On Nassim Taleb’s Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0…?nclick_check=1

Nassim Taleb‘s latest from the Financial Times titled Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world provides a brief insight into what Taleb believes caused our current financial crisis and what might prevent a similar crisis going forward.

I’ve excerpted those principles below (pushing the fair-use envelope a bit, perhaps). All italics are NNT’s.

Before delving into Taleb’s ten, I’d like to suggest that NNT’s principles can be (and should be) boiled down to more simpler structural problems/observations. Taleb’s folksy expressions make for useful analogies, but they needlessly complicate some simpler realities:

  • Government-made negative externalities [1, 2, 7] — Legal constructs like corporations and limited liability companies are exploited to offload risk to the public. This subsidizes risks resulting in agents (CEOs, Managers, etc.) taking more and more chances with other people’s money. This is related to the principle-agent problem, which Taleb indicts in [4]. The Ponzi aspect of all of this is intrinsically tied to our leveraged financial system, which is inextricably tied to our centralized, fiat-“money” banking system. To me, this is the biggest point that I’ve yet to see Taleb make — centralized fiat currency is a fragile entity that is inherently leveraged (out of thin air) but can be used to build complex systems of finance. This won’t tend to break early (as we’ve seen). To kill the leverage you have to kill the source of it, which is our centralized non-robust banking system!
  • The Authority Complex [3, 4, 6, 9] — we need a great deal more skepticism in our system and we should not have such centralized power. The problem here is the authority complex — the so-called experts all pontificate to the “ignorant” masses. The masses are too busy or too confused by the magical words of the experts to deduce that the experts don’t know what they are talking about. And like any good con, the con-artistsexperts are able to trick the masses into giving them all the power. I would argue that NNT’s #9, which more or less argues that we should question authority and not trust experts, completely negates NNT’s #6, which suggest that we should be protected from ourselves. Well who is going to protect us when we can’t trust the would-be protectors? That is a problem.
  • Robust complex systems have simple base units that scale [5, 8, 10] — This is the biology angle that is exemplified by metabolic rate scaling over 27 orders of magnitude. A robust system requires simplicity at it’s base. Accounting is a good example of this. Accounting can get incredibly nuanced and complex but can always be brought back to debits and credits. The simplicity of this fundamental rule still enables incredibly complex book-keeping, but puts a governor on the system. You can’t make up assets without creating corresponding credits to the books.

    Compare this to our non-simple, non-robust banking system that holds as it’s core principle the notion of stability in prices and jobs while allowing for unlimited credit (money creation). Not simple.

    Simplicity lends itself to ease of understanding and puts a governor on shenanigans. It’s this fundamental simplicity that enables massive scalability and the emergence of complex systems that are robust.

I’m afraid I might have gotten overly complex in the above. I think what Taleb wants is an organic financial system, one that starts from real economic transactions between human beings and scales upwards from there. Thus, the solution is pretty simple. The base unit is the individual. Fictitious business entities that exist apart from owners are made illegal. No systemic credit structures, which fundamentally follows from the base unit being limited to the individual. This is because such a system would have decentralized banking that would evolve out of whatever needs such an organic economy would require.

This would be the (completely free) market solution, which incidentally most closely mimics biological systems. After all, where in biology do you see stuff created out of thin air (like Corporations or fiat currency)?

And life has been getting along fine for untold millions of years with a simple base units that are the molecules that make up DNA.

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail. …

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains. …

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus. The economics establishment (universities, regulators, central bankers, government officials, various organisations staffed with economists) lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system. …

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. …

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. The complex economy is already a form of leverage: the leverage of efficiency. …

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning . … Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”. …

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains. …

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement. …

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs. Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. …

Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.

Warren “The Oracle” Buffett and the War on the Economy

Warren Buffett a.k.a. “The Oracle of Omaha” was interviewed by CNBC yesterday via Becky (Not-so) Quick and Joe Kernan. The interview was apparently three hours long; however, I’ve only watched and quoted about 25 minutes of Buffett via the first two online videos on CNBC.com, listed below:

I have compiled some Buffett quotes from the first two videos and additionally will cite “Oracle” quotes compiled by John Hempton of Bronte Capital, as John’s quotes are clearly from one of the other six videos I have not seen. For a deep-dive into all things Buffett, CNBC has a full transcript of the interview from yesterday as well as all other previous interviews with Buffett. I’m not sure it’s a wealth of information, but it sure is a lot. Find CNBC’s Buffett Archive here.

