toxic waste

12Feb09

Lifeblog post

Anyone who has read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings will recall the description in Chapter 10 of how the pressure to conform creates moral hazard. A powerful heuristic or default seems to operate: “don’t break ranks”. Failure to adhere can result in peer hostility. The experience of Paul Moore in trying to restrain HBOS executives reveals just how powerful and enduring a force that can be, assuming he is an accurate witness to his own experience at the bank. It goes some way to explain how groupthink can operate in the face of compelling contrary evidence. To quote from his memo to Tuesday’s Treasury Select Committee hearing:-

I am still toxic waste now for having spoken out all those years ago!

This might also reflect why today’s FT report leaking of an “independent inquiry” into Paul Moore’s allegations contained the following observations from the HBOS directors of his behaviour. A case of shooting the messenger?

They told KPMG that while Mr Moore’s technical abilities were “recognised as strong” and he gave his team a “strong sense of purpose”, they doubted his ability to work with his colleagues. His behaviour in one meeting was described by people interviewed by KPMG as “ranging from prickly to ranting to extraordinary to outrageous”.

For those not following these events, Moore was the head of Group Regulatory Risk Management for HBOS until 2005. He alleges that he argued with the board that HBOS’s sales culture was running out of control, creating huge risk for the bank should the economy and housing market turn downwards, and that there was a reluctance on the part of executives to have their decisions or behaviour challenged. At the time, HBOS CEO James Crosby dismissed his concerns and terminated his employment. Crosby then moved on to become deputy chairman of the Financial Services Authority. He resigned yesterday morning.

The full text of Moore’s memo is here. For the time being, it may be one of the most readable and historic documents of modern finance. One suspects there will be others.

Well, in his deposition to the Treasury Select Committee Moore mentions it, but I doubt that this five-minute module is mandatory yet at any business school. Let me know if I’m wrong.

Photo credit: Tim Penn

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Ready.. Aim.. Fire!The BBC announced spending cuts last week, fearing that the recession will lead to TV licence fee evasion and reduced revenues. According to the FT,  it banned the corporate purchase of champagne in a sop to the newspapers, after being forced to reveal an annual spend on the bubbly stuff of £40,000. Of course, if the BBC had something to celebrate, this expenditure–provided it was on Veuve Clicquot–would not look like such a mistake. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Beeb brass were defending themselves in Parliament for the Brand/Ross/Sachs scandal.

It’s bad to bash the BBC if you get a lot out of the BBC, as I do. But it does often seem to be an organization that has lost its way. It remains somewhat technically innovative, although with unintended consequences (iPlayer), produces good costume dramas (Jane Austin/Dickens etc), entertains the kids well on Saturday evening (Dr Who, Robin Hood, Merlin) and continues its flagship natural history programmes, although these are starting to be more photographic than informational. Don’t tell anyone, but for the past few months I’ve come to believe that Radio 3 might actually be perfect.

More generally, though, its editorial and commissioning decisions seem not to be informed by either a current or future sense of what its public service needs to be. I’m waiting for the day, for instance, when its senior management is hauled before the UK’s Treasury Select Committee to answer questions about the role its programmes on property played in fuelling the real estate bubble.  But then, I wonder if the committee members have yet gotten round to reading any Robert Shiller. This, of course, is old news, well visited by belligerent websites, and even mainstream newspapers have pointed a similar finger, except of course that their own property supplements played an essential part in peddling the idea that rising property prices were for keeps.

But given that we are now at the end of a period of speculative excess, that we collectively passed the last outpost of the Shit Creek Paddle Company Shit Creek Paddle Companysome time ago and failed to take on supplies, it is hard to explain a programme I saw last week called Beat the Bank. Dragons’ Den fitness millionaire Duncan Bannatyne invited a young couple to wager their £10,000 house deposit on the abilities of one of three alleged experts to exceed the return from bank interest over three months.

