7 books financial gurus say are a must-read

A roundup of the finance and investing books that some of Canada's top business experts are reading.
Business readers have been consuming everything from an 1892 treatise on public finance to former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's memoirs. (iStock)

From an economic standpoint, 2012 doesn't look a whole heck of a lot different than 2011 so far, exhibiting the kind of mind-bending uncertainty that can spook markets downward one day and then just as quickly spark a rebound the next.

In January and February last year, gloomy economic forecasts were offset by rosy job numbers, as oil prices and the Canadian dollar danced a dizzying jig against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. By the fall, the European sovereign debt crisis had markets in a tizzy and the dollar had lost its advantage against the U.S. greenback. And in the first weeks of 2012 we've seen good job numbers in the U.S. and poor ones in Canada, while worries continue about the domino effects of a potential debt default in Greece.

Meanwhile, Canadians have been bombarded with conflicting messages.

On one hand, economic experts and government officials urge people and companies to spend to bolster the economy, tell them that the Canada Pension Plan is well funded, and assure Canadians that they can have confidence in one of the most solid banking systems in the world. But at the same time, there are warnings that people aren't saving enough for retirement or for financial emergencies, that the job market is mushy, salaries are stagnant, house prices are inflated, household debt is reaching alarming levels, and interest rates won't stay low for ever — all which has many of the same experts saying action must be taken to avoid an economic catastrophe.

That helps explain some of the books economic and investing leaders have been reading lately, volumes that deal with uncertainty and how to confront it. But other titles show that even in turbulent times, business fundamentals like leadership and innovation can't be neglected.

At Books for Business, a downtown Toronto bookstore catering to the tie-and-briefcase crowd, corporate and special sales specialist Brenda Bickram says these were the Top 5 biz tomes for 2011:

  • Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. Collins, who wrote the 2001 management bible Good to Great, and Hansen dissect why some companies succeed in turbulent times and others founder.
  • A Tale of Two Employees & the Person Who Wanted to Lead Them, by Chris Bart. A tale of leadership told in a fable form, by a McMaster University business professor with expertise in corporate strategy.
  • Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation in Your Organization, by David Weiss and Claude Legrand. Two innovation gurus describe the kinds of intelligence and innovation conducive to leadership and organizational success, and how they can be implemented.
  • Competencies for Training and Development Professionals, by the Canadian Society for Training and Development. A manual for professional development.
  • Great Companies Deserve Great Boards: A CEO’s Guide to the Boardroom, by Beverly Behan. A primer for top executives and corporate directors alike on how to get the best out of a company's board.

CBC News also spoke to business, economics and investing experts across the country to find out what business books they're reading and why. Here's what they said.

Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Gail Vaz-Oxlade (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi)

Bio: Gail Vaz-Oxlade is a financial author and broadcaster.

Pick: The Wealthy Barber Returns, by David Chilton

Reason: "Dave swore he’d never write another book. Just like a man to change his mind! And thank goodness.

"The lack of imagination shown in the title should in no way detract from the contents. It’s a wonderful read. Funny (not usual for a money book), irreverent (for which he wins points from me) and scathing. Rock on dude!

"Short chapters give a one-two punch of information and wisdom. Chapter titles like "Incredibly Interesting Math" lead to important insights like, 'We all want to be above average. All of us ... a mathematical impossibility.'

"Yup. Read the book."

Seymour Schulich

Bio: Seymour Schulich is the co-founder and ex-CEO of Franco-Nevada Mining Corp., ex-president of pension fund managers Beutel, Goodman & Co, and a prominent philanthropist.

Pick: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.  

Reason: "Here's a man who built the second largest company in the world by market capitalization, behind only Exxon. Yet take the 10 most dysfunctional folks you have known, roll them into one person and you might come close to this guy.

"I was taken by the fact that except for several flukes, this genius may have toiled in obscurity. His dealings with the mega-maniacal Disney CEOs in the eventual merger of Pixar with Disney are worth the price of the book and the time invested to read it. (Jobs made more money from Pixar than Apple).  

"The author, Isaacson, does an incredible job in pulling the real but flawed genius out of the numerous interviews with colleagues, old girlfriends and people who interacted with Steve Jobs. My theory is his fatal cancer derives from the LSD and drug-laced world of his youth. But then, who really knows?"

Sherry Cooper

Bio: Sherry Cooper is the executive vice-president and chief economist at Bank of Montreal.

Pick: Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar.

Reason: "Nasar, the author of A Beautiful Mind, reviews more than 200 years of economic thought — from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman — and discusses many of the controversies that are still avidly debated today. While I do not agree with some of her views, she is to be commended in bringing to life the evolution of economic theory.

"I saw her recently in a debate regarding Keynes vs. Hayek — countercyclical fiscal policy vs. laissez faire capitalism.  Her bias is certainly for fiscal stimulus à la Keynes, but her arguments weren’t as cogent as the others. 

Her book is more a biography of the great economic thinkers rather than an analysis of their theories, but that is what makes it so interesting."  

Carol Stephenson

Bio: Carol Stephenson is dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business

Pick: Rock Then Roll: The Secrets of Culture-Driven Leadership, by Arkadi Kuhlmann (Disclosure: Kuhlmann chairs Ivey's advisory board and the board's executive committee.)

Reason: "There’s no question that Kuhlmann’s culture-based approach to leadership has been a success in his own company, ING Direct, and this book reveals his blueprint. However, the book goes beyond just outlining what leaders should do to discuss how they should think about leadership – especially in light of today’s challenging business environment.

"Kuhlmann teaches that leadership is a privilege, not a right, that needs to be earned every day, and he provides the tools for current and future leaders to do just that.

"With its leader-to-leader advice and glimpses into his own leadership path, it’s a must-read for anyone currently in or thinking about the world of business."

David Rosenberg

Bio: David Rosenberg is chief economist and strategist at investment firm Gluskin Sheff and former chief North American economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Pick: Known and Unknown, by Donald Rumsfeld.

Reasons: "Considering that we are going into the next leg of the global financial crisis with such limited historical knowledge of how to treat heightened sovereign default risks, in a monetary union that commands a greater share of world GDP than any other economic unit on the planet, figuring out what we need to know that is inherently unknown is probably not a bad idea as we head into what looks to be a tumultuous 2012."

Mike Veall

Bio: Mike Veall is president of the Canadian Economics Association and professor of economics at McMaster University.

Pick: Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Reason: "Acemoglu and Robinson model a society in which elites want social stability. To obtain it, they may offer democracy as a pact with the less-advantaged majority, in effect promising a government that will concern itself with improving general conditions.

"Written before the Arab Spring, the book nonetheless raises the question of which incipient democracies can achieve the relative stability of our own, or whether the stop/start pattern of, say, Argentina is likely.

"There are some mathematical parts, but even skipping them leaves lots of intriguing yet challenging content." 

Armine Yalnizyan

Bio: Armine Yalnizyan is senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Pick: Public Finance, by C.F. Bastable

Reason: "Why do corporations pay taxes? Is the debt hole too big to manage? Why are public expenditures different than other types of spending and investing? Can governments turn an economy around?

"If the global economic crisis has got you wondering about these kinds of questions, you’ll find timeless, principled answers in C.F. Bastable’s classic tome on political economics.

"First written in 1892, I’m almost through the 1932 edition, published by Macmillan. Peppered with references from monarchies and empires to local governments, this 780-page textbook offers eyebrow-raising theoretical and practical insights about the economic mess we’re in.

"It's a case of the past shedding light on the paths forward."