A great deal of deference is given to Warren Buffett. After all, he managed to eek out steady, 20% plus returns via Berkshire Hathaway for decades. He has won over pundits, believers in efficient markets, and investors worldwide with his folksy charm. You don’t get a moniker like “The Oracle” for nothing!

Full disclosure, I am a former stockholder of Berkshire: I owned a paltry single B class share of Berkshire from 2003 to August 2007 and made a little off of it in the sale. I also use GEICO and have recently become a Wells Fargo customer (via the shell that was Wachovia). Further still, I was a bit of a Buffett junkie in year’s past. From a post on Warren Buffett over at autoDogmatic I made back in July of 2006:

He’s also a hero of mine. Ever since plowing through Roger Lowenstein’s Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist and subsequently picking up The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, only to go on to read Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, I’ve recognized the Oracle of Omaha as an avatar for capitalism.

My take on Buffett has changed and changes still. Berkshire hasn’t been nearly as successful in the past decade: why is that? Has Buffett’s luck simply run out? I can’t help by reread a portion of my autoDogmatic post which included Buffett’s own analysis of his success — look at the bolded bit in the blockquote:

When Buffett announced that he would give his wealth to the Gates Foundation, he said the following:

We agreed with Andrew Carnegie, who said that huge fortunes that flow in large part from society should in large part be returned to society. In my case, the ability to allocate capital would have had little utility unless I lived in a rich, populous country in which enormous quantities of marketable securities were traded and were sometimes ridiculously mispriced. And fortunately for me, that describes the U.S. in the second half of the last century.

In light of what we have seen in recent years, is it not clear that bubbles have dominated the American economy over the past few decades? Commodities reached unprecedented highs in the 1970s. From there, we had a bubblicious double-decade secular equities bull market that began in the 80s and ended with the dotcom bust. Finally, our credit-based bubble economy blew what will likely go down in history as the greatest real estate bubble ever.

Buffett has assuredly been fantastically astute at picking up mispriced assets and he’s also a sort-of folksy philosopher regarding business; however, he also has been fantastically lucky. In the above quote, Buffett isn’t being merely honest, he’s being downright profound: his success was predicated on our finance-driven (“enormous quantities of marketable securities were traded”), bubbling (“ridiculously mispriced” assets) economic system!

Today, Buffett has been struggling to make use of the above one-two punch that served him so well. Even worse, he is starting to seem out of touch if not downright confused. Simply read a few of his quotes below. What should strike you most are his comparisons of our current situation to a war — even though the Obama Administration has yet to take a play from George W. Bush’s book (yet), Buffett has clearly decided that there is a “War on the Economy,” a war that must be won and we should all toe the line! Throughout his interview with Quick, Buffett analogizes the current credit crisis to Pearl Harbor. That’s evocative imagery that may stoke the flames of patriotism and may be appropriate in describing the direness of our current predicament; however, we are talking about banking and finance and not foreign invaders! Haven’t we seen the dangers and fundamental futility of waging a war on an intangible idea? For reference, just look at how things have turned out with the “War on Terror” or the “War on Drugs.”

Donald Ruffkin elaborates further on Buffett’s bizarre War analogy in his post Come on, Buffett! Here’s a quote from Ruffkin:

I noted then, as I will now, that it is disingenuous at best for Buffett to be calling this an “Economic Pearl Harbor”. (1) There is no external aggressor. (2) We are more like a drug addict or an alcoholic than a populus being attacked. (3) His metaphor implies we are not at fault – we just need to fight back against the force which is fighting us. In many, many ways this is not an appropriate metaphor. I understand that he is trying to convey a sense of urgency, and a need to put aside our differences to reach a good solution. But the gaping holes in the metaphor are so large that I am left with the impression that he is simply trying to scare us into following the prescription of Obama.

