Nassim Taleb’s Big Idea: Transforming Debt Into Equity

I have mentioned, in passing, the possibility of transforming debt into equity as a solution for many of the troubles in the global financial system.

I borrowed the idea from Nassim Taleb and Mark Spitznagel, who floated it in 2009. It is unfortunate that the idea has not yet been taken very seriously. There are probably two reasons for this: firstly Taleb and Spitznagel never fully fleshed it out, and secondly because the political and media punditry don’t really recognise the graveness of the present situation. Largely it is hoped that we can muddle through; radical solutions tend to get left on the shelf.

It is my view that it is much better to fix the system in a fundamental way, rather than clobber together solutions piecemeal. The latter approach has been the norm — from the bailouts of Greece and euro austerity, to the bailout of AIG and the wider financial system, to quantitative easing and LTRO, to Obama’s stimulus package — the focus has been on keeping a system that is falling apart at the seams from crumbling completely into dust.

So what is the problem that governments fear so hugely?

As we learned a long time ago, big defaults on the order of billions don’t just panic markets. They congest the system, because the system is predicated around the idea that everyone owes things to everyone else. The $18 billion that Greece owes to the banks are in turn owed on to other banks and other institutions. Failure to meet that payment doesn’t just mean one default, it could mean many more. The great cyclical wheel of international debt is only as strong as its weakest link. This kind of breakdown is known as a default cascade. In an international financial system which is ever-more interconnected, we will soon see how far the cascade might travel.

The concept of too big to fail — and thus the justification for all the bailouts — comes out of these default cascades; if a default were to trigger such a cascade, the cycle of payments would break down. Thus, the logic goes, if a bankruptcy would break the system, then the government should step in and prevent that bankruptcy. Thus, the system can continue operating. Alas, this is the road to a zombie economy. If bad companies can succeed just as easily as well-run ones, then the market mechanism is rendered meaningless. Why innovate and create when instead you can run on government largesse? Why seek efficiency when inefficiency gets you cash just as easily? Furthermore, this government largesse starves new businesses of opportunities and cash. Every dollar taxed to pay for bailouts is a dollar that could have instead been invested in a startup. And every juggernaut that is saved is a hole in the marketplace that could instead have been filled by a new and better company.

The problem then, is the huge overhanging cyclical structure of debt and interest. In a free market — without bailouts and largesse — it would have collapsed into the sand long ago. That would have been painful and contractionary, but after the storm there would have been aggressive new growth; without the debt overhang, new lending would have been easier. There would be holes in the market to fill. But governments have determined that it must be saved, that there is no alternative to this strange mess.

It is not good enough to imagine a new beginning, either. For we already have this mess, and we have to get out of it. A route out — toward a place where the system is no longer so fragile. If we ignore the mess, our route out of it will be messy — systemic collapse, currency crises, trade breakdown, war or worse.

Now, I believe that the most significant factors in robustifying society are economic, as opposed to financial. The West’s greatest fragilities stem not from its weak financial system, but from its energy dependency and susceptibility to energy costs (for example, the financial crisis in 2008 might never have been so severe had there been such a huge spike in energy costs), its deteriorating infrastructure, and its imperial largesse (the cost, the blowback, the shortage of manpower). Simply, if America and the West were fuelled by decentralised domestic energy production (e.g. solar), and decentralised local production and resource extraction, the ululations of the global financial system would be irrelevant to the common people.

But, in reality, we live in a globalised and interdependent system. So anything that might robustify the financial system would be welcome.

Here’s what Taleb and Spitznagel originally wrote:

The core of the problem, the unavoidable truth, is that our economic system is laden with debt, about triple the amount relative to gross domestic product that we had in the 1980s. This does not sit well with globalisation. Our view is that government policies worldwide are causing more instability rather than curing the trouble in the system. The only solution is the immediate, forcible and systematic conversion of debt to equity. There is no other option.

Our analysis is as follows. First, debt and leverage cause fragility; they leave less room for errors as the economic system loses its ability to withstand extreme variations in the prices of securities and goods. Equity, by contrast, is robust: the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000 did not have significant consequences because internet companies, while able to raise large amounts of equity, had no access to credit markets.

Second, the complexity created by globalisation and the internet causes economic and business values (such as company revenues, commodity prices or unemployment) to experience more extreme variations than ever before. Add to that the proliferation of systems that run more smoothly than before, but experience rare, but violent blow-ups.

The only solution is to transform debt into equity across all sectors, in an organised and systematic way. Instead of sending hate mail to near-insolvent homeowners, banks should reach out to borrowers and offer lower interest payments in exchange for equity. Instead of debt becoming “binary” – in default or not – it could take smoothly-varying prices and banks would not need to wait for foreclosures to take action. Banks would turn from “hopers”, hiding risks from themselves, into agents more engaged in economic activity. Hidden risks become visible; hopers become doers. 

The strongest advantage, though, goes unmentioned. Systematically transforming debt into equity would end the problem of financial entities being too big to fail, as failure would no longer lead to a breakdown in the debt cycle. This is because insolvent positions would simply default to a majority-minority equity position, and — if the debtor’s equity position were high enough, say about 33% — liquidation could be avoided.

