Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

Financial engineering in a nutshell

Posted by alifinmath on October 2, 2008

Instead of splurging $40,000+ on a meretricious MFE degree, learning a load of worthless and obsolete terminology and ideas, you can now get a concise synopsis at dissidentvoice here:

They create an assortment of financial entities, documents, and packages that go by names like hedge funds, derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, index funds, credit default swaps, structured investment vehicles, subprime mortgages, and dozens of other exotic monetary vehicles. They create all manner of commercial pieces of paper, of no known real or inherent value, backed up by few if any standards. Then they sell these various pieces of paper to the public and to each other. They slice and dice mortgages into arcane and risky instruments, then bundle them together, and sell the packages to those higher up in the pyramid scheme. And some of those engaged in this Wild West buying and selling become millionaires. Some become billionaires. They get Christmas bonuses greater than what most Americans earn the entire year. Is all this not remarkable?

And much of the buying is not done with the buyer’s own money, but with borrowed funds; “leveraged”, they call it. The pieces of paper sometimes represent commodities, but the actual commodities are not seen, may not even exist; if the seller demanded the buyer’s own funds, or the buyer wanted to see the goods, the whole transaction would freeze. They sell “long”, expecting the price to rise; they sell “short”, expecting the price to fall; they sell “naked short”, which means they neither possess nor own what they’re selling; a name for each gimmick. They take ever-greater risks buying and selling increasingly-esoteric pieces of paper. It’s a glorified Las Vegas, casino capitalism.

These pieces of paper can be so complex that many of those buying and selling them do not fully understand them; no problem, they just resell the pieces of paper to someone else at a higher price, even when one or both parties know that the paper, while pretending to be payable debt, is virtually worthless. The government, even when it tries to moderately regulate this Monopoly board, can at times also be confused by the complexities of the pieces of paper, compounded by the less-than-transparent practices that envelop the transactions; a potpourri including speculation, manipulation, fraud. Billionaire financier Warren Buffett has called the pieces of paper “weapons of mass financial destruction.”

The boys of finance have been playing their games for years, and so at each stage of the process there are insurance policies allowing the players to hedge their bets; they insure, and they re-insure; hopefully covering themselves against the many risks of the game, often knowing that they’re trading in questionable debts; the giant corporation AIG, a major player in the insurance game, has just been taken over by the federal government. And with each transaction, at each level, someone earns a commission or a fee. There are also other firms whose purpose in life is to go around rating various players and their pieces of paper and their credit worthiness and giving seals of approval which are relied upon by investors. Some of these rating firms, we’re now learning, have been surprisingly incompetent, when not simply dishonest

President Roosevelt, confronted in the 1930s with similar players, called them “banksters”.

It’s all built on faith, as fragile as the religious kind, the belief that something is worth something because it comes with a piece of paper with reassuring words and numbers written on it, because it’s traded, rated, and insured, because someone will sell it and someone will buy it. The same market psychology, the same herd mentality, that went into constructing this house of cards built on pillars of greed can cause the house to collapse in a heap. But the Monopoly players keep their bonuses, and bow out with multimillion-dollar golden parachutes; while tent cities are springing up all over America.

Is this any way to run a society of human beings?

And the government is in the process of trying to bail out these reckless traders, these parasites, rescuing them and their system from their own nonsense. With our money; without a major restructuring of the Alice-in-Wonderland rules of the financial games, without instituting the toughest of regulations, oversight, and transparency, and with no guarantee that the spoiled-little-brat Masters of the Universe will act in any way other than their own narrow self interest, the rest of us be damned.

Capitalism is the theory that the worst people, acting from their worst motives, will somehow produce the most good.

There is perhaps some consolation. The libertarian and neo-conservative true believers will have a harder time selling their snake oil of privatization of Social Security or any other social program. Government regulation of matters vital to the public’s welfare may be taken more seriously. We may hear less of that old bromide that markets are inherently self-correcting. It may even give a boost to the idea of national health insurance.

And the libertarians and neo-conservatives are hurting and defensive, albeit not yet admitting to any new-found wisdom. A Washington Post interview with some true believers at the Cato Institute, where Ayn Rand’s picture prominently hangs, produced these quotations: “Too much regulation got us where we are” … “The biggest emotion we’re feeling right now is frustration that the media narrative is that this is a crisis of the free market, a crisis of capitalism, a crisis of under-regulation. In fact it’s a crisis of subsidization and intervention.” … “Capitalism without losses is like religion without hell.”1

And just think: Cuba has been tormented without mercy for 50 years because it refuses to live under such a financial system.

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