The leading experts brought in were from the world of fine wine, antiques and fine art. Charming though these people were, they represented markets one could reasonably assume are highly correlated with the recent credit-fuelled boom, Veuve Clicquot HQ, Reims, Franceand not without their own fair share of fakers and finaglers to make the average punter’s chance of “beating the bank” slim at best.

But what bothered me was the premise that money in the bank was for schmucks. And none of us would want to be schmucks. The opposite in fact is true. Most of us are schmucks, and the bank is the best place for our money. The social service that the banks provide, or should provide, is as a repository of funds where we (the clueless, idle, or generally insecure) should choose to lay down our hard-earned, our windfalls and our easy-pickings, while the bank lends it out with discretion and on reasonable terms to the those with ideas, the adventurous, the quiet risk-takers, entrepreneurs and even the occasional desperado, each individually to try their luck: to fail, break-even or succeed, and on balance pay us back a decent rate of interest. All that while keeping the bank in sturdy buildings, functional IT, an occasional boozy lunch and not to forget the annual bonus payment–which should be conditional and deferred by 10 years (at least).

Squircle - Veuve Clicquot Champagne BottleThe idea that we should set a challenge to deliver excess returns over a three-month period flies in the face of all that a public service broadcaster should be providing in way of financial education. It would not be so bad if the three-month expectations cycle did not already blight the ability of many publicly-listed firms to deliver sustainable economic growth, lure them into all sorts of obfuscation or encourage all sorts of counter-productive hoop-jumping to appear to be performing satisfactorily.

If there’s a lesson that the BBC might better highlight to the risk-taker–whether in the domain of business, art, or experimental science, or even for those planning to cultivate a great vintage– it’s that you may have to bleed for forever and a day waiting for your ship to come in, before the muse descends or that eureka moment arrives, or some final vindication materializes from out of the blue. Then you’ll feel justified in tearing off the foil, untwisting the wire and popping your cork.

Veuve Photo credits: Top: Andrei Z , Middle: Matt Hamm, Bottom: jillclardy

Paddle Shop:  SailorRandR

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Tweet OK, now that we have the demise of Lehman, Merrill and AIG, and with HBOS teetering on the brink (and remembering that we don’t do anniversaries here), let it be noted that it’s just over a year since Northern Rock collapsed, and it’s also a year to the day since I coined the phrase […]

apple crunch

08Aug08

Never mind credit risk, the risk of a falling tree (or a branch at least) has been on my mind for nearly five years. A large oak tree, listed by the local authority, and which I don’t own but which overhangs my front garden, has lost rotten branches with nearly every gale during that time. And I’ve worried, with each puff of wind, that one might end up hitting me/the kids/wife/milkman or the increasing number of Fed-Ex deliverers of dead-tree books for me to (not quite get round to) review.

A few weeks ago, the person responsible for the tree finally got the necessary approval and had it duly pruned and thinned. Relief. Only the goldcrests that once or twice I’ve seen flitting in and out of the branches were inconvenienced.

09052008053

But it shows that, where you focus on one risk, an even greater and less obvious risk might be creeping up on you until some kind of tipping point is reached, and it figuratively knocks your block off.

Regular readers will know that I am probably a bit too hung up on all this self-organized criticality stuff. And the scientifically-trained may scoff that this may all be a metaphor too far. But bear with me while I indulge in a little narrative fallacy; it is the first anniversary of the credit crunch after all.

Sometime around 3pm on Wednesday there was a resounding crack when half an apple tree in the neighbour’s garden shuddered and collapsed into ours (amidst a confused shower of slightly immature green fruit) landing as it fell on a recently reconstructed Bath stone wall. Bizarrely, we were able to look out of the office window, just as the sound happened, and watch it fall.

