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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Jim Puplava's interview with Richard Bookstaber

Richard Bookstaber's interview on Financial Sense (21 July - audio file) was interesting. He discussed the derivatives market (which is the subject of his book, "A demon of our own design"), in which he has been intimately involved. It's a long interview and I'll just pick out one or two points.

Derivatives are financial bets. Portfolio managers use them as a kind of insurance, which then means that they can safely (they think!) increase their exposure to equities.

But derivatives are complex, and can have unexpected effects. For example, in October 1987 there was a sizeable drop in the stockmarket, and as the prices went down, automated trading programs noted the crossing of pre-set thresholds and this triggered more selling, which took the market below other programmed thresholds, and so on.

Also, to work properly, the derivatives market needs to be "liquid and efficient". Well, when the major turmoil was happening as just described, people held off buying back in - the scale had scared them. So they weren't doing what the system expected them to do, and this change in behaviour meant that there was less support at certain price levels than the system assumed.

Another way in which the system became inefficient at greatest need, was that certain classes of asset behaved in an untypical fashion. For example, normally bonds move together, and in the opposite direction to equities; but in 1987, when it looked like major disaster, poorer-quality bonds fell as though they were equities (because of fear of their defaulting), whereas Treasury bonds (backed by the government) rose.

I have heard that in times of stress, people make unusual mistakes, such as confusing left and right, and it seems that the derivatives market has similar potential in extreme situations. You can't tell how people will react under great pressure.

Then there's "black swan" events that haven't been factored-in, but can still happen, such as Russia's decision to default on its loans, which very nearly did for Long Term Credit Management and much more besides.

On top of that, there's the question of leverage, i.e. borrowing that greatly increases the risk and returns of an investment. The current debacle re mortgages packaged as interest-yielding investments stems from the fact that not only are the packages leveraged by a factor of 10 or 20 to 1, but the hedge funds that bought them might themselves be leveraged by a factor of 5, so magnifying the basic risk of sub-prime lending by a multiple of 50 or 100. So when things go wrong, they really go wrong. As we now see.

There is also the question of inadequate information about derivatives. The method of accounting was originally developed to track rolling stock for railways, not for super-fast, computer-based trading. The data available may not be what you need to assess the situation properly, and will almost certainly be out of date in the moment-to-moment market changes. Bookstaber thinks we need to use modern technologies to get the right data out of the system fast enough to make sensible decisions.

And in assessing risk, people's memories are too short. Fund managers may be too young to remember really bad times like 1989-91, so run the risk of complacency.

Speaking of age, there's a demographic risk, too: the baby-boomers are coming to the point where they'll want money out for retirement, and maybe the market hasn't fully realised this change in the financial climate. It could be a "slow burn" crisis like the one that hit Japan, lasting maybe 15 or 20 years.

Now, many of these periods of turbulence probably don't impact on the individual investor, says Bookstaber; the private investor should buy and hold, not panic.

However, a systemic risk that could have really serious consequences is the possibility of a major failure in the mortgage and credit markets, which could then roll on to the banking sector.
Yet again, we're back to the banks, credit and the money supply. How ever did we come to think of bankers as responsible people!

Anyhow, listen to the audio file and see if I've represented it fairly. And buy the book if you think it's relevant to your line of work or investment.

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