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The Best Business Books of 2022: the Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award

recommended by Andrew Hill

FT Business Book of the Year Award

FT Business Book of the Year Award

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For its annual book award, the Financial Times looks beyond books that might be filed under business in a bookshop, picking out books that are compelling and enjoyable, explains Andrew Hill, the newspaper's senior business writer. He talks us through the 2022 shortlist: books that shine a light on obscure but immensely important companies or industries, or address some of the bigger challenges facing our capitalist economies.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

FT Business Book of the Year Award

FT Business Book of the Year Award

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For those who don’t follow it every year, can you introduce what kind of books the FT Business Book Award is generally looking for?

The Financial Times prize has been going since 2005 and the broad remit is to choose the book that provides the most compelling and enjoyable insight into modern business issues. That is deliberately quite broad. We go beyond what you might find on the shelves labelled ‘business book’ in the bookstore. So, over the years, winners and finalists have included histories, biographies, big economics tomes, investigations. There haven’t been so many traditional management books, but those are also covered by the award.

The prize runs between mid-November and mid-November every year; that’s the eligibility window. We move through two phases. First there is a longlist, which is developed by me and colleagues. That longlist is then submitted to our esteemed judges—chaired by the editor of the Financial Times, Roula Khalaf. The judges pick a shortlist of six finalists and then a winner, who will be announced on December 5th.

Before we get to the individual books on this year’s shortlist, do you have any general comments? My own take is that I liked the way several of the books on the shortlist homed in on industries or companies that are quite hidden and gave insights into how they work.

The longlist probably had a little bit more of the geopolitics than in previous years, perhaps naturally for this type of year. I like the judges’ choice for the shortlist. It’s a pretty good balance between ‘big ideas’ books about economics and geoeconomics and, as you say, some of these deep dives into individual companies or sectors.

I’m pleased with the topicality of the list this year. That’s not always easy to get because obviously there’s a long lead time for publication of books. Some business books appear just after the moment when you want to read about the thing that they’re discussing. Also, one of the sub criteria for the award is that the book should stand the test of time—an almost impossible thing for any judges to work out. That also slightly offsets the topicality, if you want to have something that’s still going to be read a few years from now at least.

Let’s go through the books on the 2022 shortlist. I’m going to take them in the order they appear on the Financial Times website. First up is Dead in the Water by two Bloomberg journalists, Kit Chellel and Matthew Campbell. The book opens in Yemen with the wife of this poor guy David Mockett, who ends up getting murdered. Tell me what it’s about and what it’s investigating.

I’m not really supposed to pick favorites but as I don’t have any say in the shortlist choice or the winner, I can say that this book is one of my favorites. It’s a thriller, starting from what sounds like an unpromising premise, of an oil tanker hijacked off the coast of Yemen. David Mockett is a marine surveyor who is called in when the boat is set on fire and the crew escape. He is called in on behalf of insurers to find out what’s gone on. I won’t give away the plot, but it’s a murky tale which ultimately turns out to be fraud.

The second half of the book weaves in the white-collar elements: Lloyd’s of London, insurance, lawyers fighting with the ship owners and others with an interest in the case, to prove what’s gone on. It’s very nicely done. For me, it opened the door onto a whole clubby world of insurance—which I have written about a bit—and also the much more rogue and wilder world of shipping and ship owning and everything attached to it. Then there’s the additional element of Yemeni state conflict going on.

Because shipping is so international, it’s outside the law to some extent, is that right? The authors write, “it’s sometimes said that the seas are lawless and that’s true.”

The book explains it very well and it’s worth reading for that alone, really. It’s certainly a book I might go back to, if I was writing on this topic, the whole area of flags of convenience, how Greek ship owners came to dominance (the ship is ultimately owned by a Greek tycoon), what happens in the world’s shipping lanes. There’s a lovely potted history of scuttling and why people would scuttle ships for good reasons and bad. It’s just a fascinating perspective on an area that I certainly didn’t know much about.

Let’s go on to the next book: Influence Empire: The Story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition. So this is by Lulu Chen, who’s another Bloomberg journalist. It’s about a company that’s incredibly powerful inside China but living elsewhere we don’t pay that much attention to.

Yes, the book dives into a company that we probably should all know about because it’s so huge within China. Tencent developed the so-called everything app, WeChat. The book is about how Tencent fits into the world of Chinese technology and technology in general. It talks about the rise of Tencent’s founder, Pony Ma. He’s a very elusive figure and Lulu Chen tries to track him down in the course of the book, with limited success.

