Friday, April 06, 2018

Unlocking Valuable Info: Moe Berg, Espionage, and Investing

Welcome, readers. This article on the life of ballplayer/CIA operative, Moe Berg and the role of information gathering in espionage and investing first appeared last month in the Finance Trends Newsletter.

Spring, when a young man's thoughts turn to baseball, young ladies, and... espionage?

Well, that last part may seem unusual, but allow me to explain.

I've been a baseball fan all my life. Even in recent years, when I have rarely felt the urge to watch professional sports, I often find myself reading about the great ballplayers of my youth or watching highlights of games from the past.

One of my great pleasures as a boy was reading about baseball's earlier eras and its great heroes (or tragic figures) and colorful characters.

Yes, in the pre-internet world we read tangible books. One of my early favorites was a book entitled, Baseball Anecdotes. If you have a baseball fan in your family I highly recommend it. Paperback copies are inexpensive and the book can be easily read 1 or 2 chapters at a time.

Here was my early introduction to a journeyman ballplayer of the 1920s and 1930s named Moe Berg.


Moe Berg Baseball Card 1933 Goudy


Berg was a journeyman in more ways than one. In addition to playing for six major league teams (including two separate runs with the Cleveland Indians) in his 15-year career, Moe was an avid traveler who spoke seven (or more) languages with great skill. He was also a spy.

Moe parlayed a 1934 trip to Japan into a clandestine sightseeing tour of Tokyo. With a newsreel film camera hidden in his kimono, Berg managed to sneak up to the roof of a tall hospital building and film the Tokyo skyline and its harbors! For years it was believed that his film footage, loaned to the U.S. government, was helpful in aiding WWII bombers in their air raids on Tokyo.



Moe Berg Japan Tokyo 1934 Film Camera Spy


What is certain is that Moe Berg was recruited into the war's new intelligence program, the OSS, an early forerunner to today's CIA.

In fact, while watching SportsCentury's episode on Moe Berg, I noticed that several of the interviewees were not old teammates and sportswriters, but OSS spies and CIA historians!


 

This aspect of Berg's life and work was expanded on in an episode of the Baseball Phd podcast.



The following is taken from CIA historian Linda McCarthy's portion of that podcast, as she describes Berg's value to the war's intelligence program: 

"Moe Berg had this tremendous intellect...like a chess master who can envision what his opponent's next move and next 20 moves will be..."

"The problem we have in today's intel field is we have so much information coming at us. The real skill comes in being able to sift it down into something that is a) accurate, b) readable, and c) has value."

"I've been told that his CIA field reports had some of the best writing that they [fellow officers] had ever seen. I tell new hires, if you want to know how to write a decent cable from the field, you need to study Moe Berg." - Linda McCarthy.

This ability to take in a great deal of information and hone in on the truly important items is crucial not only in espionage, but in the field of investing.

Not only was Moe Berg able to obtain crucial wartime intelligence data, he was uniquely skilled at conveying that valuable information in a highly readable way.

As traders and investors, we need to parse out the signal from the vast fields of noise. Whether we are taking in company fundamentals, technical price data, or industry news and opinions, it is imperative to focus on only the core data that is most useful to our particular strategy and needs.

When we go beyond that, and begin taking in less useful information and opinions, we subject ourselves to the problem of information overload.

As the "noise" increases, we lose the valuable signals within a sea of data, subjecting ourselves to the fear and emotions of outside "news" and opinion. We may also find ourselves subjected to "analysis paralysis", or the inability to take decisive action when we are bogged down with too many options.

Here is what legendary investor and American statesman, Bernard Baruch had to say about the problem of information overload back in the 1950s: 


"If anything, too much information may be available today. The problem has become less one of digging out information than to separate the irrelevant detail from the essential facts and to determine what those facts mean. More than ever before, what is needed is sound judgement." - Bernard Baruch, 1957

I hope you enjoyed this week's letter and will find time over the weekend to delve into the related podcast and video on a fascinating figure in American life, Moe Berg. You can read more about Moe Berg's life in baseball at the Baseball Hall of Fame website.

Moe Berg Baseball Chicago Photo Spy Espionage

Perhaps you'll also draw some useful parallels on good intelligence gathering and active investing! I hope they will serve you well in the future.

Related posts:

1. Maximize Your Trading Gains, Not Wins: William Eckhartd Interview.

2. William O'Neil Interview: How to Buy Winning Stocks.

3. Babe Ruth on Persistence: Keep Swinging Your Bat.