On the Complexity of Finance

Steve Randy Waldman of Interfluidity has a very smart post outlining his thoughts to this question: why is finance so complex? He argues that, in fact, finance has always been complex. And not only that, finance has been opaque, and “complexity is a means of rationalizing opacity in societies that pretend to transparency.” Opacity in modern finance is a feature, not a bug. If you fully understood the risks of all your investments, he argues, you might be wary of investing…

Using examples from game theory (see stag hunt), Waldman continues:

Like so many good con-men, bankers make themselves believed by persuading each and every investor individually that, although someone might lose if stuff happens, it will be someone else. You’re in on the con. If something goes wrong, each and every investor is assured, there will be a bagholder, but it won’t be you. Bankers assure us of this in a bunch of different ways. First and foremost, they offer an ironclad, moneyback guarantee. You can have your money back any time you want, on demand. At the first hint of a problem, you’ll be able to get out. They tell that to everyone, without blushing at all. Second, they point to all the other people standing in front of you to take the hit if anything goes wrong. It will be the bank shareholders, or it will be the government, or bondholders, the “bank holding company”, the “stabilization fund”, whatever. There are so many deep pockets guaranteeing our bank! There will always be someone out there to take the loss. We’re not sure exactly who, but it will not be you! They tell this to everyone as well. Without blushing.

If the trail of tears were truly clear, if it were as obvious as it is in textbooks who takes what losses, banking systems would simply fail in their core task of attracting risk-averse investment to deploy in risky projects. Almost everyone who invests in a major bank believes themselves to be investing in a safe enterprise. Even the shareholders who are formally first-in-line for a loss view themselves as considerably protected. The government would never let it happen, right? Banks innovate and interconnect, swap and reinsure, guarantee and hedge, precisely so that it is not clear where losses will fall, so that each and every stakeholder of each and every entity can hold an image in their minds of some guarantor or affiliate or patsy who will take a hit before they do.

Opacity and interconnectedness among major banks is nothing new. Banks and sovereigns have always mixed it up. When there has not been public deposit insurance there have been private deposit insurers as solid and reliable as our own recent “monolines”. “Shadow banks” are nothing new under the sun, just another way of rearranging the entities and guarantees so that almost nobody believes themselves to be on the hook.

This is the business of banking. Opacity is not something that can be reformed away, because it is essential to banks’ economic function of mobilizing the risk-bearing capacity of people who, if fully informed, wouldn’t bear the risk. Societies that lack opaque, faintly fraudulent, financial systems fail to develop and prosper. Insufficient economic risks are taken to sustain growth and development. You can have opacity and an industrial economy, or you can have transparency and herd goats.

At the height of the financial crisis, so-called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) were all the rage with investors. There were also CDOs on CDOs, dubbed CDO^2. This quote by Bank of England official Andrew Haldane illustrates the complexity of such a product:

To illustrate, consider an investor conducting due diligence on a set of financial claims: RMBS, ABS CDOs and CDO^2. How many pages of documentation would a diligent investor need to read to understand these products? Table 2 provides the answer. For simpler products, this is just about feasible – for example, around 200 pages, on average, for an RMBS investor. But an investor in a CDO^2 would need to read in excess of 1 billion pages to understand fully the ingredients.

Waldman’s post is worth checking out in entirety if you want to follow along the game theory examples. They’re fascinating.

One thought on “On the Complexity of Finance

  1. This is very true. There are so many “hands in the bucket” when it comes to many of the variable options. and we could talk all day about CDO’s, which are a perfect example of how investors thought they, but really didnt know about the behind the scenes activity and how they REALLY work.

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