The Old New Thing

The Washington Post Book World
Jan 7, 2001

THE UNDERGROUNDTRADER.COM GUIDE TO ELECTRONIC TRADING
Day Trading Techniques of a Master Guerrilla Trader
By Jea Yu
McGraw Hill. 249 pp. $39.95

delete_your_broker.com
Using the Internet to Beat the Pros on Wall Street
By Christopher Byron
Simon & Schuster. 272 pp. $26

BUILDING BRANDWIDTH
Closing the Sale Online
By Sergio Zyman and Scott Miller
HarperBusiness. 239 pp. $27

Reviewed by David Futrelle

Even the lousiest pop songs from decades past can have a certain retro charm -- which is why, I suppose, I find myself logging onto Napster at 2 in the morning to download half-forgotten hits from such former favorites as Martha and the Muffins and Romeo Void. But there's nothing particularly charming about business wisdom past its prime -- and stale business books can linger on the remainder tables forever like unloved Charlies-in-the-boxes on the Island of Misfit Toys. Sure, some more inspirational business books, puffed up with trite truisms with timeless appeal, can linger on the bestseller lists for eons. But most business books have the shelf life of a rotting banana. My favorite recent remainder-table find? "Chainsaw" Al Dunlop's Mean Business, a self-congratulatory 1997 memoir by the legendarily mean-spirited turnaround artist -- published shortly before Chainsaw Al turned Sunbeam Corp. into a steaming heap of rubble and destroyed what remained of his business-world legend.

The Internet economy has brought a new efficiency to publishing: Now business books can become obsolete even before they're published. The business world is being forced to move, as Bill Gates would have it, at "the speed of light." But the publishing world still dances to a much slower drummer. You can start an Internet business, have a wildly successful IPO, then watch your company flame out into nothingness -- all in less time than it takes most authors to write even a single book. And with Wall Street going through more mood swings in a day than Dr. Jekyll, even the speediest of book writers may find themselves overtaken by events.

And so we're now witnessing a most interesting effect of this Internet jet lag: Books conceived (and mostly written) in the last days of the dot-com bubble are hitting the bookstores only today. I've been looking over several such books, all of them likely candidates for the remainder table, and each offering, in its own way, a case study in the kind of hubris that brought so many dot- coms crashing to earth.

Let's start with the most obviously retro of the bunch: a snazzily packaged guide to day trading entitled The Undergroundtrader.com Guide to Electronic Trading. Written by self-proclaimed "master guerrilla trader" Jea Yu, it purports to instruct novice day traders in the fundamentals of "the most expensive speculator sport in the world."

You remember day trading, don't you -- that fast-paced, in-and- out style of stock trading that was all the rage a year ago? As late as last spring, no less an authority than the New York Times declared that "day trading is here to stay," and more than a few pundits assured us that in the future we would all be day traders of a sort, making constant, quick adjustments to our portfolio with handy wireless devices.

One tech stock crash later, day trading has lost almost all of its glamour. Day traders, who capitalize on small intraday movements in stock prices rather than on big trends, should, in theory, be able to make as much money in bear markets as in bull -- assuming they're able to make money at all. But in real life, the tech crash has left many day traders drained and dispirited -- not to mention a good deal poorer.

All-Tech, one of the country's largest and most notorious day- trading firms, is now running ads encouraging potential traders to "learn to embrace the bear." But it's been a tough sell.

As will be The Undergroundtrader.com Guide, one suspects. The book jacket promises to transform day-trading greenhorns into "calm, confident traders" able to prosper while "uninformed and ill- advised" traders burn through their family's nest eggs in short order. But the book itself, stuffed with talk of technical trading arcana like "cup and handle chart formations" and "Fibonacci price pivot points," makes clear that day trading is a grueling, uncertain ordeal even for the savviest of traders. Still, Yu tries his best to imbue day trading with a certain rough allure. "You will be pitted against some of the sharpest minds and deepest pockets in a head-to- head zero-sum match where winner takes all," he writes. "You will come under attack through bear raids, get head-faked and wiggled out by the market makers, get pinned to the wall by other day traders, and have the rug pulled out from underneath you by the SOES bandits."

All while sitting at home in your underwear!

Bear raids and head fakes aside, The Undergroundtrader.com Guide is a grueling read. About the best that can be said about the book is that it may prove to have something of a prophylactic effect on would- be day traders. If there is anyone out there still considering a career in day trading, a few hours with this confusing, convoluted how-to manual should quickly dissuade them. Yu manages to combine the almost impenetrable jargon of technical trading with the sort of macho bluster you find on some of the wilder Internet chat rooms -- resulting in an awful lot of sentences like the following, taken almost at random from a chapter on charts: "ENTU eventually popped to the 41 momentum tick as stochastics topped just above the 98 band on the one-minute stochastics and proceeded to tank to the zero band, taking ENTU back down to 38 on a panic wiggle."

If you can make it through 250 pages of this stuff without your head exploding, well, heck, maybe you do have what it takes to make it big as a day trader. Or maybe you're simply a space alien.

delete_your_broker.com looks to be an ever crasser attempt to cash in on the dot-com-boom-gone-bust. You'd think Christopher Byron, of all people, would have been better prepared for the end of the boom - - and a little quicker to get his book out the door. A curmudgeonly financial columnist for MSNBC and the New York Observer, Byron is one of the most consistently engaging writers around on the follies and foibles of the Internet economy. But delete_your_broker.com, unfortunately, is a slapdash affair, a rudimentary how-to guide for novice online traders amply padded with what looks to be material left over from some recent columns. Published six months or a year ago, it might have found a receptive audience. Now it seems nearly as retro as Chainsaw Al's paean to himself.

But that's not necessarily all bad. True, as a point-and-click guide to "Using the Internet to Beat the Pros on Wall Street," Byron's book is nearly useless. But the padding in this heavily padded book is often delightful: Byron offers (among other things) a fascinating tour of the world of penny stocks, expert deconstructions of the financial statements of such once-hot stocks as Amazon.com and Boston Market, funny riffs on seemingly dull subjects ranging from asset allocation to Bollinger Bands. I'm not sure I'd buy this book new -- but it would be a terrific find on the remainder table.

Meanwhile, the authors of Building Brandwidth go to great pains to present their book as an antidote to dot-com excesses. Sergio Zyman, the author of The End of Marketing as We Know It, was in a previous incarnation the chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola. Now he and co- author Scott Miller are the co-founders of an e-commerce consulting firm called Z Group, which eschews hipster kookiness in favor of ad campaigns that win "sales, not advertising awards."

Like most marketing books, Building Brandwidth is a terrible read - - albeit a quick one. Much of the book consists of little more than reheated cliche{acute}s. "You've got to be on the job 24-7," the authors tell us at one point. "There are no second chances on the Net. . . . It's White House or outhouse."

Zyman and Miller's critiques of dot-com hipsters aside, this book is clearly as much a product of dot-com hubris as those infamous ads from Outpost.com featuring gerbils shot from cannons. Only in the midst of a bubble could such a collection of triteness pass for insight. But here, too, perhaps we should temper our despair: There might not be any second chances on the Net, but there always are in publishing. I'll see you at the remainder table.

David Futrelle is a columnist for Money magazine.