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Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Having cited Matt Taibbi’s well-read Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs in a few previous posts, it’s worth taking some time to air some fact-checks of it. (Complete article here.) Megan McCardle has dubbed Matt Taibbi “the Sarah Palin of journalism”  but I wonder what this makes McCardle – whose feeling-based objections to any of the health care reforms on the table seem different only in tone than Taibbi’s hysteric rants on financial companies.

Which is why I cite this article at The Big Money instead – which takes a fact-based rather than feeling-based – look at Taibbi’s article. The takeaway by Heidi Moore is about what I suspected:

The mammoth article disappointingly failed to provide the smoking gun that so many people on Wall Street—who have envied and admired and hated Goldman for much of this decade—would have been delighted to see.

Moore’s piece also points out some of the ways in which Taibbi’s article is misleading – and it’s worth a read. Unfortunately, I do not know have the expertise in the subject to adjudicate these disputes – which essentially involve whether Goldman Sachs was a player or the main player in these various financial disasters.

It’s worth taking a look at Moore’s piece if you were one of the many who has read Taibbi’s. But I think it was pretty clear to anyone reading Taibbi’s piece that it was deliberately over-the-top and overstated.

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The Right-Wing Canard of ‘Rationing’ and Health Care Reform

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

I came across this post by John Holbo at Crooked Timber somewhere in my web travels yesterday. (My guess is a Yglesias tweet. Because later, I came across it again on Yglesias’s blog.) Holbo makes a few good points about the use of the term “rationing” by opponents of health care reform:

Guaranteed minimum healthcare doesn’t forbid anyone to seek more on the private market – paying out of pocket, extra insurance. No more so than a guaranteed minimum income would forbid you to get a job to earn more than the minimum. So guaranteed minimal healthcare doesn’t ensure its minimum by positively forbidding anyone to get more. So it isn’t really rationing… There just isn’t going to be any attempt by the government to ration healthcare, as opposed to its own spending of taxpayer money. Because: why would there be?

Yglesias seconds this:

[C]onservative appear to have concocted a special one-off meaning of the term “rationing” to apply to government guarantees of basic health insurance coverage. They observe that insofar as the government guarantees basic health insurance coverage to everyone, the government probably can’t actually deliver an unlimited quantity of health care services without breaking the bank. Therefore, at some point someone will probably not get some service he or she might [want]. This is rationing and it’s evil and the solution, for unclear reasons, is for the government to deliver no guaranteed services whatsoever since . . . well . . it’s not clear how that’s better since either way you could still pay out of pocket.

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Theories of the Financial Crisis: Misjudging Risk

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]The bankers – whose enormous salaries were earned based on their skills at judging risk and making money – caused a financial cataclysm because they disastrously misjudged the riskiness of the complex financial instruments they created and sold.

This was the lesson I learned in the immediate days after the financial crisis – and it still explains a great deal of what happened. (Of course, there was also a good deal of outright fraud and the perversity of short-term incentives in which bankers could profit exorbitantly if they made profits regardless of how their investments turned out over the long-term.)

Cognitive errors may have contributed to the misjudging of risk. Megan McCardle for example gave a compelling description of different cognitive errors which contributed to the financial crisis – including the recency effect which she describes:

People tend to overweight recent events in considering the probability of future events.  In 2001, I would have rated the risk of another big terrorist attack on the US in the next two years as pretty high.  Now I rate it as much lower.  Yet the probability of a major terrorist attack is not really very dependent on whether there has been a recent successful one; it’s much more dependent on things like the availability of suicidal terrorists, and their ability to formulate a clever plan.  My current assessment is not necessarily any more accurate than my 2001 assessment, but I nonetheless worry much less about terrorism than I did then.

These cognitive errors were so damaging because they were programmed into the models for minimizing risk that the “quants” created to divvy up mortgages and just about everything else that could be bought and sold. 

Michael Osininski tried to claim some share of the blame in a recent New York magazine article – as one of the top “quants.”  Osininski described how he had an inkling of the disaster ahead:

[T]he world I had helped create started falling apart. I hadn’t anticipated it, but at the same time, nothing about it surprised me.

Last month, my neighbor, a retired schoolteacher, offered to deliver my oysters into the city. He had lost half his savings, and his pension had been cut by 30 percent. The chain of events from my computer to this guy’s pension is lengthy and intricate. But it’s there, somewhere. Buried like a keel in the sand. If you dive deep enough, you’ll see it. To know that a dozen years of diligent work somehow soured, and instead of benefiting society unhinged it, is humbling. I was never a player, a big swinger. I was behind the scenes, inside the boxes. My hard work, in its time and place, merited a reward, but it also contributed to what has become a massive, ever-expanding failure.

