Tuesday, September 16, 2008

We are the turkeys

says Nicholas Taleb:

Fig. 1: A Turkey is fed for a 1000 days—every days confirms to its statistical department that the human race cares about its welfare "with increased statistical significance". On the 1001st day, the turkey has a surprise.

Fig. 2: Shows the fate of close to 1000 financial institutions (includes busts such as FNMA, Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers, etc.). The banking system (betting AGAINST rare events) just lost > 1 Trillion dollars (so far) on a single error, more than was ever earned in the history of banking. Yet bankers kept their previous bonuses and it looks like citizens have to foot the bills. And one Professor Ben Bernanke pronounced right before the blowup that we live in an era of stability and "great moderation" (he is now piloting a plane and we all are passengers on it).

P.S. Michael Lewitt on A.I.G.


Clive Bates said...

The problem here is the asymmetry in risk and reward. The "trader's option" simply allows the loss-making trader to exit (possibly from the wreckage of the company around her/him as all traders are doing the same). So a massive gamble that fails and loses other people millions in savings, pensions, share value etc can only cause the trader's earning to be zero, and probably only for a few months.

The result is a dramatic misalignment of incentives between individuals and the firms they work for, with practically everyone involved in company management incentivised to take massive gambles, in the hope they pay off - knowing they can walk if they don't. It is a classic 'principal-agent problem' - and too little has been done by the principals (boards on behalf of shareholders and regulators on behalf of the public) to reign in these institutionally reckless agents.

See my analysis of the exit of Stan O'Neal from Merrill Lynch - Heads I win, tails you lose: the City explained

Caspar Henderson said...

Thanks, Clive, very useful. Since this was published
Nouriel Rubini has published a clear piece on the unravelling of the shadow banking system

The shadow banking system is unravelling
Financial Times
September 21 2008 17:57

Last week saw the demise of the shadow banking system that has been created over the past 20 years. Because of a greater regulation of banks, most financial intermediation in the past two decades has grown within this shadow system whose members are broker-dealers, hedge funds, private equity groups, structured investment vehicles and conduits, money market funds and non-bank mortgage lenders.

Like banks, most members of this system borrow very short-term and in liquid ways, are more highly leveraged than banks (the exception being money market funds) and lend and invest into more illiquid and long-term instruments. Like banks, they carry the risk that an otherwise solvent but liquid institution may be subject to a self fulfilling and destructive run on its liquid liabilities.

But unlike banks, which are sheltered from the risk of a run – via deposit insurance and central banks’ lender-of-last-resort liquidity – most members of the shadow system did not have access to these firewalls that prevent runs.

A generalised run on these shadow banks started when the deleveraging after the asset bubble bust led to uncertainty about which institutions were solvent. The first stage was the collapse of the entire SIVs/conduits system once investors realised the toxicity of its investments and its very short-term funding seized up.

The next step was the run on the big US broker-dealers: first Bear Stearns lost its liquidity in days. The Federal Reserve then extended its lender-of-last-resort support to systemically important broker-dealers. But even this did not prevent a run on the other broker-dealers given concerns about solvency: it was the turn of Lehman Brothers to collapse. Merrill Lynch would have faced the same fate had it not been sold. The pressure moved to Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs: both would be well advised to merge – like Merrill – with a large bank that has a stable base of insured deposits.

The third stage was the collapse of other leveraged institutions that were both illiquid and most likely insolvent given their reckless lending: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, AIG and more than 300 mortgage lenders.

The fourth stage was panic in the money markets. Funds were competing aggressively for assets and, in order to provide higher returns to attract investors, some of them invested in illiquid instruments. Once these investments went bust, panic ensued among investors, leading to a massive run on such funds. This would have been disastrous; so, in another radical departure, the US extended deposit insurance to the funds.

The next stage will be a run on thousands of highly leveraged hedge funds. After a brief lock-up period, investors in such funds can redeem their investments on a quarterly basis; thus a bank-like run on hedge funds is highly possible. Hundreds of smaller, younger funds that have taken excessive risks with high leverage and are poorly managed may collapse. A massive shake-out of the bloated hedge fund industry is likely in the next two years.

Even private equity firms and their reckless, highly leveraged buy-outs will not be spared. The private equity bubble led to more than $1,000bn of LBOs that should never have occurred. The run on these LBOs is slowed by the existence of “convenant-lite” clauses, which do not include traditional default triggers, and “payment-in-kind toggles”, which allow borrowers to defer cash interest payments and accrue more debt, but these only delay the eventual refinancing crisis and will make uglier the bankruptcy that will follow. Even the largest LBOs, such as GMAC and Chrysler, are now at risk.

We are observing an accelerated run on the shadow banking system that is leading to its unravelling. If lender-of-last-resort support and deposit insurance are extended to more of its members, these institutions will have to be regulated like banks, to avoid moral hazard. Of course this severe financial crisis is also taking its toll on traditional banks: hundreds are insolvent and will have to close.

The real economic side of this financial crisis will be a severe US recession. Financial contagion, the strong euro, falling US imports, the bursting of European housing bubbles, high oil prices and a hawkish European Central Bank will lead to a recession in the eurozone, the UK and most advanced economies.

European financial institutions are at risk of sharp losses because of the toxic US securitised products sold to them; the massive increase in leverage following aggressive risk-taking and domestic securitisation; a severe liquidity crunch exacerbated by a dollar shortage and a credit crunch; the bursting of domestic housing bubbles; household and corporate defaults in the recession; losses hidden by regulatory forbearance; the exposure of Swedish, Austrian and Italian banks to the Baltic states, Iceland and southern Europe where housing and credit bubbles financed in foreign currency are leading to hard landings.

Thus the financial crisis of the century will also envelop European financial institutions.

The writer, chairman of Roubini Global Economics (www.rgemonitor.com), is professor of economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University