Apple Crunch

Now, it may just have been a rotten bough that gave way, and that would have happened at that moment come hell or high water (there has been a lot of rain these past two years). But I’d suggest a slightly more complex chain of events led up to this apple windfall, one that would somewhat mitigate the failure to notice (on the part of the householder) the tree’s precarious state: I’m generous that way, you know. And, there may be a useful lesson in thinking about how and when a tipping point is reached, given what happened in the markets a year ago today.

Apple Crunch

Only a few months ago, a most enormous bay tree (as tall as a house, and with multiple trunks) was removed on our side so that the wall could be rebuilt and made safe (another long-time worry). I can’t say for sure, but since the bay tree went, the two apple trees either side looked like they were yielding a lot more fruit and more quickly than we’ve seen in years before. They were certainly full of blossom in the spring.

I don’t know how much in the way of nutrients that bay tree would have drawn each day — or how much water — but it had to have had some significant impact on the relative fertility of the surrounding soil, as a not inconsiderably dominant node in the immediate ecology. Or, maybe the boughs of the apple were inclined in earlier years to lean their increasing weight on their big brother bay as their crop ripened. Who knows?

But one day, three burly men, a couple of packets of Benny Hedgehogs, a chain saw and a Bobcat came along, and pretty soon the bay tree and its massive root-structure were gone. The apple trees breathed again –perhaps their deepest breaths in twenty years — and suddenly our vulnerable, once-dwarfed friend was the dominant plant in its neighbourhood.

Bay Tree Wall Removal 001

Flushed with its new-found confidence, and benefiting from a good combination of moisture and summer sun, what was to stop it growing the largest, most numerous apple stock in its entire life?

Apple Crunch removal

In part because of my paleo diet, I’ve somehow become a bit more obsessed with things growing. Equipped with a 5 mega-pixel camera-phone I have taken to excessively recording the growth of much garden flora and publishing it for the benefit of my sole Flickr photostream subscriber. This is micro-local, social media at its most extreme and is as far out into the long tail as you can go without disappearing. But I don’t want you to think that I’m lonely. Or that my one subscriber is; he has lots of “friends”. [By the way, I subscribe to his photostream too. He does hard urban, melancholic shots through rain-drenched bus windows; I do rural/leafy suburbia.] This has been going on a while now, of course. Some of you might even remember my so-called long apple harvest from last year.

Apple Crunch removal

So what’s the point? Well, while it is always true that one thing leads to another, and so this is a banal little story of ordinary, back-garden apple trees, I’ve taken recently to enjoying a cup of herbal tea mid-afternoon on the bench immediately beneath that now-departed branch in order to soak up some Vitamin D. With the wall below head-height, that makes me very lucky indeed. Of course, I’m not one to hoard my good fortune, nor my windfall of apples, so I want to share this pertinent piece of advice from the late, great Glenn Miller. As they say, if you know what’s good for you…

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The Subprime SolutionHaving effectively called the top of the dotcom bubble with his first book, Irrational Exuberance, and documented the emerging US housing bubble in his second edition of the same, you’d think that Yale economist Robert Shiller would have been treated with significant reverence by our economic and financial institutions (both public and private) over the past few years. And you’d think that he would already have been asked to make a material contribution to resolving the crisis. In fact, you’d think that writing Irrational Exuberance would alone have been enough to forestall the second crisis. But then, if you thought that, you’d be me. And you’d be wrong. Again.

If you’re unfamiliar with Robert Shiller then understand that he is perhaps the most eminent and considered examiner of modern investment bubbles. It was two days after Shiller and a colleague testified before the Federal Reserve Board in December 1996 that then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan sent stock markets into a mini-crash by coining the now legendary phrase “irrational exuberance” in the context of stock market behaviour. Influential indeed. Shiller’s book Irrational Exuberance came out in March 2000, after which the dotcom boom finally collapsed.

