Archive for the 'business, finance and markets' Category

1000 cuts


There seems to be a move to make the Lehman Brothers’ collapse the central turning point in the whole financial and economic crisis.  But this is what Nouriel Roubini thinks:-

Some people suggest that letting Lehman go in this way was a mistake and if we had just bailed out Lehman everything would have been fine. We would have avoided this global meltdown, this global recession. I believe this interpretation of history is totally incorrect, because by the time Lehman had collapsed the housing recession had already started two years ago and was getting worse. So the idea that the crisis started with the collapse of Lehman and if we had only bailed out Lehman everything would have been OK in my view is just total nonsense.  We were already in the middle of a severe economic and financial crisis, and a mortgage problem and a greater credit crunch that had been developing and worsening step by step for almost two years.

Why might it be attractive at this stage in the crisis to draw attention to Lehman as a key turning point? I wonder if such a simplified narrative, and one that hinges on a relatively recent policy error (if that is what Lehman’s collapse was), lets a lot more of us off the hook. If you did not appreciate the enormity of what was happening before Lehman collapsed and weren’t prepared — whether in business, journalism or just in your own household — you can draw a line under your ignorance and apportion blame more specifically. I suspect for journalists, analysts, investors and executives who found themselves adrift as events started turning sour post-February 2007, it allows them to reinvent themselves as more knowledgeable than they in fact were.

It must be some kind of memory bias at work.  But which one to choose?

More from Roubini and the notion that we may still face death by a thousand cuts:-

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pure genius?


In the middle of that 2001 Chapter 11 process, I was being primed for information in the Tipperary pub in Fleet Street. The “Tip” is the oldest Irish pub in England and the first ever to sell Guinness here, or so the free information on the internet tells me today. I did not know that then. There was plenty of free information available in 2001 despite a relative shortage of comprehensive pub histories. All the same,  you still had to pay for the Guinness. And that’s invariably the case today.


I was with a very senior colleague who was plying me with the black stuff; I think he’d been asked to keep an eye on me and my rank-breaking entrepreneurship. I said to him that I thought part of the problem for even highly specialized subscription content businesses, like the one we were proposing to launch out of the bankruptcy, was that so much generic news was then free on the internet. This factor perhaps had already tipped investor sentiment away from the concept of proprietary news content. I suggested that one of the principal reasons for this may have been the example set by our competitor, the news agency Reuters, in selling its news feed to search engine/portal Yahoo!, without obvious limitations on what could be published.

“Oh, I did that deal!” said the executive. Imagine the Knackered Hack coughing into his artisan-poured pint, spraying his “mentor” with white foam. [For sure, that's not what happened exactly, but I'm not a factual journalist any more; I don't carry an NUJ card these days and even my poetic licence is provisional.]

Some of us had known for a long while that the value proposition of unbundled real-time news was not what it once was. It wasn’t a good time to be giving so much of it away. Reuters seem to have wised up a couple of years ago because they no longer operate that Yahoo! deal.

But I still wonder, in my counter-factual way, if such a vast organization as Reuters had not taken that fork in the road so prominently would other news media have felt so compelled to provide so much stuff for nothing? And thence GoogleNews. Would a viable subscription model not have been built by now to get the more innovative news organizations [oxymoron warning] cleanly out of the ink-on-dead-trees business? Perhaps not.

There may be more lessons from the real-time news industry of the ‘80s and ‘90s for today’s media to illustrate the tragedy/farce heuristic. Anyone interested in another chapter on that soon?

Photo credit tricky

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As heuristics go, just as the most expensive wine on the wine list is not to be trusted, writers should be given a wide berth if they quote the first lines of books, especially if they are quoting Marx paraphrasing Hegel.

At the start of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, a book which I probably have read in its entirety (but don’t quote me), the bearded one says this:-

Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.


Chevy Tahoe, first a gas-guzzler, then a hybrid?

I risk getting into even deeper water with the mathematicians for suggesting there is something of the self-similar in Marx’s statement, and then with historians for invoking the idea that history repeats itself.  Perhaps I’d be safe with Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again”.

Yesterday General Motors announced it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  This is on a grand, publicly-listed, credit-fuelled scale (GMs’ annual revenue was $149 billion last year, and it’s lost more than $80 billion in the past four years, its market capitalization collapsing from a surprising $26 billion in October 2007, when the credit crisis was well underway, to next to nothing.)  The German and US governments have intervened to save jobs.

My own experience of Chapter 11 in 2001 was a less remarked upon affair (less than $1billion in revenue).  But at their respective times, within their respective universes, the two Chapter 11 incidents share significance: the words “too big to fail” were uttered in both instances.

There is no shortage of animal spirits evident in either, some interesting uses of expenses, and for those observing closely (perhaps that’s just me in my Chief Brody hat ;-) ) the one may have heralded the other. Did the one in fact scale into the other?  GM is now perhaps the most iconic victim of the credit crunch, which through my long-path-dependent-tinted spectacles was hinted at way back when, in the perennial struggle between debt and equity.

