The Absurdity of Sandy Weill

I’m suggesting the big banks be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk, the depositors won’t be at risk and the leverage will be something reasonable.

This from the guy who provided the impetus and the funds to end Glass-Steagall? Totally absurd — akin to Joe Stalin renouncing Marxism-Leninism and the gulag archipelago on his deathbed.

Glass-Steagall’s separation between depository and speculative institutions — especially during the Bretton Woods period — was a relatively robust system; there was never a large-scale banking calamity of the nature of 2008 or 1929 under its regime. Certainly, it had its imperfections — above all else that it never prevented bankers like Weill from chipping away at it up to the point of repeal — but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Glass-Steagall presided over a period of growth and stability.

While the data tends to show that the end of Bretton Woods in 1971 was the real catalyst of the financialisation, globalisation, deindustrialisation and debt buildup that ultimately flung the US into a depressionary deleveraging trap, the end of Glass-Steagall was profound.

Depositors’ funds became a medium for the creation of the huge and sprawling shadow banking and derivatives webs.

The blowout growth in shadow banking was presaged by the end of Glass-Steagall in 1999:

And the slow contractionary deleveraging of shadow banking has been a significant force in keeping the economy depressed since 2008. Any contrition on the part of Weill for his role in repealing Glass-Steagall might as well be an attempt to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. It’s like trying to uninvent the atom bomb after Hiroshima. Weill was the guy who — above anyone else — was responsible for the damage done.

Coming out and claiming that reimposing Glass-Steagall would fix the problem is inadequate. If he wants to be taken seriously he should match every dollar he spent trying to get Glass-Steagall repealed with new lobbying funds to reimpose a separation between banks that accept deposits and the shadow banking and derivatives casinos.

Beyond that, I think that this is very telling. The financial institutions will do anything to avoid the ultimate free market solution — the disorderly liquidation of the system they created via default cascade. If high-ranking members of the financial elite are willing to talk about reimposing Glass-Steagall, they must be seriously concerned that the system they built is getting dangerously close to self-destruction.

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Double or Nothing: How Wall Street is Destroying Itself

There’s nothing controversial about the claim— reported on by Slate, Bloomberg and Harvard Magazine — that in the last 20 years Wall Street has moved away from an investment-led model, to a gambling-led model.

This was exemplified by the failure of LTCM which blew up unsuccessfully making huge interest rate bets for tiny profits, or “picking up nickels in front of a streamroller”, and by Jon Corzine’s MF Global doing practically the same thing with European debt (while at the same time stealing from clients).

As Nassim Taleb described in The Black Swan this strategy — betting large amounts for small frequent profits — is extremely fragile because eventually (and probably sooner in the real world than in a model) losses will happen (and, of course, if you are betting big, losses will be big). If you are running your business on the basis of leverage, this is especially dangerous, because facing a margin call or a downgrade you may be left in a fire sale to raise collateral.

This fragile business model is in fact descended from the Martingale roulette betting system. Martingale is the perfect example of the failure of theory, because in theory, Martingale is a system of guaranteed profit, which I think is probably what makes these kinds of practices so attractive to the arbitrageurs of Wall Street (and of course Wall Street often selects for this by recruiting and promoting the most wild-eyed and risk-hungry). Martingale works by betting, and then doubling your bet until you win. This — in theory, and given enough capital — delivers a profit of your initial stake every time. Historically, the problem has been that bettors run out of capital eventually, simply because they don’t have an infinite stock (of course, thanks to Ben Bernanke, that is no longer a problem). The key feature of this system— and the attribute which many institutions have copied — is that it delivers frequent small-to-moderate profits, and occasional huge losses (when the bettor runs out of money).

The key difference between modern business models, and the traditional roulette betting system is that today the focus is on betting multiple times on a single outcome. By this method (and given enough capital) it is in theory possible to win whichever way an event goes. If things are going your way, it is possible to insure your position by betting against your initial bet, and so produce a position that profits no matter what the eventual outcome. If things are not going your way, it is possible to throw larger and larger chunks of capital into a position or counter-position again and again and again —mirroring the Martingale strategy — to try to compensate for earlier bets that have gone awry (this, of course, is so often the downfall of rogue traders like Nick Leeson and Kweku Adoboli).