It would seem that not all out of the CNBC interview with “The Oracle” sounds as crazy as the war analogy. John Hempton of Bronte Capital’s transcript of a portion of the interview (the portion I did not watch) where Buffett discusses the toxic assets on bank balance sheets is worth discussing (See Hempton’s post here). For just a flavor of this discussion, here is Hempton:

[Buffett] says the problem of American banks are not overwhelmingly toxic assets. This is a radical view – but it is in my view correct. The problem with the banks is that nobody will trust them and they have not been able to raise funds. The view that this is a liquidity crisis – and not a solvency crisis – has long been a staple of the Bronte Capital blog. It is radical though. Krugman, Naked Capitalism and Felix Salmon think alike – asserting – seemingly without proof – that the problem is solvency. Buffett doesn’t even think the US banks (on average) require capital – a view that most people would find startling (though again I think is correct provided appropriate regulatory forbearance is given).

It is hard for me to be as sanguine about Buffett’s viewpoint as Hempton, and I question (as does Hempton via his post title!) whether channeling Buffett’s current prognostication is any indication of the insight or accuracy of one’s conclusions.

Quotes from Warren Buffett’s discussion with Becky Quick

Much, much more could be said about Buffett’s interview, but for the most part, many of the holes in Buffett’s remarks are so obvious that they need no discussion but I did emphasize comments worth further thought or questioning.

  • Well we went wrong originally because we had a belief that — everyone had the belief — I had it, the government had it mortgage lenders had it borrowers had it the media had it everybody thought house prices could go nothing but up and or at least they couldn’t go down a lot and once you had that belief and that was nationwide it didn’t make any difference what you lent on a house because if the guy couldn’t pay you’d sell it at a profit anyway or you wouldn’t lose much money. So you had 11 trillion of residential mortgage debt built upon this theory that who was borrowing and what their income was wasn’t that important b/c the house itself had to go up in price. And when that tumbled … a) it’s a huge amount out of people’s net worth and then secondarily all these instruments that were built upon it that people didn’t understand too well started toppling to various degrees in value and then that exposed other things … I mean it was like you know some kid was saying the emperor has no clothes and then after he says that on top of that the emperor has no underwear either!”
  • “If you’re in a war if we really are in an economic war if there is a obligation to the majority to behave in ways that don’t go around inflaming the minority . . . I think I think that the minority really does have an obligation to support things that are clearly designed to fight the war in a big way. . . . Job one is to win the economic war. . . . I would do no finger pointing whatsoever.
  • “We have a system, largely free market, rule of law, quality of opportunity that caused the potential of humans be unleashed . . . but the machine gets gummed up from time to time.”
  • “There was a paralysis of confidence in banks and which is silly now because of the FDIC. . . . If you don’t trust where you have your money the world stops. And they recognized that but it was a little belatedly and they didn’t put in deposit insurance until the start of 1934 with the Glass-Steagall act. We have a system that is far better organized to deal with that. The trouble is that a lot of people don’t believe in the system. . . . No one should be worrying about having their money in a bank in the United States.
  • Patriotic democrats and patriotic americans will realize this is a war; and if they didn’t realize it immediately, it’s not as dramatic as a physical war when the news comes over and you know you’re under attack; but it is virtually as serious and I think that once the degree of that seriousness becomes apparent to both parties overwhelmingly they will behave well.”
  • “We need clarity on the financial system.”
  • “The American banking system is too big to fail.”
  • “We have to deal with all large quasi-financial institutions as well as all of the banks and people can’t be worried about them and we can’t have a contagion like we almost had in September. The world almost came to a stop in September . . . We need to get banks back to banking. . . . we should not be giving lectures to people. . . . [Money]’s cheap its abundant and the spreads are terrific.
  • [In retort to Quick’s comment about whether Wall Street should be profitable given their involvement in creating the crisis] “Well the shipowners made money in World War II. [and nobody was questioning them]”

Additional Transcript from John Hempton

BUFFETT: Yeah, the interesting thing is that the toxic assets [of American banks is] if they’re priced at market, are probably the best assets the banks has, because those toxic assets presently are being priced based on unleveraged buyers buying a fairly speculative asset. So the returns from this market value are probably better than almost anything else, assuming they’ve got a market-to-market value, you know, they have the best prospects for return going forward of anything the banks own. The problems of the banks are overwhelmingly not toxic assets, you know. They may have been one or two at the top banks, but they are not going to do in–if you take those 20 banks that are subject to the stresses, they’re not going to do those banks in. Those banks have the earning power which has never been better on new business going out of this to build capital positions if they pay low dividends which they’re starting to do now.

JOE: Hm.