The Chapter 11 that dissolved the news organization I worked for merited very little press comment; ironic  given that 600 global journalism jobs disappeared more or less overnight. Almost without exception those jobs were engaged in purely factual reporting: the scrutinizing of financial markets, banking and economic and monetary policy.  Instructive perhaps, given the current collapse of news businesses the world over, that they were entirely online, publishing by corporate subscription, and over internet protocol for several years already.  They could not be saved because the consensus then was that this market was already oversupplied.  News was a commodity, and only so much was necessary to lubricate the inner workings of global financial markets.

I’ve long since given up the conceit that the factual information output of my professional career met some fundamental human need (except the feeding of my family).  This was a way that I used to comfort myself: as a journalistic form, economic and financial newswire reporting could legitimately claim a fourth-estate function of representing important facts about the world, even if it was bounded in its day-to-day ability to call policy-makers and financiers fully to account.  It was not the sharpest instrument, but it was probably a lot sharper than print journalism which in effect fed off some of its by-products.

I’ve already described how, in my own attempts to refinance this organization — as I moulted my middle-management plumage and temporarily tried on the peacock feathers of the imagined future CEO — I submitted with my colleagues a restructuring that would focus news reporting resources on the growing and mostly under-reported market in credit derivatives.  That market was the one that made sense to my diverse rescue task force: whether their personal focus was Whitehall, currencies, commodities or companies, Essex-boy, anarchist or Etonian.  In retrospect, it is clear that transparency and scrutiny of those complex markets would have been useful in the post-9/11 world.  But in the summer of 2001, investors came there none.  The lesson, as ever, seems to be: if you’re going to fail, fail big. Don’t pin your hopes for rescue on a knackered hack, but a newly minted Barack.

This takes us back to Robert Shiller and George Akerlof’s qualification of capitalism: “It does not automatically produce what people really need; it produces what they think they need, and are willing to pay for.”  Since 2001, it is clear that a great many people, and at the same time too few, thought they needed GM’s Chevy Tahoe SUV.  President Obama agrees that they need more.  Me? I’m not so sure.

Photo credit Chevy Tahoe: anthonares

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There should be a rule that if Professor Robert Shiller is speaking in public within a hundred miles of you, you must make tracks to hear him. A statistical analysis of my own movements over the past 12 months might show that I’m already following this rule. However, with just the two data points, you should not bet the farm on it…though many have done worse (I know: I’m related to some of them). When they reform Parliament, they should sneak that rule in there for our politicians, and then apply it more broadly to the population at large. Once you’ve read Shiller’s new book, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (US edition), with Nobel Laureate George Akerlof, you’ll know why.

I’ve more or less finished Animal Spirits, and the purpose of my Monday trip to Policy Exchange was to hear Shiller discuss the book and his new pamphlet for the hosts: a proposal that the UK adopt an inflation-indexed unit of account, like Chile’s Unidad de Fomento, as a means to cure the population of money illusion. I felt blessed to be invited.

Animal Spirits is surely essential reading for any student of our broken times. And The Case for a Basket, which you can download for free, has a good chance of becoming government policy; when I last saw Shiller in London in the autumn, he’d been in to see Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Lord Mandelson, if I recall correctly. Meanwhile, as the leading centre-right think-tank, I understand that Policy Exchange will be the leading source of ideas for any future Tory administration, assuming they can keep their moats clean, as it were.

But I could not help wondering if Shiller’s audience was taking all this behavioural economics stuff in, or whether he was just another speaker on the Westminster agenda to be consumed: knowledge of his ideas being a necessary source of signalling to others in polite conversation. Shiller’s argument that our animal spirits have been dangerously discounted by economic thinking surely makes him a heretic in this milieu; the reformation he foretells has barely started. There are a lot of PPE graduates out there, and a greater concentration within 100 yards of Parliament.  Would they not need to go back to school, or be reprogrammed?

But I digress.

To imagine how the “basket” would work, you have to understand it is a unit of account, a measurement of value that would not alter with inflation. Or deflation, for that matter. If you had your house to sell, and wanted to make sure you got what you paid for it a year later, you would offer it at the same basket level. You would avoid having to perform a complex accounting calculation that, on a day-to-day basis, is beyond most of us, including our elected representatives. We prefer to think in nominal prices rather than real terms. So we get easily persuaded that houses are a sure winner when we should all know there ain’t no thing as sure winners. Shiller shows US house prices actually closely track inflation over the longest time. A basket system would be especially useful for fixing ongoing contracts, like legal fees or alimony payments; the “basket” ensures that a figure agreed today will buy the same amount of goods and services in the future for the recipient.

Shiller maintains that the Chilean system — introduced in Chile in 1967, but only really taking off in the 1980s — has worked successfully, despite local complaints about its long-term viability, and could prove just as useful in low-inflation economies like the UK and US.