This brings up a key issue: there is a second problem with the Martingale strategy in the real world beyond the obvious problem of running out of capital. You can have all the capital in the world (and thanks to the Fed, the TBTF banks now have a printing-press backstop) but if you do not have a counter-party to take your bets  (and as your bets and counter-bets get bigger and bigger it by definition becomes harder and harder to find suitable counter-parties) then you are Corzined, and you will be left sitting on top of a very large load of pain (sound familiar, Bruno Iksil?)

The obvious real world example takes us back to the casino table — if you are trying to execute a Martingale strategy starting at $100, and have lost 10 times in a row, your 11th bet would have to be for $204,800 to win back your initial stake of $100. That might well exceed the casino table limits — in other words you have lost your counter-party, and are left facing a loss far huger than any expected gains.

Similarly (as Jamie Dimon and Bruno Iksil have now learned to their discredit) if you have built up a whale-sized market-dominating gross position of bets and counter-bets on the CDX IG9 index (or any such market) which turns heavily negative, it is exceedingly difficult to find a counter-party to continue increasing your bets against, and your Martingale game will probably be over, and you will be forced to face up to the (now exceedingly huge) loss. (And this recklessness is what Dimon refers to as “hedging portfolio risk“?)

The really sickening thing is that I know that these kinds of activities are going on far more than is widely recognised; every time a Wall Street bank announces a perfect trading quarter it sets off an alarm bell ringing in my head, because it means that the arbitrageurs are chasing losses and picking up nickels in front of streamrollers again, and emboldened by confidence will eventually will get crushed under the wheel, and our hyper-connected hyper-leveraged system will be thrown into shock once again by downgrades, margin calls and fire sales.

The obvious conclusion is that if the loss-chasing Martingale traders cannot resist blowing up even with the zero-interest rate policy and an unfettered fiat liquidity backstop, then perhaps this system is fundamentally weak. Alas, no. I think that the conclusion that the clueless schmucks at the Fed have reached is that poor Wall Street needs not only a lender-of-last-resort, but a counter-party-of-last-resort. If you broke your trading book doubling or quadrupling down on horseshit and are sitting on top of a colossal mark-to-market loss, why not have the Fed step in and take it off your hands at a price floor in exchange for newly “printed” digital currency? That’s what the 2008 bailouts did.

Only one problem: eventually, this approach will destroy the currency. Would you want your wealth stored in dollars that Bernanke can just duplicate and pony up to the latest TBTF Martingale catastrophe artist? I thought not: that’s one reason why Eurasian creditor nations are all quickly and purposefully going about ditching the dollar for bilateral trade.

The bottom line for Wall Street is that either the bailouts will stop and anyone practising this crazy behaviour will end up bust — ending the moral hazard of adrenaline junkie coke-and-hookers traders and 21-year-old PhD-wielding quants playing the Martingale game risk free thanks to the Fed — or the Fed will destroy the currency. I don’t know how long that will take, but the fact that the dollar is effectively no longer the global reserve currency says everything I need to know about where we are going.

The bigger point here is whatever happened to banking as banking, instead of banking as a game of roulette? You know, where investment banks make the majority of their profits and spend the majority of their efforts lending to people who need the money to create products and make ideas reality?

Global Trade Fragility

Yesterday I got my new iPad.

Yeah, I bought one like millions of other suckers. Apple can take my dollars and recycle them buying treasury bills and so partially fund, at least for a short while, America’s debt.

But really, I bought one to enjoy the twilight of the miraculous system of global trade. An iPad is the cumulative culmination of millions of hours of work, as well as resources and manufacturing processes across the globe. It incorporates tellurium, indium, cobalt, gallium, and manganese mined in Africa. Neodymium mined in China. Plastics forged out of Saudi Crude. Aluminium mined in Brazil. Memory manufactured in Korea, semiconductors forged in Germany, glass made in the United States. And gallons and gallons of oil to ship all the resources and components around the world, ’til they are finally assembled in China, and shipped once again around the world to the consumer. And of course, that manufacturing process stands upon the shoulders of centuries of scientific research, and years of product development, testing, and marketing. It is a huge mesh of processes.