Another reason for reading this book is that it sheds light on the way in which once you become successful in Chinese technology or business, you’re immediately intertwined with the Chinese Communist Party. Once you become as successful as Tencent has, you need to step a fine line between being successful and working within the system. As the book mentions early on, it’s at the point you become prominent and visible that you start to discover problems—which is what happened with Jack Ma (no relation to Pony Ma) and Alibaba. Jack Ma was squashed when he became too prominent, Pony Ma seems to have managed to fly a little bit below the radar.

Let’s move to book number three on the 2022 business book shortlist. This is The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order by Gary Gerstle. What’s good about this book?

By contrast with the other books we’ve spoken about so far, this is a big ideas book. Gary Gerstle is an American historian based in the UK. What he’s analyzed here is what went wrong with the whole concept of free market capitalism, which he describes as neoliberalism. There’s a whole debate about the word liberal—which if you’re in the US on the right has become synonymous with a dubious social democracy—so neoliberal is the word that he applies to this, as do others.

What’s interesting is that rather than confining it to Reagan, Milton Friedman, and other people you might naturally think of, he points out how neoliberalism became embedded across the political spectrum. Via Bill Clinton, it came to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the UK. It has left us with the consequences that we’re now facing—inequality, volatility and a certain kind of disdain for the rules-based order. This was all on the back of a legitimate desire to exploit free trade, free markets, and globalization.

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It’s a big ideas book that’s very compelling in the way he draws together all the elements. When I was Tweeting about the shortlist, I accidentally called the book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Empire, which somebody on Twitter pointed out was actually quite an appropriate mistake to make. Gerstle is essentially saying that the neoliberal order has become the ruling principle of free market democracies, both for good and—he thinks—mainly for ill.

If it’s fallen does that mean we’re now beyond the neoliberal order?

I was listening to an interview Gerstle did recently, and he was asked about that. He believes that in some sense Trump was a consequence of the backlash against neoliberalism and the inequality it has spawned.

The question, I suppose, is what comes next? Is there a way in which the good parts of neoliberalism might be redeemed in some way by successors to Trump and others? His view, at least in this interview and to some degree in the book, is that there is a proper liberal response—perhaps along the lines of FDR and the New Deal—to some of the issues that we’re facing. Clearly, that requires a lot of political consensus and certainly the US is not necessarily going to pursue that route yet.

I liked his point at the beginning, how we’re not talking about conservatism here. Conservatism is about preserving institutions, whereas some of the stuff being done now by the right is the opposite.

Yes, exactly. Hence the volatility. One could even say that what we’re experiencing here in the UK right now is a consequence of saying, ‘Let’s just pull the levers here and go hell for leather for whatever we can do, irrespective of the market.’

Okay, now we’re at The Power Law, which is about venture capital. 

This is by Sebastian Mallaby who’s had a lot of success in reaching the shortlist and indeed winning the FT book prize. In 2016 he won for The Man Who Knew, which was his biography of Alan Greenspan.

This book has been in the offing for a while, it’s his big study of the roots of venture capitalism, mainly in the US, and what lies behind the success of a lot of the Silicon Valley technology companies. He’s taken the history and retold it in a rather wonderful way. All the stories in the book are great, right back to Gordon Moore and those who became part of Intel.

Mallaby favors the idea that venture capital has been a force for good. Ordinary finance was backing the probability of beating the market by a point or two. Venture capital, right from the beginning, was about backing 10 horses, nine of whom you know are going to fall before the final hurdle, but one is going to strike enormously rich. It was originally called ‘adventure’ capital. It’s about taking these huge risks, in the hope that at least one of them will do exceptionally well. So it requires, as he makes clear, a particular type of person, with a particular mindset, in order to make this happen.

It’s a pro-venture capital book. The subtitle is ‘the art of disruption’ and there has been a lot of criticism about whether disruption is really what we want. But in the case of some of the companies backed by the venture capitalists, he’s saying it was the necessary spark for wider capitalism. It’s a very nicely told story, I think.

So if you want a critique of venture capital, you should probably read something else?

It’s not Pollyannaish about venture capital. He points out flaws and areas for improvement. In the US, venture capital remains very male dominated; it’s got that clubbiness, to some extent. There are flaws in the model. It’d be interesting to have Gary Gerstle debate Sebastian Mallaby about how this links into the worst excesses of neoliberalism.

It’s a pro-business book and that’s great to have on the shortlist, because a lot of the business books that we see are essentially about scandals, like Dead in the Water. That’s what journalists in particular like to write about. So somebody who’s done a deep analysis of what is essentially a net positive for capitalism deserves to be there.

