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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Little boxes

In India, where many people cannot read, you sign for the State pension by thumbprint. This seemed like a secure system, until a man was caught with a tobacco-tin full of thumbs.

It would have made no difference had it been a tin of cloned credit cards. You don't need to know what's in the box, or how it works; you need to know what it does, and who it's for.

Once you start thinking along these lines, things get so much clearer. For example, you don't have to be a "quant" like Richard Bookstaber, to know that derivatives are about risk. More precisely, they're for increasing risk.

Supposedly, a derivative reduces risk; but if you look at its use, it's a box that tells lenders and gamblers how far they can go. Seeing the fortunes that can be made in high finance, there is the strongest temptation to push the boundary.

My old primary school had a lovely little garden behind it, where we played at morning break. One game was "What's the time, Mister Wolf?". You went up to the "wolf" and asked him the time; he'd say nine o' clock; to the next child he'd say ten o'clock and so on, until he'd suddenly shout "Dinner time!" and chase you. Obviously, the game was not about telling the time.

So it is with financial risk models that service the need to maximise profits: always another trembling step forward. There's only one way to find out when you've gone too far.

But what if you could ask the time, and know that someone else would end up being chased? I think that explains the subprime packages currently causing so much trouble.

The bit I don't understand is why banks started buying garbage like this from each other. Maybe it's a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, since these organisations are so big. Or maybe it's that everyone has their own personal box.

Then there's credit default swaps, and other attempts to herd together for collective security. They don't work if the reduction in fear leads to an increase in risk-taking. United we fall: no point in tying your dinghy to the Titanic's anchor-chain.

In fact, I think this opens up a much wider field of discussion, about efficiency versus survivability. In business, economics and politics we might eventually find ourselves talking about dispersion, diversity and disconnection.


Anonymous said...

The way that financial types say "risk" when all they mean is "volatility" is very similar to the way socialists say "poverty" when all they mean is "inequality".

Sackerson said...

Hi DM: I think the "financial types" tend to be of a generation that doesn't remember what disaster can really be like, so in their hearts they think (a) risk means something that could, but actually won't happen and (b) if it does, it won't be so bad.

Nick Drew said...

OK OK ! I shall get round to this ... soon(ish)

I promise