The iPad is an extreme example of the miracle of civilisation. There are less extreme ones. Take, for example, the hamburger. Hamburgers did not exist until the age of regional trade, and refrigeration. The ingredients in a hamburger were not in season at the same time. Cows were not slaughtered at the time when lettuce was harvested. Lettuce was not harvested at the same time tomatoes or onions were typically harvested. For thousands of years previous to this we ate seasonal concoctions, like turkey, yams and cranberries at thanksgiving, as well as smoked and cured foods all year round. In modernity, we have been able to use modern technology to bring about any combination of produce: from greenhouses, to air freighting, to refrigeration, and so on.

I look at the global trade system — which we here in the West rely upon for goods, resources, consumption, etc — and I see something akin to the problem with the financial system in 2006. We abandoned robust and aged local systems, local knowledge, artisanship, etc, in favour of a huge interconnected mesh of trade where all counter-parties are interdependent, and where one failure can break the entire system.

This is a beautiful age. We have truly allowed our imaginations to run wild.

But is it sustainable?

Paul Krugman notes:

The world economy was, to an extent never seen before, truly global. It was linked together by new technologies that made it possible to ship products cheaply from one side of the globe to the other, to communicate virtually instantaneously over huge distances. But it was also, more importantly, linked together by the almost universal, if sometimes grudging, acceptance of a common economic ideology: the belief that free markets, with secure property rights, were the only way to achieve economic progress; and in particular that a nation hoping to make its way forward needed to welcome foreign trade and foreign investors with open arms. And this shared ideology did indeed lead to unprecedented transfers of Western capital and technology to emerging economies – transfers facilitated by the fact that everyone knew that any country that strayed from the path would be punished by financial crisis, and would soon be obliged to accept the harsh austerity prescribed by teams of Western technocrats.

The year, of course, was 1913.

So a truly global trade system has come crashing down before, and we bounced back pretty well from that. But it was a painful time. That particular collapse seems to have arisen from the complex and internecine system of warfare pacts binding great powers to the whims of smaller ones. When small powers went to war, the great powers were dragged in alongside. It was a hyper-fragile system where one small breakdown could trigger a much larger one, just like the problem that led to the present system of financial derivatives. If one counter-party fails, the whole system can be brought down.

Great powers are once again aligning themselves around smaller allies. China and Pakistan and perhaps Russia seem willing to back Iran, while the United States is reluctantly backing Israel.

But there is a new factor at play today: the service economy. While nations in 1913 were freely trading, and while the concept of comparative was widely known, no nation took interdependence to quite the extreme that so many nations have today. And many nations have taken this idea so far that without imported goods and energy, their internal economies might completely collapse, or at very best struggle with the adjustment from supranational back to local.

Here’s the situation in the United States:


And for the United States, this hasn’t been a two-way street. America is importing a lot more than she is exporting. In other words, America is now dependent on international trade.

Here’s the United States’ current account balance as a percentage of GDP, (in other words exports – imports as a percentage of GDP):

Simply international trade has become too big to fail.

The problem is, we know from history that the system of international trade can fail, and as we move deeper into the ’10s, there are a number of obvious threats emerging. The boneheaded answer from certain tenured professors and high-flying MBAs might be that the incentives to keeping the international trade system wide open (and cheap) are enough to force countries to co-operate. Tell that to Binyamin Netanyahu, who seems increasingly fixated on striking Iran, and forcing Iran to retaliate with a closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Tell that to Mitt Romney who seems ever-more intent on starting a trade war with China. Tell that to Barack Obama who — instead of pushing for the United States to mine its own deposits of rare earth minerals has run squealing to the WTO complaining of Chinese price manipulation.