BUFFETT: Toxic assets really are not the problem they were. Now, when I said it was contingent–I didn’t remember being exactly contingent on TARP, but it was contingent on the government jumping in.

JOE: Right.

BUFFETT: The government needed to act big time in September, I will tell you that.

JOE: So…

BUFFETT: And they did act big time.

JOE: So you are OK with the shift to providing the banks with capital as opposed to the original intention of the TARP for actually getting the toxic assets off the books?

BUFFETT: Yeah, and interestingly enough, they don’t need to supply the banks, in my view, with lots of capital. They need to let almost all of–I mean, the right prescription with most of the banks is just let them pay very little in the way of dividends and build up capital for awhile, and they will build up a lot of capital. The government has needed to say–what the government needs to say is nobody’s going to lose a dime by having their deposits in these banks. They’re going to make lots of money with the deposits.

JOE: Hm.

BUFFETT: The spreads have never been wider. This is a great time to be in banking, you know, if you just get past the past and they are getting past the past. I mean, right now every time a loan is made to somebody to buy a house–and we’re making, you know, making millions of loans–four and a half million houses will change hands this year out of a total stock of less than 80 million. So those people are making good mortgages. You want those assets on your books and you get a great spread in putting them on now. So it’s a great time to be in banking, but you do have to get past this past. But the toxic assets, in my view, you know, if they’ve been written down to market, I’d rather buy those assets from the bank than any other assets they’ve got.

JOE: Hm. OK…

Post-script — In all seriousness, I think it’s time Warren consider laying off the Cherry Cokes (See my post on Ketones and Alzheimer’s) as he may be showing initial signs of senility. That’s a scary thing to say, and I hope it is not true, but after watching these interviews, hearing such a nonsensical war analogy beaten to death, and hearing Buffett blame the crisis on a symptom rather than a cause (bolded quote below), I’m starting to wonder.

Rethinking subsidized finance (Steve Waldman)

http://interfluidity.powe…236071874.shtml

Steve Randy Waldman continues to say what few others are saying in his latest on subsidized (Government-backed) finance.

Before I save-down my favorite part from Waldman’s analysis, I have two questions:

  1. Is there a meaningful difference between “nationalization” and “bankruptcy” in a subsidized, government-backed banking system?
  2. Are government-backed institutions destined to be nationalized?

I think the answer to the first question may be a qualified “No.” Regarding the second, I believe the answer is an unqualified “Yes” to the second.

Why is nationalization similar to bankruptcy? In a bankruptcy proceeding, the assets of the defunct company are divvied up and liquidated. I’m not sure if that would be any different under a nationalization program. Sure, if the government starts backstopping the losses of bank debt- and equity-holders, then we’ve entered some gray area that favors more crony capitalism than traditional bankruptcy. On the other hand, if nationalization means orderly liquidation by the government, then we’re really talking more about a special-case bankruptcy.

In the end, I’m guessing that it’ll be the latter even though I fully expect some investors to get off better than they should.

Regarding the second question, it seems that an institution implicitly backstopped by the government, even only marginally, is destined to be backstopped fully in time. This is because government subsidization works towards this end by effecting behavior internally to the organization and externally to investors/creditors:

  • Internally, company stewards take on more risk than they can handle as risk, via government subsidization/backstop, is underpriced.
  • Externally, investors/creditors extend more capital to the company as they believe the company is less-risky (again government is subsidizing risk).

Via this two-fold process, over time the marginal government involvement/subsidiy ratchets up until the organization takes on so much additional risk that it must call the government on its risk-option. Because the government was complicit with the arrangement all along, it must answer the call. Again, this process ratchets up over time until the once only marginally subsidized institution is full-fledged government-run.

And the above process doesn’t stop with just companies — seems to work the same on just about any welfare recipient.

Here’s Waldman:

Banking-as-we-know-it is just a form of publicly subsidized private capital formation. I have no problem with subsidizing private capital formation, even with ceding much of the upside to entrepreneurial investors while taxpayers absorb much of the downside when things go wrong. But once we acknowledge the very large public subsidy in banking, it becomes possible to acknowledge other, perhaps less disaster-prone arrangements by which a nation might encourage private capital formation at lower social and financial cost. Rather than writing free options, what if we defined a category of public/private investment funds that would offer equity financing (common or preferred) to the sort of enterprises that currently depend upon bank loans? Every dollar of private money would be matched by a dollar of public money, doubling the availability of capital to businesses (compared to laissez-faire private investment), and eliminating the misaligned incentives and agency games played between taxpayers and financiers who would, in this arrangement, be pari passu. Also, by reducing firms’ reliance on brittle debt financing, equity-focused investment funds could dramatically enhance systemic stability.