Jordan Ellenberg described how these models that purported to minimize risk actually just compressed the risk into “one improbable but hideous situation” in a manner similar to that of the 400 year old sucker bet, the Martingale. For example, Wall Street bankers combined hundreds of mortgages into securities in the belief that while some of the mortgages might default – most would not. The more mortgages you combined, the safer the investment was – as only a small percentage of mortgages typically defaulted. Unless something went very wrong. Comparing Wall Street bets to the Martingale, Ellenberg described the bet Wall Street was making:

(0.99) x ($100) + (0.01) x (catastrophic outcome) = 0

Wall Street bankers thought that the collective assets they were trading were worth $99 each in this estimate – rather than $50 as they would be if each asset were judged individually. 

One of the few people who saw this misjudging of risk as the inevitable cause of a financial crisis was Nassim Nicholas Taleb who wrote that Wall Street had consistently ignored the possibility of what he called “Black Swans” and what Ellenberg described as an “improbable but hideous situation.” Taleb has placed a great deal of blame on the mathematical models used by the quants and on the hubris of the bankers and traders who believed that they were created wealth when they were instead building an elaborate house of cards.

While he was running his own hedge fund in the 1990s, he turned his own knowledge of his lack of knowledge – and others’ lack of knowledge – into enormous profits. It came at the expense of losing a little money 364 days of the year – but making enormous profits in that one remaining day. He would bet on market volatility – which he understood financial firms repeatedly underestimated.

Taleb was castigating Wall Street barons for years as they hubristically bet greater and greater sums of money – making leveraged bets that the market would continue to rise.

Taleb’s key insight is that we know very little of the world itself – and will be more often fundamentally wrong than right. The example he uses is the Black Swan as described by David Hume:

No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.

This fundamental unknowability of the world must inform our actions, and perhaps points to some solutions. Taleb himself recently wrote a list of steps we should take to create a world more resistant to Black Swans. But his overall philosophy insists that we must attempt to resolve this crisis by tinkering with different solutions, and seeing what works, while being mindful that our actions will inevitably have consequences we do not imagine. And remember – at any point – a black swan could come around and reshape our world suddenly – as 9/11 did, as the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to start World War I, as did the invention of the personal computer, as has this financial crisis. The solution will not come from our determined application of fixed ideas, but by our openness to the possibility that we may be wrong, even as we are determined to act. We must see the shades of gray and acknowledge that we do not fully understand the world, yet still act – tinker, if you will. 

In this, Taleb seems to have reached a philosophical end point similar to the famous libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek who in his Nobel Prize speech explained that “we needed to think of the world more as gardeners tending a garden and less as architects trying to build some system.”

To tinker, to garden, to nudge – all of this points to a more modest liberalism, a market-state liberalism.

[Image courtesy of robokow licensed under Creative Commons.]

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The Financial Crisis as a Bawling Baby

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

Far from adjusting our expenditures to the needs of the moment, it seems, we tend to wildly overswing, according to our mood. The difference between the provident ant, who cautiously saves up for winter, and the carefree grasshopper, dancing and hopping, is a matter of what Keynes called “animal spirits.” It is better for the common lot if each of us is a hopper (and a shopper) rather than a hoarder. Being a nation of grasshoppers is allied to being a nation of hope.

That bit reminds me of one of the most insightful things written in the midst of the opening panic in September, this blog post by Megan McCardle about some cognitive errors that contributed to the crisis. But then Gopnik takes a very different route than McCardle, bringing the financial crisis to life by invoking a holiday classic:

In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey’s Building & Loan is, let us recall, the reckless banker of Bedford Falls, giving what would now be called subprime mortgages to people like Mr. Martini, who would be better off renting. And it is mean, miserable old Mr. Potter who berates Bailey for the practice. “And what does that get us?” Potter asks. “A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.”

Gopnik sees value in both George Bailey’s and Mr. Potter’s views – with George calling on people to sacrifice for the greater good and Potter acting in his own selfish interest and assuming others will as well. (Another recent column I read – somewhere – pointed out that the dystopia of Pottersville would have survived the industrial decline of upstate New York much better than the Bedford Falls George Bailey protected.)

But for Gopnik – as for Caldwell, and as for most observers – the crisis demonstrates the fickleness of the market itself, and the extent to which it is dominated by what an economist might have once called “animal spirits”:

An economy is not a rational model; it’s an emotional muddle. It depends on how you feel about your neighbors, about next year’s hopes, and about Mr. Martini. Which is why another new President once warned against fearing fear, and why the only thing that can cause us to panic now is panic. There is something faintly encouraging, just barely hopeful, in the human familiarity of the counsel being given by the Keynesian economists. For what they are telling us is just what the parent, in that long bad moment, wishes for the child: Take a deep breath. Look at the ornaments! Don’t cry.

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