This post is not a prediction. I am not necessarily predicting a breakdown in the global trade system, although there are surely many obvious dangers as well as hidden black swans. I am merely forecasting that the world is extremely fragile to one, and that the consequences to certain countries with a negative current account balance could be, shall we say, painful.

Governments are advised to go out of their way to make sure that back-up systems in terms of medium-to-long-term food supply, fuel supply and medicine supply are in place so that the consequences of a breakdown in the system of global trade can be minimised.

This is an example of a process that the philosopher Nassim Taleb has called robustification.

Unfortunately, governments seem very busy doing other things, which are far less relevant to national security.

Nations ignore figures like Taleb — surely the Nietzsche of our homogenised and manufactured age — at their peril.

Motherfucking Global

How times have changed for Jon Corzine.

Just a couple of months ago he looked like the prime candidate to take over Tim “No Chance of a Downgrade” Geithner’s poisoned chalice at the US Treasury.

Now he looks like he’s heading to jail for stealing money from clients.

Probably the most sage coverage of this saga comes from Roger Lowenstein writing for Bloomberg:

Thirteen years ago, when the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management was desperately negotiating with Wall Street banks for a bailout, Jon Corzine, the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), called John Meriwether, LTCM’s founder, and read him the riot act. Wall Street would invest, Corzine said, but “JM” would have to accept more controls, including strict supervision over his firm’s trading limits.

Corzine, I wrote soon after, “understood the flaws” at LTCM better than anyone. The firm had no controls over risk limits, no accountability to anyone who wasn’t a trader.

Essentially, Corzine forgot the lessons of LTCM‘s failed arbitrageurs, and went the hyper-leveraged Martingale path. The trouble is that unless you predict accurately, this kind of activity is a quick and easy road to bankruptcy. Leveraged 50:1, a 2% drop in asset prices can be a wipeout, and end in insolvency.

There are two key points, and one key question to take away from this:

  1. The American banking system is susceptible to a Euro-collapse — MF Global went down betting on a Euro-stabilisation. The web of derivatives extends across the global financial system, creating ever-growing fragility.
  2. None of the lessons of AIG and Lehman have been learned — the bailouts and stimuli saved a broken system, and allowed it to continue to be broken.

And the question:

  1. What effects will MF Global’s removal from the web of debt have on the financial system as a whole?

The first point is obvious (although Morgan Stanley will keep denying it, and focus instead on how Groupon is worth at least $100 a share). The second point has been obvious for a long time.

The question is much murkier. Is MF Global too big to fail without sending financial systems into freefall (a la Lehman)?

The answer seems to be “probably not”.

From TIME:

So far, the problems at MF Global appear to not be spreading to other banks. While MF Global has $40 billion in assets, it only owed about $2 billion outright to other banks. What’s more, more than half of that debt is owed to J.P. Morgan, which is one of the strongest banks around. There are other banks that are owed $6.3 billion from loans MF Global took out to make its Euro debt bets. But those debts are backed by the bonds that MF bought, and if they end up being good as Corzine claimed, then those banks should get their money back, as well as the profits Corzine hoped to pocket for his firm. MF Global does not appear to have the same type of derivatives exposure to other banks that led to the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.

Nonetheless, we will see what we will see when we see it.

Britain Separates Retail and Investment Banking — But Will it Work?

A government-commissioned report led by John Vickers into Britain’s financial system has been published — and its chief recommendation is a separating wall between retail and investment banking. This is a very similar system to what prevailed in America until 1996 under the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The chief intent is to prevent the endangerment of customers’ savings, mortgages and pensions through banks’ much riskier and more free-wheeling investment arms. This means that the risky but profitable investment banking sector would no longer be considered infrastructural, and — in theory — would be no longer be eligible for bailouts.

From the BBC:

There has been widespread support for a government-backed commission that has recommended UK banks ring-fence retail from investment banking.

The Independent Commission on Banking, led by Sir John Vickers, said it would “make it easier and less costly to resolve banks that get into trouble”.

The ICB called for the changes to be implemented by the start of 2019.

Chancellor George Osborne said the report would mean UK banks could remain competitive.

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