Private-sector banking has not existed in the United States since first the Fed and then the FDIC undertook to insure bank risks. There is no use getting all ideological about keeping banks private, because they never have been. We want investment decisions to be driven by economic value rather than political diktat, but at the same time capital formation has positive spillovers so we’d like it to be publicly subsidized. How best to meet those objectives is a technocratic rather than ideological question.

In thinking this through, I don’t think we should give much deference to traditional banking, on the theory that we know it works. On the contrary, we know that it does not work. Banking crises are not aberrations. They are infrequent but regular occurrences almost everywhere there are banks. I challenge readers to make the case that banking, in its long centuries, has ever been a profitable industry, net of the costs it extracts from governments, counterparties, and investors during its low frequency, high amplitude breakdowns. Banking is lucrative for bankers, and during quiescent periods it has served a useful role in financial intermediation. But in aggregate, has banking has ever been a successful industry for capital providers? A “healthy” banking system is arguably just a bubble, worth investing in only if you’re smart enough or lucky enough to get out before the crash, or if you expect to be bailed out after the fall.

If banks were our only option, we might think of them like airlines — we’ve never figured out how to run the things profitably, but we do want commercial air travel, so we find ways to cover their losses. But at least with airlines, the costs are relatively modest, and we constantly experiment in hopes of hitting on a sustainable business model. Despite being catastrophically broken, the core structure of banking has been fixed in an amber of incumbency and regulation since the Pleistocene era. It’s long past time to try something else.

Jim Rogers on The Oracle with Max Keiser

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7PWkHgxkTI

[video:youtube:k7PWkHgxkTI]

I’ve not seen Max Keiser’s program The Oracle before, but since my current favorite billionaire Jim Rogers was on the show, I had to watch.

It’s about a ten minute clip and I can’t say there’s anything particularly new that comes out of it from Rogers (You can get almost all the same soundbytes from reading Jim Roger’s most recent interview with Maria Bartiromo). The new tidbits I did enjoy are paraphrased as follows:

  • Rogers doesn’t have much respect for the IMF and believes they will likely end up selling all of their gold before going the way of the dinosaur.
  • He points out how the Swiss banks are bigger than the Swiss government; the takeaway being that if the Swiss government tries to bail out the Swiss banks, they are likely to go bust themselves — the Swiss government being like a lifeguard trying to save a panicking man from drowning when the man can’t swim and is twice the lifeguard’s size.
  • When asked in a jocular manner if he had any gold coins on him at that moment, wouldn’t you know it he did (he pulled out a coin from his pocket)
  • Rogers is currently in Singapore. He’s moved to Asia (and sold off his NYC house), so this isn’t surprising though I think he’s officially calling China home these days.

(H/T to Ritholtz)

How bank bonuses let us all down

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0…0077b07658.html

More from Nassim Nicholas Taleb (See prior at tag nassim-taleb) on our current system that fosters the “free option,” which is most easily summed up as, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

NNT has previously argued that our banking system is built to blow up, and how can you argue with the reality that banks steadily earn profits for years only to suddenly blow up, losing all past profits and more?

Why does this happen? I think there are two reasons, only one of which gets press generally. The other is at the root of Taleb’s discussion on a broken incentive structure (free options).

The widely accepted and discussed reason for our current mess is leverage — a.k.a. credit. By way of a simple example of the power of leverage, in a booming housing market, leverage enables a homeowner to turn little-to-no-equity into a hefty profit ($10k down, $90k loan to buy a house; sell in two years for $150k and you made 500%!). However, when that housing market goes bust (or even just stops booming), the levered homeowner suddenly can’t cash out or see his minimal equity position wiped out. Since he has little skin in the game, he lets the loss go fully to the bank. We are now seeing this happen en masse.

Heads I win. Tails you lose.

It is the same with banks, except in a monstrous, centralized, global, and ridiculously more complicated (thanks to derivatives) way.

So it is becoming widely understood how credit and leverage can muck things up.

