The Top 10 Business Books Of 1999

E-commerce, Silicon Valley, the pitfalls of innovation--there are times when it seems that publishers of business books have no interests outside of the Digital Age. But a survey of BUSINESS WEEK's top business books of 1999 shows that isn't so. Among the other topics treated by this year's worthy volumes were Wall Street past and present, the global economy, and the oversize personalities and corporations that have shaped the past century.

All of our picks were reviewed by BUSINESS WEEK during 1999. And though a reviewer may have had misgivings about a given title, on balance, we've decided that each of these books merits a top ranking.

Jean Strouse's Morgan: American Financier (Random House), for instance, is a biography that, at 796 pages, offers a heft to match its subject's notoriety. Born to wealth, J.P. Morgan compounded his family's fortune and power, funneling capital to American railroads, consolidating the steel industry, and twice responding to major financial crises by acting as the country's de facto central banker. A commanding physical presence who could part crowds on the street, Morgan became an art collector extraordinaire, buying more works of art "than he could house or even see," in Strouse's words. The final period of his life was marked by tribulation and failure, but in the year of his death, Congress unwittingly paid him tribute by establishing the Federal Reserve system, a body that would thenceforth play the role of the U.S. economy's guiding hand.

Another story of the Street, Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success (Knopf), is a history of that prestigious investment bank's first 130 years, with particular attention paid to recent events. The book benefits from author and former Goldman, Sachs & Co. trader Lisa Endlich's unusual level of access. Observed reviewer Leah Nathans Spiro: Endlich "has written the best description yet of the dramatic events of 1994, when Goldman hit a nadir because of huge trading losses and personnel defections." Another high point was Endlich's account of the construction and eventual downfall of Goldman's mid-1990s proprietary-trading operation in London.

Investing is also the topic of Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Edward Chancellor. In its detailing of some of the better-known investment bubbles--from the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s to the near-failure of the Long-Term Capital Management hedge fund last year--Chancellor excels at describing the culture of speculative excess. The book is strongest where the literature is richest, found reviewer Gary Silverman. Chancellor quotes writers ranging from Mark Twain, who warned that "a mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it," to Daniel Defoe. The effect is somewhat unsettling, leaving readers pondering similarities between past manias and present-day events.

Unsettling, too, is Turbo-Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy (HarperCollins) by Edward Luttwak, a longtime fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank. Luttwak argues that after 20 years of relentless deregulation and market opening, we've turbocharged the Schumpeterian destruction-and-creation process that is essential to a competitive economy's advance. The speed of structural change now "brutally exceeds the adaptive limits of individuals, families, and communities," says the author. Whether you agree with the arguments or not, observed reviewer Patrick Smith, you can't help but admire "the agile, independent intellect" behind them.

Questions of globalization and economic progress also figure heavily in Amartya Sen's Development As Freedom (Knopf). The Nobel prize-winning author says that economic growth translates into better, longer lives for people only if governments embark upon well-thought-out social-development programs that guarantee certain liberties: freedom from hunger, illiteracy, premature death from lack of health care, and the tyranny of undemocratic governments, which tend to ignore the poorest. Attempts to balance governmental budgets via social-spending cuts, he says, are a mistake, since these may leave people less able to react to the New Economy's demands. Reviewer Geri Smith found that although this book is dense in parts, "Sen's optimism and no-nonsense proposals leave one feeling that perhaps there is a solution."

International problems are also on the mind of Peter F. Drucker, the dean of management thinkers, as he demonstrates in his most recent book, Management Challenges for the 21st Century (HarperBusiness). The most important global shift today, says Drucker, is the decline in most developed countries' birthrates, to around two live births per woman of childbearing age. The resulting worker shortage, he says, will lead to a huge tide of immigration, with its obvious disruptions, and to a leap in the retirement age, to about 79. Reviewer Jennifer Reingold found that, in considering this and a host of other matters, "Drucker explains why management practices as we know them--along with many of his own theories--have lost their utility, what global events are behind this, and, lastly, how individuals can try to manage themselves in the years to come."

Corporate organization is also a focus of John Nathan's Sony: The Private Life (Houghton Mifflin). Among other developments, this book considers the 1989 acquisition of Columbia Pictures Entertainment, for which Sony Corp. agreed to pay the inflated asking price of $3.2 billion and assume $1.6 billion in debt. According to the author, it was a decision that was motivated solely by the desire of senior executives to please one individual, Akio Morita, the company's flamboyant co-founder, who recently died. Nathan, a professor of Japanese cultural studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, also describes the disastrous result: By 1994, mismanagement had forced Sony to write off $2.7 billion and assume a loss of $510 million for its Hollywood experiment. Filled with such insiders' tales, Sony: The Private Life is "the most vivid and detailed account in English of the personalities who built the $50 billion-plus consumer-electronics giant," said reviewer Irene M. Kunii.

Another stellar CEO is the focus of Michael Lewis' The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story (Norton). At the center of this account is James H. Clark, the innovator of Silicon Graphics, Netscape Communications, and Healtheon, and the only person to have created three companies each with market values of more than $1 billion. And yet, as Lewis shows in this fascinating tale, Clark still isn't satisfied--and, like many other Valley entrepreneurs, probably never will be.

For Lewis, the author of the best-selling Wall Street tale Liar's Poker, Clark's history reveals something endemic in Silicon Valley: the itch to come up with the next breakthrough idea. While noting the difficulty of explaining all of Silicon Valley by focusing on one person's experience, reviewer Robert D. Hof found that Lewis has provided a view of that haven of high-tech inspiration "that is as penetrating as anything written so far."

Is Clark the ultimate grand-idea man? Well, no one should forget about Tim Berners-Lee. In his book, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor (HarperSanFrancisco), Berners-Lee tells how the Web got stitched together in the 1980s and early 1990s at the CERN particle-physics laboratory on the Franco-Swiss border. He also discusses ongoing Web developments and reflects on such issues as privacy and censorship. But most importantly, the author gives his vision of the Web's future, which, said reviewer Otis Port, is "the real reason to read this book." Today's Web will, Berners-Lee believes, evolve into a network that will be able to carry out, independently, most of the routine research and analyses that now sap human creativity.

Finally, another engrossing account of influential people is contained in The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times (Little, Brown) by Susan E. Tifft, a former associate editor at Time, and former Times reporter Alex S. Jones. The authors term the Ochs-Sulzberger family, which has run the newspaper since the 1890s, "arguably the most powerful blood-related dynasty in 20th century America." And in keeping with the treatment usually given such sagas, one can read the 870-page book as if it were simply an assemblage of spicy anecdotes. But The Trust is also an important study of a singular institution. The result: a book that "should stand as the definitive story of The Times for years to come," according to reviewer Chris Welles.