A huge philosophical problem is that such a complete transformation would alter (violate?) a huge number of existing contracts. It would be a top-down and coercive solution, and that is always open to legal challenge. Furthermore, curtailing the issuance of debt means curtailing the freedom of society and individuals to enter into any contract seen fit.

But the larger picture is rather intriguing — in a world where all debt has become equity, there is no such thing as a default, because an equity position is one of ownership, and thus a claim on future earnings.

Simply, lending would be done through lenders buying a share in a person or company’s or government’s future earnings, rather than through creating debt. Loan contracts could still be structured precisely the way they are today. But, as Taleb and Spitznagel insinuate in saying that “banks would turn from “hopers”, hiding risks from themselves, into agents more engaged in economic activity”, lenders would have much more of an incentive to assist in the development of their equity position, as this would surely be the best way to get back their initial investment. And — as an equity position, rather than a cast-in-stone lending contract — terms could be far more easily renegotiated.

Of course, this new system would surely pose a whole new universe of challenges and moral and regulatory quandaries, not least the moral and philosophical problems of government effectively banning debt-based lending.

But, if we are looking to avoid the moral hazard of bailouts, and the dangers of default cascades, the architects of the global financial system — including banks themselves, who could of their own volition choose to cease debt-based lending, and adopt equity-based lending — could do much worse. While systematically transforming debt to equity is too difficult and controversial (not least for contractual reasons), we must remember that in a purely free-market, all of those debt-based lenders would have gone bust a long time ago.

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All I Want for Christmas is…

An end to this bullshit.

Honestly, why is an inert and essentially useless metal like gold the best performing major asset class of the last ten years? It doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t create any return. It just sits. It’s a store of long-term purchasing power.

And most importantly it is a hedge against counter-party risk.

What is counter-party risk?

Counter-party risk is the external risk investments face. The counter-party risk to fiat currency is that the counter-party — in this case the government — will fail to deliver a system where that fiat money will be acceptable as payment for goods and services. The counter-party risk to a bond or a derivative or a swap is that the counter-party — in this case the debtor — will default on their obligations.

Gold — at least the physical form — has negligible counter-party risk. It’s been recognised as valuable for thousands of years.

Counter-party risk is a symptom of dependency. And the global financial system is a paradigm of inter-dependency: inter-connected leverage, soaring gross derivatives exposure, abstract securitisations.

When everyone in the system owes shedloads of money to everyone else the failure of one can often snowball into the failure of the many.

That, as much as anything else, is the real problem with all the policy that has gone into preserving at stabilising the financial system since 2008. It has preserved a system full of counter-party risk, where one big failure could snowball into the failure of the entire system.

Mark Spitznagel wrote a fantastic article for the WSJ a couple of days ago about the current shape of the global financial system:

The conifer’s secret to longevity lies in a paradox: Their conquest has been largely the result of episodes of massive forest destruction. When virtually all else is gone, conifers show their strength and prowess as nature’s opportunists. How? They have adapted to evade competitors by out-surviving them and then occupying their real estate after catastrophic fires.

First, the conifer takes root where no one else will go (think cold, short growing seasons and rocky, nutrient-poor soil). Here, they find the time, space and much-needed sunlight to thrive early on and build their defenses (such as height, canopy and thick bark). When fire hits, those hardy few conifers that survive can throw their seeds onto newly cleared, sunlit and nutrient-released space. For them, fire is not foe but friend. In fact, the seed-loaded cones of many conifers open only in extreme heat.

This is nature’s model: overgrowth, followed by destruction of the overgrowth, and then the subsequent new growth of the healthiest and most robust, which ultimately leaves the forest and the entire ecosystem better off than they were before.

Pondering these trees, it is not too much of a stretch to consider the financial forests of our own making, where excess credit and malinvestment thrive for a time, only to be destroyed—and then the releasing of capital into markets where competition has been wiped out. The Austrian school economists understood this well, basing a whole theory around this investment cycle.

Let’s hope that policy makers can grasp this reality and allow nature to do what she does best: change, renew and revitalise.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

European Leaders Scrabble For Agreement

From the BBC:

The outline of a large and ambitious eurozone rescue plan is taking shape, reports from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington suggest.

It is expected to involve a 50% write-down of Greece’s massive government debt, the BBC’s business editor Robert Peston says.

The plan also envisages an increase in the size of the eurozone bailout fund to 2 trillion euros (£1.7tn; $2.7tn).

European governments hope to have measures agreed in five to six weeks.

The bizarre thing is that the real issue is not whether or not some agreement can be reached, but whether or not any agreement will really have any real effect on the state of the European financial system. I am extremely dubious that the thrifty Scandinavian and Germanic nations will commit huge swathes of their wealth to save the Mediterranean ones. But even if an expanded EFSF can be brought together to successfully bail out Greece and recapitalise European banks who have to write down significant chunks of Greek debt, there is no guarantee whatever that any of these measures will address the underlying fracture in European budgeting. Namely, that European governments are spending like they are monetarily sovereign — in other words, behaving as if they can print as much money as they want to cover debts — when they are not.

Of course, there is no real guarantee that Europe will even effectively stabilise its banking system.

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