As Shiller tells it, the world of political and economic authority just does not work the way you might have hoped when it comes to emergent investment bubbles. And yesterday I took a look at one or two of the more popular economics websites to remind myself of how well they responded to the notion of a US housing bubble, and their level of reference to Shiller’s work. Even at the peak, these sites were looking for reasons why we were not in a bubble. It made me think that if you desperately want to sell your house these days you should do no more than find an economist or central banker and just name your price: they’ll tend to believe excessively in market efficiency and won’t even haggle with you. In fact, they really don’t seem to be very savvy at all; in the way Shiller observes Greenspan‘s ideological devotion to Ayn Rand (pp 43), they would seem to be honour-bound to reward your heroic selfishness.

Shiller’s new book, The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do About It (publication date: September 1), is a concise attempt to elaborate in just seven short chapters the genesis of the housing bubble (a psychological carry-over from the dotcom bubble), explode its myths (“prices always go up”), explore its scale and the dangers of its deepening impact (it’s bad), assert the need to maintain confidence in our economic and financial institutions by aggressive action (comparing the US and European responses to the Great Depression), and then explore longer-term, more fundamental reforms and innovations that will create a population much more attuned to economic risk.

Case Shiller Home Prices
How the US housing bubble looked at the peak. (Source: Irrational Exuberance website)

If you were among those who’d imbibed his dotcom analysis, or just lived the visceral torment of trying to swim against the tide of this particular mania, Shiller’s narrative of the social psychology of the housing bubble is all too familiar. By the way, if you think you already paid a high enough price for being prudent and that you may now cash in, Shiller has more bad news: you’re gonna have to pay for the inevitable bailouts too.

We have to be ready for the possibility that many more tax rebates will be necessary, perhaps for years to come. These rebates may eventually have a significant negative impact on the national debt. That possibility can be accepted only if we truly recognize the seriousness of the problem.

The book describes the process of the contagion of ideas, likening the spread of bubble mentality to a disease epidemic. Like a disease, the epidemic grows as the infection rate exceeds the removal rate; in other words, positive beliefs about the market outnumber more negative perspectives. For instance, there was the irrational belief that housing always appreciates, born of the inflation-ignoring money illusion; the increasing salience of particular “new era” narratives; regional or city patriotism that implied a particular area was somehow intrinsically different — where “everyone” wanted to live — justifying the inexorable local market rise. These ideas also inform the stock of media coverage, and are woven into reports of market gains in an attempt to explain what has little or no real fundamental basis:-

Most persons can be forgiven for not seeing that the sense of economic prosperity that usually attends a major speculative bubble is actually caused by the bubble itself.

But what is particularly telling is how this infects not just the private institutions, who stand accused of complicity in creating the subprime mess, but also our public institutions: political, monetary and regulatory. For example, describing conversations with the officials from the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation when he was urging prompt action to curb the then excessive lending:

I had the feeling that many of them viewed me, with my argument that the bubble would burst, as an extremist who deserved a skeptical response.

The problem Shiller complains of now, though, is that he is too readily characterised as a Cassandra. Mirroring the positive feedback loop that attends market rises, Shiller describes how journalists now invite him to describe how deep and how long a recession might be, while seeming much less interested in the solutions and frameworks that he proposes as a response to the economic and market disaster that is unfolding. He argues that this negative feedback loop — the increasing salience of bad news stories — serves to undermine confidence, and deflects attention from the scale and detail of the remedies needed. And I can attest to that; I may no longer eat breakfast cereal but am obliged to consume an oversized portion of Credit Crunch every morning c/o BBC Radio 4′s The Today Programme.

More than just an academic observer, Shiller is a practitioner. He has designed institutional and market frameworks to help avoid the economic catastrophes which tend to follow bursting bubbles. For instance, discovering that there was no long-run continuous data series to analyse the activity of this most important of asset markets, he set about researching and building the now widely used (one could say “benchmark”) S&P/Case-Shiller house price index, which charts the housing market in the US back to 1890. It’s on the basis of this data, Shiller shows, that US house prices rise with inflation over the long-run and are not the one-way bet of popular imagination. With colleagues, he also devised a domestic property futures market on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

So, Shiller is not really in the business of I-told-you-so, nor here to knock markets. He’s passionate about understanding the individual and group psychology of investment, and designing market mechanisms that better serve us as citizens — that will enable us to take more informed risks, and so perhaps lead us toward more creative lives.