The less (or not-at-all) acknowledged problem is our corporatist legal system whereby businesses can incorporate and separate personal loss from business loss. By default, creating a corporation is essentially creating a public negative externality. How so? Well, a corporation can only bear the cost of its failures to the extent of the capital invested. So even without any leverage, the corporation is incentivized to take on more risk than it has capital to cover in order to maximize profits. When times are good, this is incredibly profitable. When times are bad, corporations go bankrupt even as the CEOs and risk-taking managers who messed up get off with their wages and bonuses!

Tack onto this corporatist system the aforementioned system of leverage you key a system built to blow-up.

Despite all of the free option discussion, I’m not sure NNT understands the bald-faced simplicity of the problem of severing risk from loss. However, Taleb hints at a clearcut understanding when he makes mention of Roman soldiers. Soldiers have skin in the game – their lives. If they screw up, they risk their own life. When a CEO of a corporation screws up, they risk the wealth of their investors and that of general stakeholders in the event that their screw-up pushes waste onto society.

In fact, the incentive scheme commonly in place does the exact opposite of what an “incentive” system should be about: it encourages a certain class of risk-hiding and deferred blow-up. It is the reason banks have never made money in the history of banking, losing the equivalent of all their past profits periodically – while bankers strike it rich. Furthermore, it is thatincentive scheme that got us in the current mess. . . .

If capitalism is about incentives, it should be about true incentives, those resistant to blow-ups. And there should be disincentives to remove the asymmetry of the free option. Entrepreneurs are rewarded for their gains; they are also penalised for their losses. . . .

However, when it comes to banks and other “too big to fail” entities, the problem is severe: we taxpayers in our respective countries are funding these global monsters and are coughing up money for mistakes made by bankers who retain their bonuses and are hijacking us because, as we are discovering (a little late), banking is a utility and we need them to clean up their mess. We, in fact, are the seller of that free option. We should claim it back. . . .

Indeed, the incentive system put in place by financial companies has produced the worst possible economic system mankind can imagine: capitalism for the profits and socialism for the losses.

Finally, I was involved in trading for 21 years and I can testify that traders consciously play the free option game. On the other hand, I worked (in my other job as risk adviser) with various military organisations and people watching over our safety. We trust military and homeland security people with our lives, yet they do not get a bonus. They get promotions, the honour of a job well done and the disincentive of shame if they fail. Roman soldiers signed a sacramentum accepting punishment in the event of failure. This is prompting me to call for the nationalisation of the utility part of banking as the only solution in which society does not grant individuals free options to look after its risks.

No incentive without disincentive. And never trust with your money anyone making a potential bonus.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: “Bankers Designed Banks to Blow Up”

http://www.bloomberg.com/…mMd4PSxEKeE.asf

Just watched a fifteen minute interview by Bloomberg of Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan). In the interview Taleb discusses the current crisis, robust systems, nationalizing the banks and the fallacy of using narratives of history to guide present-day policy/response.

Below are some quotes from NNT, which I’ve organized into like-nuggets of wisdom:

  • Looking at biology, things that survive have redundancy . . . we have spare parts, which is the exact opposite of leverage. . . . We have diversity and nothing is too big. Things fail early. . . . Banking is organized in a completely opposite way. . . . Complex systems have properties that banks don’t have. And biological systems have survived.
  • [We have an] Illusion of stability and then blow-ups are larger. Imagine if half-country was fed by one restaurant it’d be okay except one day people would starve.
  • Bad news travels immediately . . . This environment won’t tolerate the smallest mistake . . . I don’t know the system can allow for too much leverage.
  • People can invest in real things – they don’t have to invest in paper. . . .
  • What we have is a system of deposit where people buy a company, they borrow against it, and buy another company. . . . If that disappears we have less growth but it would be a more robust economic system.
  • The government is neither nationalizing the banks nor letting them break.
  • [With regard to banking,] separate the payment system from the risk taking system.
  • It looks like we have no control. The government has no control over what the banks are doing. The banks aren’t in control of what they are doing.
  • The press reports everything except the important stuff. September 18th . . . we had the run on money market funds and the government had to step in.
  • The situation is not comparable to the Great Depression. The situation is very different.
  • This crisis is not so much a Black Swan to me. It’s like saying you’ve got a pilot who doesn’t know about storms. . . . The Black Swan for me would be to emerge out unscathed and go back to normalcy.
  • We should be very careful when we make a historical analogy like the Great Depression because the world is not like it was in the Great Depression.
  • Capitalism is you let what’s breakable break fast.

