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

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Paul Volcker: “Not an Ordinary Recession”

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.



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To Big to Bail: Lehman Brothers is the Model for Fixing the Zombie Banks


“Systemic risk” is the boogeyman everyone is afraid of, yet Lehman failed and life has moved on.

We need to switch from from throwing more brains at the zombie banks to taking them down one by one in an orderly fashion. That’s what bankruptcy is all about, anyway. Let the system function!

Such a process as Lehman is painful and politically very difficult, but remember that nobody is surprised now. The definition of “systemic risk” is when markets are surprised, but these are political distinctions. Repeat after us: “there is no such thing as systemic risk,” at least that can be measured scientifically. SysRsk is a political concept, a manifestation of fear and uncertainty. As the Fox told the Little Prince: “All that is essential is invisible to the eyes.”

We all mostly understand the problem now. The swiftest and surest way to restore market confidence is to create solvent banks and begin the process of rebuilding the global markets for both finance and commerce. That is why we say that the competent and efficient handling of the Lehman Brothers liquidation by the US Trustee, SIPC, other state and federal regulators, and most important the professionals of the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York is the model for dealing with the large banks.