Let’s go on to Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. This is by another academic, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Chris Miller.

Again, it’s a vast work of research and history that’s also highly topical. Even today, just before we were talking, I was looking at the latest skirmishes in the chip wars, with Chinese chip makers being deprived of access to the tool manufacturers that they need in order to make their semiconductors. Shortages of semiconductors have been a big issue in the news over the past couple of years. Another is concerns in the EU, US and the UK about having a native supply of semiconductors and not being over reliant on Taiwan, where Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), one of the biggest chip makers in the world, is mainly based. That’s where 92% of the world’s semiconductors are sourced.

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So there’s a great topicality to this book, but it’s also about how this happened, the genesis of TSMC. It was built by a Chinese émigré who was called back to Taiwan to help build their chip business and did so, just at the moment when the rest of the world was sitting on its hands and not doing enough. I’ve written about UK chip policy—such as it is—and a lot of people use that old joke, ‘I wouldn’t start from here! If you wanted to invest, it should have been 20 years ago.’ That is when TSMC came to the fore. Chris Miller unpicks that story and examines not just the history but also the implications of this global dependency, which clearly, in the light of the chip shortages and fears about Taiwan and China, has become increasingly pressing as an industrial policy issue.

Chips are so critical to everything we do, and yet it’s another topic that many of us know very little about. I don’t think I’d even heard of TSMC before I picked up this book. There’s also ASML, a Dutch company, which is vital.

Yes, the most important company you haven’t ever heard of and its role in this complex supply chain. Once you start to get into it, and Chris Miller does, you begin to realize just how many things are dependent on this particular industry.

What I like about the book is the way in which it marries government policy, how can you nudge into existence something so important, the balance of foresight, money and entrepreneurial skill. Again, it’s an important book about business, showing how it can become a vital part of the geopolitics as well as an economic driver.

What’s the impact of the geopolitics on these companies?

The story today is about sanctions on the supply of semiconductor machine tools to China. But, as I discovered when I was writing about it—which the book also makes clear—the supply chain for these chips is very complex. It includes mined raw materials, many of which come from China. It’s all interwoven. In a way, any war over semiconductors ends up with everybody losing. There are plenty of entrepreneurs that I’ve spoken to who are pretty clear that we’ll all be losers if this devolves into ‘Let’s all try to be independent makers of semiconductors’ because nobody—not even the Taiwanese—has got everything in place. They need parts or tools or raw materials from other trading partners. So if globalization breaks down, we’re back to Gary Gerstle. We’ll end up with a problem we’ll all be affected by, not to be too gloomy about it. We’ll talk about the gloomiest book next.

Yes, let’s move on to the sixth and final book on the 2022 shortlist: Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century, by Helen Thompson, a professor of political economy at Cambridge University.

This book is about energy, how energy volatility is a fact of geopolitical life and has determined how international policymakers have behaved over decades, certainly throughout the postwar period. She lays out pretty clearly why that is a problem and will continue to be a problem. It’s about how different types of energy—from oil to electricity, even renewable energy—have had the ability to create the tensions that exploded in Ukraine and elsewhere as a result of Russia cutting back gas supplies.

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This book was written before the Ukraine crisis, although things were obviously bubbling in Ukraine while she was writing. I suppose the book might have fallen down on the fact that events moved on and I’m sure if she were writing it now, adding an epilogue or a new edition, it would take into account the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But what she’s laid out in the broad sweep of history is how the choices that companies make are related to the energy sources that they want to secure or use or on which they depend. It’s a state of the world book, in some respects, and as it says in the subtitle, these are hard problems we are now wrestling with.

The book made its way onto the shortlist—and the longlist—by being one of those books that just hit the mark on timing. Of course, that’s a lottery to some degree, but she’s put a lot of work into this thesis which I think probably will also stand the test of time.

Part of our best books of 2022 series.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

October 23, 2022

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is senior business writer at the Financial Times, consulting editor of FT Live and organiser of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. He is a former management editor, City editor, financial editor and comment and analysis editor. Andrew was named Business Commentator of the Year at the 2016 Comment Awards and Commentator of the Year at the 2009 Business Journalist of the Year Awards, where he also received a Decade of Excellence award. He is the author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.

 

 

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Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is senior business writer at the Financial Times, consulting editor of FT Live and organiser of the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award. He is a former management editor, City editor, financial editor and comment and analysis editor. Andrew was named Business Commentator of the Year at the 2016 Comment Awards and Commentator of the Year at the 2009 Business Journalist of the Year Awards, where he also received a Decade of Excellence award. He is the author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.