Bloomberg also ran an article on the interview with Taleb, but it is spartan as far as quotes or insights from the actual interview.

From what I can tell, it seems Taleb views bank nationalization as similar to taking out plane hijackers. It’s an interesting, more palatable way to look at nationalization in that it frames the situation as one where the public will be harmed unless someone (in this case the government) steps in and takes drastic action.

Having said that, I don’t get the impression that Taleb is a proponent of long-term nationalization. NNT would prefer banking be structured similarly to a biological system where there are redundancies and fragile things “break early.” This system wouldn’t foster as much leverage and therefore would slow growth, but it would be considerably more robust.

This is more or less what I believe, as well. A free market is an organic, naturally forming system that is decentralized and redundant. It’s robust because market actions failing apart at any micro level will not break the entire system.

How do we get there from here? Good question.

(H/T to Jesse)

Paul Volcker: “Not an Ordinary Recession”

http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2009/02/paul-volcker/

Paul Volcker recently gave a speech that has gotten a lot of replay action on the blogosphere. I believe most are saying that Volcker is calling for a return to “narrow banking” (see Jesse).

A lot of people listen to Volcker as he led the charge at the Fed over taming inflation back in the late 70s and early 80s. I wonder more if he wasn’t just at the right place at the right time, doing what had to be done — raising rates. I’m convinced that most people give entirely too much credit both on blame and accolades. Don’t get me wrong, the Fed has enormous power, but my estimation is that they are almost always messing things up. The Fed is reactionary always and almost always reacts too far.

Therein lies the problem. The Fed fails at regulating. Hardly surprising, really. Is it not a joke to pay lip service to free markets, which are incredibly dynamic decentralized systems, and then use a central body to regulate the blood of the system, money? It’s a sad joke.

I could go on, but I’ll hold off. There are two pieces of Volcker’s recent speech I want to quote and comment on briefly. First:

One of the saddest days of my life was when my grandson – and he’s a particularly brilliant grandson – went to college. He was good at mathematics. And after he had been at college for a year or two I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. He said, “I want to be a financial engineer.” My heart sank. Why was he going to waste his life on this profession?

A year or so ago, my daughter had seen something in the paper, some disparaging remarks I had made about financial engineering. She sent it to my grandson, who normally didn’t communicate with me very much. He sent me an email, “Grandpa, don’t blame it on us! We were just following the orders we were getting from our bosses.” The only thing I could do was send him back an email, “I will not accept the Nuremberg excuse.”

There was so much opaqueness, so many complications and misunderstandings involved in very complex financial engineering by people who, in my opinion, did not know financial markets. They knew mathematics. They thought financial markets obeyed mathematical laws. They have found out differently now. You know, they all said these events only happen once every hundred years. But we have “once every hundred years” events happening every year or two, which tells me something is the matter with the analysis.

So I think we have a problem which is not an ordinary business cycle problem. It is much more difficult to get out of and it has shaken the foundations of our financial institutions. The system is broken.

The system is broken. The system was too opaque. Finance is incredibly complex. It is here where I actually started wondering if Volcker “gets it” as far as understanding that our system is far from robust as centrally controlled and designed. As it is, Nassim Taleb is the only person I’ve seen who seems to glimpse the complexity of the financial system. However, I’ve seen even Taleb defer in theory to people “who saw this coming,” like Nouriel Roubini, for potential ways to “fix” the system.

Volcker’s comment about his grandson also hits home with me as I went into finance/accounting. When everyone you know is running into a field, that may be cause to rethink your choice of education (Everyone I knew in college was getting into Real Estate — this was back in 2001). Then again, I still wish I had gone and pursued computer science, but the dotcom crash (2000) scared me away.

More from Volcker:

What do I mean by different? I think a primary characteristic of the system ought to be a strong, traditional, commercial banking-type system. Probably we ought to have some very large institutions – or at least that’s the way the market is going – whose primary purpose is a kind of fiduciary responsibility to service consumers, individuals, businesses and governments by providing outlets for their money and by providing credit. They ought to be the core of the credit and financial system. …

What has happened recently just underscores that. And I think we’re at the point where we can no longer fool ourselves by saying that is not the case. The government will support these institutions, which in turn implies a closer supervision and regulation of those institutions, a more effective regulation than we’ve had, at least in the United States, in the recent past. And that may involve a lot of different agencies and so forth. I won’t get into that.