What I find attractive about it is that it is a simple solution to a complex set of pernicious social behaviours. According to Shiller, all that the government needs to do is supply its institutional credibility to a calculation and then create a website. Electronic payments systems would enable any number of assets and commodities to be listed in baskets and payment settled via a real-time currency calculation. In effect it stops you being defrauded by history.

The idea of Animal Spirits, meanwhile, is not new. Shiller points out that the phrase was used by John Maynard Keynes. But in their book, Shiller and Akerlof seek to increase the emphasis on non-rational factors which modern economics has tended to ignore. Money Illusion plays a key role. But they also emphasise issues like trust, bad faith, and corruption. And there is a wonderful qualification of the power of capitalism, with perhaps more than a gentle poke at our more optimistic libertarian friends:

…the bounty of capitalism has at least one downside. It does not automatically produce what people really need; it produces what they think they need, and are willing to pay for. If they are willing to pay for real medicine, it will produce real medicine. But if they are willing to pay for snake oil, it will produce snake oil.

Shiller is a curious student indeed. He reads old newspapers in his quest to understand mood and capture the narratives that transmit bad economic ideas. In Monday’s talk he regaled us with a newspaper column from the 1880s deploring the a collapsed property boom in Los Angeles. The columnist boldly asserted that never again would people be so stupid. To be fair, for nearly a century that was correct. So how do these animal spirits get going? This is what he and Akerlof say:-

Why do new kinds of corrupt or bad-faith behavior arise from time to time? Part of the answer is that there are variations through time in the perceived penalties for such behavior. Memories of major government crackdowns against corruption fade over time. In a time of widespread corrupt activity, many people may get the impression that it is easy to get away with it. Everyone else is doing it, it seems to them, and no one seems to be getting punished. To some extent, lowering one’s adherence to principles at such times is a perfectly rational thing to do. Lower principles at certain times may also reflect a social osmosis, as information about the probability of punishment for certain kinds of crimes spreads through a net of personal acquaintances, as Raaj Sah has documented. Such a process may be part of the confidence multiplier, as corruption feeds back into more corruption.

The variation through time in the extent of corruption of bad faith is also to some extent a reflection of the fresh opportunities that arise as new financial inventions of one sort or another appear, or as financial regulations allow innovations to be implemented. These innovations may not be understood initially by the public. This variation occurs because of cultural changes unrelated to fear of punishment or to changes in technology. These changes are clearly within the realm of pure animal spirits. Culture changes over time to facilitate or hinder aggressively competitive or predatory activities. Because these cultural changes are difficult to quantify, and fall outside the field of economics, they are rarely connected by economists to economic fluctuations. They should be.

Shiller and Akerlof continue with examples of how widespread flouting of 1920s US prohibition led to a more generalized disrespect for the rule of law. Then in the depression years things shifted again. By 1941,  bridge was the most popular card game in America, encouraging, as it does, cooperation, while also not being played for money. By contrast, the early years of this century have been characterised by the rise of Texas hold’em, bluffing, and the poker face, both literally and metaphorically.

You don’t have to look far for these animal spirits. If Shiller is now more likely to be the first voice the Tories turn to on matters to do with housing markets, this will be an improvement on a previous foray which enlisted the Honorable Kirstie Allsopp, presenter of property porn TV programme Location, Location, Location. I’ve often wondered why the kindling of animal spirits by one of our public service broadcasters had not long ago been scrutinized by a House of Commons select committee or two. But recent evidence shows the same spirits had taken hold there also.

Now if it were real animal spirits we needed to calm, Louis Armstrong would be our man. In the 1938 film Going Places, Armstrong plays Gabe whose music is the only thing that will settle the unrideable horse Jeepers Creepers.  Yes, you know where this is heading. Tell me I’m wrong, but it sounds like he too is asking “where did you get those PPEers?” How they hypnotize!

And did you Twitterers note how Duke upbraids Maxie? “Why don’t you stop thinkin’ up snappy sayings and start concentrating on business…”

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I imagine that, at the moment of first freezing, the pattern of frost is set.  So should a mutant, winter-dwelling butterfly flap its wings near your windscreen, a different pattern would appear than if it had not.  Dirt and debris on the screen, the micro-climate around the vehicle, the shapes of eddies: they must make for the variety of possibilities.  It’s about turbulence.

In an October interview, Benoit Mandelbrot said this:-

The word turbulence is one which is actually common to physics and to social sciences–to economics. Everything that involves turbulence is enormously more complicated: not just a little bit more complicated, not just one year more schooling; it’s enormously more complicated….

The behaviour of economic phenomena is far more complicated than the behaviour of liquids or gases.”

In the same joint-interview, Nassim Taleb said this:-

Never in the history of the world have we faced so much complexity combined with so much incompetence in understanding its properties….

You may have chain reactions we never imagined before. These come from intricate relationships in a system we don’t understand.”

So I guess we should beware of those who tell us confidently to expect future economic events to follow a familiar pattern.  They tend to be the same people who did not expect the current situation.




For those who did not catch the original video, here it is:-

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