And it is worth reminding ourselves why Shiller thinks it’s important that markets send us the right signals. In this, from Irrational Exuberance, one need only substitute “dotcoms” with “new granite worktops”:-

If we exaggerate the present and future value of the stock market, then as a society we may invest too much in business start-ups and expansions, and too little in infrastructure, education and other forms of human capital.

But in The Subprime Solution, Shiller argues against those who call for a retreat to a simpler financial age. He suggests a range of options that can trickle down to the ordinary person to democratize finance, provide them with the security of home-ownership (where appropriate), and insulate them from some of the risks to their longer-term earnings profile. One interesting point he makes is that some people, lacking the means to offset their socio-economic risks, may become far too cautious in their choice of employment, thus depriving society of their more creative endeavour.

I especially liked his defence of mathematical finance as an important new technology. When we think of technology we too often think of gadgets and software rather than applied knowledge and know-how. It’s clear that some mathematical models have been erroneously applied, and I take Paul Wilmott‘s blog as my guide for insights on how that has happened. But, in simple terms, I’d venture that this is not greatly different from the misapplication of GPS: use it with common sense, and know how to navigate without it when it doesn’t work. Shiller reminds us not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

At less than 200 pages of wide-margined type, lightly annotated and with no bibliography, there is something of the emergency pamphlet about this book. And Shiller is advocating a much speedier and more deep-rooted response to the crisis, which, as of a few weeks ago, he felt was still not being taken seriously enough. I suspect the effective collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into government support since then has helped change that, but the policy response still seems some way from the kind of discussion Shiller is trying to lead here.

Shiller notes as his inspiration John Maynard Keynes‘ 1919 best-selling critique of The Treaty of Versailles The Economic Consequences of the Peace. And there is a strong moral imperative running through Shiller’s advocacy, no doubt reflecting the increasing severity of the social consequences that can compound very quickly if the policy response is half-baked. Of Keynes’ book, Shiller says in an accompanying release:-

This says something important about human emotions and drives, and a weakness that can cause people to careen blindly into huge catastrophes. In an important sense, we see the same human weaknesses again with the subprime crisis. The resolution to this problem calls for the kind of integrated thinking involving economic, political and moral dimensions that Keynes brought to the crisis of his time. In this sense, Keynes’ great book is an inspiration to me.

There are many examples in the book of how our financial understanding can be re-framed over the long-term. One that definitely seems worthy of further examination is the unidad de fomento used in Chile and copied elsewhere in Latin America where prices are quoted in a standard inflation-indexed basket measure rather than hard currency to reveal to the individual the intrinsic value of a commodity or asset over time rather than its nominal, currency-based value. For it is the rise in nominal values over time to which Shiller attributes the recent sense that you can’t go wrong with housing. Shiller describes Chile as the most inflation-sensitive population in the world.

There are many more recommendations, but if this book has the ambition of Keynes’ earlier work, and the scale of the problem is as suggested, I’d argue that the book is as accessible as you are going to get from such a modern behavioural economics guru. It’s a book that everyone who lives in a house (and who is of reading age) should own; just don’t buy ten and try to rent them out to friends.

Shiller links

  1. The Atlantic Monthly has an exclusive feature article by Shiller, drawn from the book.
  2. You can read Shiller’s occasional New York Times pieces here.
  3. A publisher’s video interview of him is here.
  4. His Yale lectures are being made available to the public later in the year at Open Yale.
  5. the Irrational Exuberance homepage is here.

The book should also be available on Amazon’s Kindle from August 18, two weeks prior to print publication:-

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