/ 28 April 2024

Dalio principally formed a cult

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On the money: Rob Copeland does no fawning in his biography of Ray Dalio, billionaire and founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. Photo: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

One of the more unexpected things that the internet has brought us — besides information on where you can buy a BLT sandwich at three in the morning and a literally unending stream of garbage with the word “Kardashian” attached — is a renewed sense of cynicism about the motives of authors. 

The first time you click on an article titled “20 Amazing Facts About the Cast of Friends … Number 8 Will Surprise You!” expecting to truly be surprised is the last time you click on such an article expecting to truly be surprised. 

Content mills have forced us to re-evaluate why people “put pen to paper” and this promotes a tendency for the hair on the back of my neck to stand up whenever an author makes some sort of bold claim.

I mention this because the first sentence of Rob Copeland’s The Fund: Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates, and the Unraveling of a Wall Street Legend is: “Ray Dalio does not want you to read this book.” One’s immediate reaction would be: “Yeah, sure, just like Kim Kardashian does not want you to see the infamous video.” 

However, a few pages into the book, it becomes apparent that Copeland is not sensationalising anything. Despite an obviously out-sized ego, Dalio would probably prefer that you not read the book. 

While calling it a hit piece is disingenuous, it certainly does not contain the type of fawning obsequiousness that we have come to expect from biographies. And therein lies its charm.

Full disclosure — I had no idea who Ray Dalio was until I hit his Wikipedia page after starting this book. 

I know there are a million finance bros who just clutched their designer pearls in disbelief that someone had not heard of the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, but I believe such knowledge to be of interest to a specific slice of the population — one with which I do not readily interact. 

And this leads me to one of the problems that I had when reading this book: unless you are interested in the subject, reading a biography is typically tough going. I found myself giving myself pep talks when it was time to resume reading and, about two-thirds of the way through, I wondered out loud: “Will finishing this book make any difference to my opinion of it?” Answer: It didn’t. 

That’s not to say it’s a bad book, not by any means. But it’s not a book I would pick up of my own volition, due primarily to its subject matter. But I was assigned it and I read it, dear reader, for your benefit, if for nothing else.

And if you are interested in the world of finance and how men in bespoke soft-collared shirts go about manoeuvring imaginary money to make more imaginary money, then you could do a lot worse than read it. 

Copeland is a former staffer on  The Wall Street Journal and currently writes about banking and finance for The New York Times, so he has had abundant access to The Fund — Bridgewater Associates, by name — and its enigmatic founder Dalio over the years. And the picture he paints is not a pretty one. 

Public consciousness of renegade Wall Street firms and their founders/owners has largely been shaped by movies such as Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street, and we’ve come to expect stories of outsize largesse on the behalf of these men and women, who seemingly spin money out of thin air. While that is present in Copeland’s book, it is far from the focus.

What is the focus is Dalio, the man who figured out commodities trading at a young age, founded a firm and then strayed into analysing people instead of stocks. 

The Fund

Dalio believed understanding people meant understanding business and he genuinely does appear to have started out with noble intentions. However, his tools for self-actualisation — The Principles, as he calls them — swiftly became a weapon with which he flogged those that disappointed or disagreed with him. 

He spent decades and millions trying to get his Principles codified, hiring software engineers and AI experts to, essentially, replicate himself. These attempts failed and left a trail of broken careers in their wake.

The problem, which is repeatedly pointed out in the book, is there is no consistency or fundamental logic to the Principles. They are, for the most part, PR bullshit that might have, at one time, carried some sort of meaning but were being used to obfuscate Dalio’s increasingly unacceptable and erratic behaviour. 

The fact that those who advanced their positions at Bridgewater were not necessarily those who did the best job, but those who professed profound knowledge of, and belief in, the Principles, further pushes us out of Warren Buffet territory and into that of David Koresh, the cult leader.

The word “cult” is bandied about liberally in this book and it’s not difficult to see why. People flock to a charismatic leader, chasing the promise of personal and financial reward. What they actually receive is abuse at the hands of a megalomaniac who believes he is acting in service of some sort of Greater Good. 

Copeland makes no pointed accusations, as his journalistic integrity demands him not to, but the slew of facts that he trots out in support of the “cult” hypothesis makes it difficult not to arrive at that conclusion.

Although there is plenty of factual reporting about the life of Dalio and the continued existence of the fund he founded, the true epicentre of the text is Dalio’s maniacal focus on, and enforcement of, his Principles. And this does make for fascinating reading, even for those of us who don’t understand why you shouldn’t short stocks during a recession.

And it’s safe to say that, yes, Dalio would not want you to read this book. But read it anyway.

The Fund: Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Associates, and the Unraveling of a Wall Street Legend is published by Macmillan Business.