Yves Smith “On Traders Behaving Badly and Cognitive Bias”

“So here is my theory: the details [of market manipulation by funds] are not specific enough for the public to see it as real. And if they can’t formulate a picture, they can’t believe it happens all that often … That is an example of a cognitive bias called the availability heuristic. If we can have examples, the more concrete the better, the more likely we are to believe that a phenomenon is valid (that is why anecdotal evidence is more persuasive than it ought to be).”

http://www.nakedcapitalis…-cognitive.html

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism is doing “the Lord’s work” and asking for traders who have specifics on the various market manipulations shady trading behaviors perpetrated by Wall St. funds, banks, etc. to come forward and blow the whistle. The timing of her request is somewhat an effect of Jon Stewart’s recent battle with Cramer (See the more recent appearance and discussion from Jon Stewart vs Jim Cramer or the original Stewart spat against CNBC that started it all), which made very public an interview Cramer had done back in 2007 where he talks frankly (and yet not specifically enough as Smith points out below) about how funds would manipulate markets for profit.

Very interesting stuff, and since we’ve seen no successful persecution of this behavior, I have little reason to believe that future regulations will stop it. What does that mean? It means that investing in the markets is an incredibly risky business for laypeople as you are unavoidably swimming with the sharks.

The Jim Cramer chatter precipitated by his Daily Show appearance included some links to an infamous interview Cramer gave in 2007, where he discussed how he would, as a hedge fund manager, push the prices of stocks he was short down via the futures market. It was arguably a public admission of market manipulation.

What was most striking about this incident was how quickly it was forgotten.

Now, of course, one can cynically say, that’s what traders do. And there have been times when I’ve had the vast misfortune to be watching the ticks (I hate trading, I put on very few trades, and I sweat them all and second guess myself hugely) and have seen more than once some end of day action that was clearly tape painting (and my pro investor buddies saw it the same way).

But nobody seems offended at the notion that the markets aren’t safe for mere mortals, just the sharks, even the whole US investing mythology touts how transparent, open, and well policed US securities markets are.

That’s one level of heinousness.

As long as banks are playing with other people’s money, and the higher ups have plausible deniability, they have no incentive to rein this stuff in, save maybe a token case here and there so they can pretend they really were on top of things. And I’m being charitable and assuming the higher ups were not actively enabling it.

So why isn’t there more understanding of and outrage about this? After all, this is the heart of the looting that went on. If firms will tolerate (or even encourage) overly aggressive behavior that appears to generate profit, it isn’t just the nominal miscreants that are at fault, but the whole chain of command all the way to the top (after all, just as in the Jett case, they profited and therefore had reason not to probe too hard).

So here is my theory: the details are not specific enough for the public to see it as real. And if they can’t formulate a picture, they can’t believe it happens all that often (after all, if it did, surely it would be in the Wall Street Journal).

That is an example of a cognitive bias called the availability heuristic. If we can have examples, the more concrete the better, the more likely we are to believe that a phenomenon is valid (that is why anecdotal evidence is more persuasive than it ought to be).

Go back and look at the Cramer tape. It’s actually brilliant. He is not very specific! There is no “when I was short X stock in 2004, I did F, T, and H and the price fell by $Z and I made $100,000 in two days.” It’s all murky, to the point where Henry Blodgett, in parsing the transcript, had to insert words at quite a few junctures to make what Cramer say make sense to him (and note I in reading the transcript would have inserted different words). That’s why this incident never really stuck to Cramer. It all came off like knowing innuendo, but he didn’t present a smoking gun.

So unless we have a Pecora commission, or a lot of ex-traders and trading managers coming forth with particulars, the great unwashed public is not going to know enough of what happened to know where to direct its diffuse but well warranted anger over having been had.

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.

Michael Lewis on “The End” [of Wall Street]

Michael Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker, a book I’ve seen referred to so often that it has finally ascended to my wish list (it should have been there a long time ago).