So just as soon as I thought maybe Volcker “gets it,” he goes and says we should have a strong core (read: centralized) system of banking that is heavily regulated. He wants this core to be firewalled from entrepreneurial finance to eliminate conflicts of interest.

I’ll be brief. Regulation has failed. The Federal Reserve is a monstrous regulatory body that has repeatedly exemplified failure, and I’ve already mentioned its innate centralization. The SEC? Failure at every turn. More regulation? More centralization? How many examples do we need whereby larger organizations display a need for more regulation, and when more regulation is presented, said regulatory agency is either captured by the body it intends to regulate or is inept?

What we need are decentralized banking systems that are free enough and unencumbered enough to fix themselves or self-destruct without taking down the entire network.

The great centralization experiment has failed. Let’s move on (and follow the example of the internet, which exemplifies the power of decentralization).

Enough for now.

Update 2/24/09: Saw a youtube clip of Volcker’s speech. Wanted to get this quote down:

The description of a fat tail reflects a kind of analysis that isn’t appropriate. They think that financial markets follow normal distributions. pattern like the law of physics. The one remark I’ll leave with you: if you think the financial world follows a normal distribution pattern like the laws of physics. If you think that you’re a financial engineer but you’re not a very good financial analyst.

So he recognizes how inherently unpredictable financial markets are but then goes on to suggest that the Federal Reserve can fix imbalances that present themselves.

Cognitive dissonance.

[video:youtube:O3ROf8ln9rg]

@ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3ROf8ln9rg

George Soros finally gets it

http://optionarmageddon.m…inally-gets-it/

Rolfe over at Option Armageddon tackles George Soros amazing flip-flop from his side-pocket banking position that he publicized a bit over two weeks ago (Feb. 4).

As I commented on OA, it seems more and more true believers in the financial system are losing faith and turning into apostates. What’s interesting in Soros’ case is how dire he paints the present situation, comparing it to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps he’s not far off the mark.

Per Rolfe:

Anyway, only three weeks after arguing “side-pockets” were the magic bullet, Soros now sounds downright despondent. Reuters:

Renowned investor George Soros said on Friday the world financial system has effectively disintegrated, adding that there is yet no prospect of a near-term resolution to the crisis.

Soros said the turbulence is actually more severe than during the Great Depression, comparing the current situation to the demise of the Soviet Union.

He said the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September marked a turning point in the functioning of the market system.

“We witnessed the collapse of the financial system,” Soros said at a Columbia University dinner. “It was placed on life support, and it’s still on life support. There’s no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom.”

Three weeks ago George thought all we needed was a little financial engineering. Now he sees “no prospect” of resolution and says we’re falling like the Soviet Union. What changed? My guess is that George finally started to think outside the box; he put his big brain to work thinking about the very foundation of our economic system and realized its broken.

Why highlight this particular flip-flop with a blog post? I think it’s emblematic, and not in a good way.

I continue to be struck by the level of ignorance among our captains of industry, our leading policitians, our financial elite and, most ominously, our economic “experts.” Few appear to recognize the depth of the crisis we face. Most still aren’t prepared to ask the hard, fundamental questions about our economic system. Anyone who mentions the gold standard, for instance, is treated as a novelty.

The problem, I think, is that so many of our leaders are tied immovably to the old way of doing business. A man will make himself believe most anything if his salary depends on it. Lots of salaries are at risk, so lots of heels are digging themselves in.

Anyway, as I’ve argued for awhile, the only way to “solve” the crisis is to let asset prices fall. And that means the balance sheets on which those assets currently reside need to recognize substantial losses. Call it the “Fight Club” solution*—everyone goes back to $0. This would be highly painful for ALL Americans. But it would be most painful for those with the most to lose…

—————

*Fight Club screenplay:

JACK
…I believe the plan is to blow up the headquarters of these credit card companies and the TRW building.

STERN
Why these buildings? why credit card companies?

JACK
If you erase the debt record, we all go back to zero. It’ll create total chaos.

As I noted (H/T MVC), today happens to be Chuck Palahniuk’s, Fight Club author, birthday.