look for, recruit, and interview for jobs in a new industry it would raise eyebrows, if you instead pay vast sums for the privilege of doing so, while paying even more in opportunity cost / lost income, it is more professionally accepted.  Ironic and backwards, but that is the imprimatur of business school.  That’s what people pay for.

Also, it’s a good two year break that looks good on a resume.

I entered Haas because I wanted a break.  I also wanted to be close to home, and the counties where Property Tax Advisors was appealing cases.  I wanted to be on the West Coast, because most of my consulting clients were in Asia – and I would have to fly there from time to time.  In case it wasn’t obvious, I still wanted to work part-time.  And also, to seal the deal, Haas gave me a scholarship, which combined with what Gary still owed me, made it an all-expenses paid, tax-free, two year vacation.

But I don’t want to make it seem like I didn’t take the whole experience seriously.  I did want to learn.  I wanted time to read books again.

The first thing I did when I arrived on campus was sign up for Mandarin classes, which I took with undergrads.  And then I signed up for some advanced real estate classes to try to figure out WTH had just happened in the world.

I took real estate classes every quarter.  And I read books on real estate history outside of it, outside of the classes.  At the end of it, I’m not sure I came very much closer to understanding the mechanics of what had happened, but I did gain an appreciation of how fragile things are in the world.

For our final project in a real estate financing class, we had to analyze a CMBS prospectus (commercial mortgage-based security), you know, those products that had helped bring down the global financial system.

I remember little about the product except that its supporting document was about two hundred pages.  Five of us pored through it for weeks.  All of us had come from real estate development, banking, or brokerage backgrounds.  One of us actually had a real estate lawyer for a father so we ended up asking him about the finer points.

But the prospectus was written so as not to be comprehended.  It was written in legalese, even though it was describing what should have been a fairly straightforward series of waterfalls in Excel.

And in the end, it couldn’t be modeled, because it was worded so ambiguously.  It was another lesson in what I had long suspected, which was that in business, maybe a small fraction of people know what they’re talking about, and the rest are just pretending.

I guarantee the bankers selling the junk we tried to model were in the latter camp.  Some of them were probably in business school at the same time as me.

Business school was also an opportunity to experiment.  I tried out different careers.  I interned for a hedge fund manager in San Francisco.  The first time I had a conversation with him, my mind almost exploded.

We began talking about a gold mining company, and his process of thinking out loud led the discussion into energy consumption requirements of the world, and caloric intake of Africans.  It all had a logic, but it was just beyond my grasp.  Just like, say, a college lecture that is beyond your head will make you fall asleep, this conversation had all the trails of making sense, but it was beyond my comprehension.  Struggling under the mental strain of it, I had to go home afterwards and just lay down for a few hours.

They say investing is the last liberal art.  It is the best cross-disciplinary, systems thinking training that anyone can get, I truly believe that.

In the summer, I interned for GE Capital Real Estate, the first big company I had ever worked for.  It also turned out to be a mistake.  Not the company or job itself.  As part of the Global Valuations Team, for the first time, I worked with people who were all exceedingly kind, competent, and able to regulate their emotions.  I had never worked with such nice people before.  I also had a boss that summer who was the best boss I had ever had up to then, and since.  She was patient and a great communicator.  I saw in all the ways what I had been missing by working only at small shops and with extreme people.

But at the same time, in order to take the job, I turned down offers from a resort development company (US-based), and a Mongolian conglomerate that wanted me to help them create a business plan for yurts, in Ulaanbataar.  There is no way I would have that kind of opportunity again.  It was a mistake to turn down adventure when I was still single and should have taken those kinds of “risks”.  It remains one of my regrets.

But the job was a revelation to me in other ways.  I came away from the internship and my classes at school with a more profound realization about the world.  Mostly, about the fragility of it.

You could see this clearly because GE Capital was such a high-level investor and manager.  By high-level, I mean that they invested in properties that were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and purchased portfolios that were in the billions of dollars.  When scale gets that large, numbers become abstract.  When you’re evaluating a portfolio of hundreds of properties, the individual properties themselves also just become pieces of paper holding different lease terms and cash flow logic, encumbered by loan contracts that are themselves just other pieces of paper.

I looked at the stack of hundreds of pages we were poring through, which represented the several billion dollar portfolio we were buying.  And that was it.  Although we weren’t buying the pieces of paper, the pieces of paper held the agreements that held this entire thing together, all the terms and clauses and logic that would be transferred, on other pieces of paper, from a different owner to us, moved like you would a large boulder, carefully, so that at the end, someone could print out another, similar stack of papers with our name on them instead, and magically all the obligations and claims would belong to someone else.

Yet what was contained on these stacks of paper allowed us to borrow more money against it, allowed us to engage service providers and managers to service it, and served as the basis for the valuation of our company.  All around the world, balance sheets were being rearranged, title was being rewritten, people were moving, getting hired, fired.

You might note that this is just a larger scale, of the same type of transaction you would undertake when buying a car or getting a loan.  It’s true, but just think about those transactions too.  Do you ever read every word in a contract?  Do you really know every implication of every clause in a contract?  I doubt 99% of the world does.  Similarly, there were things in the contracts of our portfolios, and the leases, that if you read them carefully were questionable, or ambiguous at best.

But the whole thing was wrapped together by a system of trust.  Trust that people down the channel, the title officers, the lenders, the managers, the agents, the lawyers, everyone, was doing their jobs correctly.  No one at GE Capital was going to have time to review every single line.  Internally we all had to depend on each other, and us as an organization also depended on our service providers, suppliers, the governments and cities in which the real estate was, etc, to do their jobs.

At a scale that enormous, no one person has the whole complete picture.  And if you telescope out to the national economy, the world, it’s the same thing.  No one person has the complete picture.  It’s held together by trust.  And when that trust breaks, the system breaks.

And that, I think, was the main lesson I learned at GE Capital, and probably the main lesson of the financial crisis for me.

After my summer in Connecticut, I moved again.  Business school offered a semester abroad.  And I was going to study abroad in Hong Kong.

Living and studying abroad has been the source of some of my deepest relationships and experiences.  After studying abroad in Hong Kong, I decided I would have to live there.

Also, one night while eating hot wings at a place that prided itself on the scoville (spiciness) levels of its food, I found myself dry heaving, tingling, and in tears after half a bite of their vaunted apocalypse wings.

I began rubbing my eyes, which was a mistake because for some reason the XXL-killer-apocalypse-suicide hot oil had spread to the back of my hand, and now I couldn’t feel my face anymore.

It was at that moment, with fluids draining out of my face, that a girl in a white and black dress walked in smelling of spring, and sat down with me and my friends.

A few years later, she would become my wife.