From the best I can tell having not read Liar’s Poker, it was about the rampant corruption experienced first-hand by Lewis in the mid-1980s (American Psycho anyone?). More recently, Lewis has written an update to Liar’s for Portfolio.com. You can find it here.

A snippet:

Both Daniel and Moses enjoyed, immensely, working with Steve Eisman. He put a fine point on the absurdity they saw everywhere around them. ?Steve?s fun to take to any Wall Street meeting,? Daniel says. ?Because he?ll say ?Explain that to me? 30 different times. Or ?Could you explain that more, in English?? Because once you do that, there?s a few things you learn. For a start, you figure out if they even know what they?re talking about. And a lot of times, they don?t!?

To sum up the article in just a few words, Lewis describes Wall Street as having turned into factory for imaginary clothes. That the dupe worked for decades is amazing enough. I gather that Lewis believes this crisis to mark the ultimate end of the con, and I hope he is right (Though I’m skeptical).

What brought the article home for me was how often I could relate to it via experiences from my prior job at Ga. Gulf, specifically when I was working with the then-CEO, CFO, Veeps, rating agencies, consultants and investment bankers (We had dual-bankers working the deal for us — Merrill and Lehman!) on the ill-fated billion-and-a-half-dollar deal to buy Royal. In short, the so-called experts used their authority to gloss over details, often being so short on understanding that they could not take the ideas they bantered about and tie them back to rational, coherent, non-jargoned core principles.

Of course, you only caught these “experts” at their legerdemain if you persisted in asking questions and staying skeptical, thereby avoiding the trap of their shaming you into silence with big-words and ostensibly complex ideas.

My most tragic experience of this appeal to authority, banker dodgi-ness occurred back around early June 2006. After having lobbed in an initial offer to buy Royal that was summarily rejected, we requested a day with Royal’s top management to go over their most up-to-date financials. They were hoping we’d become more confident in the deal, and up the ante. After the day-long conference call with Royal’s people, I was sitting in the CFO’s office with all the Veeps gathered around and all our investment bankers on the phone (Amazingly, for such an important meeting the CEO was actually absent — he’d dashed off to Louisiana for some reason and couldn’t even get on the phone!). This internal meeting was to have a final discussion about whether or not to continue pursuing Royal.

A quick step back for some background info: Royal was a building materials company we, a chemical commodities company looking for downstream integration of our PVC, were looking to buy. Everything we saw out of Royal (except for the Bain-prepared powerpoint presentations) was ugly. What we learned on that last-ditch day of diligence was that the multi-month slide was only getting worse. This new information made a clear case that we shouldn’t buy them at the price we had already offered, much less up the ante. Further, maybe we should rethink pursuing this company at any price. It was obvious that their business had managed to falter during the greatest housing boom of all time, yet we were contemplating paying for them going into the post-boom bust! I felt I had pieced together the big picture (as did the late CFO and a couple others who had been effectively shut-up by the CEO), thus in this post-diligence meeting, I took three minutes and laid out my case in full.

It was a treatise that hit on the economy, housing, Royal specifically and even interest rates. I left my thoughts open-ended, pleading to all parties present for discussion, feedback or criticism.

What did I get in response? A joke about bringing everyone down by being so gloomy. Everyone got a good guffaw and the joke was followed-up by one of the i-bankers on the phone immediately changing the subject to strategy on how to counter back and continue the buying process.

And that was that. Ga. Gulf bought Royal for a 40 – 50% premium (depending on which stock price you pick). Ga. Gulf’s stock price has dropped over 95% since that decision, and I believe Royal would have gone bankrupt had we just said, “Forget it; we’re not interested” and walked.

Between Lewis’ condemnation of Wall Street, my own experiences in corporate America (Oh the stories I could tell!) and having read Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, it’s abundantly clear that the great majority of so-called economic and financial “experts” who have been running the show in Wall Street are nothing but con(fidence) artists, whether they realize it or not.

It is a shameful history and a lot of hard-working people are going to be hurt in the fall-out as the con-game, which goes all the way back to the something-for-nothing printing presses of fiat currency, is laid bare.

Let’s hope this really is “the end” of it.