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Archive for May, 2011

The Risks of Quantification

May 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Readers of this blog know I believe three things:

  1. Economics and Finance are at least half, if not principally, psychologies. Not math, not science.
  2. Economies, and their associated capital markets, are complex, emergent, and adaptive systems.
  3. Tied to 1 & 2 (and plenty of other reasons), mathematics is frequently a problematic approach in trying to describe (let alone forecast) the economy and/or capital markets.

The amazing thing is that, like automatons, much of this industry learns a bunch of math and rules and models, and seldom or never thinks of the linkage between those models and reality. Here’s a great perspective on that issue:


Capital Markets Innovation Goes on, and it Is Good

May 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Amid the relentless outcry on the “dangers” of new financial products over the last years, it’s easy to forget that financial innovation—while of course it has its dangers—most often creates more information, more access, and greater versatility.

One such recent example is Howard Lutnick’s (of Cantor Fitzgerald) idea to create a derivatives market in property, pegged to rents, as a way to hedge against volatility in individual regional prices, or even to specific structures. 

Cantor Aims to Change Game: Idea for Property Derivatives Pegged to Rents Arises From Surprise Acquisition — Dana Rubinstein

This is a great idea. It will simultaneously give folks ability to hedge against their property if they so choose and also allow market speculators to provide information in the form of prices on future expectations. (Yes, that’s generally a good thing.)  

Lagarde is Status Quo

May 26, 2011 Leave a comment

As noted last week, the IMF scandal is good theatre but of little consequence to capital markets or the wider economy. And after all the humdrum about corruption, all the blustering about Europe’s (and specifically France ’s) dominance over the IMF, the seeming choice in successor—Christine Lagarde—is pure form, ultra status quo. A career French politician. She might be in a different political party from Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but that won’t matter much as IMF leader.

But let’s say she won’t be ascendant. The reality is the EU holds about 30% of the vote for choosing the successor. So just about any other viable candidate will prove similar, including John Lipsky (currently acting as interim managing director), and long-shot Gordon Brown. None of these folks will represent radical change at the IMF. And that’s the part that should matter most to market watchers.  

To Understand LinkedIn, Remember EDS

May 25, 2011 Leave a comment

The LinkedIn IPO reminds me of Ross Perot’s EDS in the late 60s–small float, tremendous public appetite for the shares, and riding a larger wave.  The end of the 60s was the “go-go” era, and companies like IBM (from which EDS had roots) enlarged the public’s imagination and fervor. At the time, many thought EDS was bulletproof from bear raids–shares were so scarce and marginal demand so strong that shorts would get quickly squeezed. But in the early 70s EDS eventually suffered one of the most breathtaking drops of the era for almost no fundamental reason. Who knows if it’ll happen that way to LinkedIn, but this story isn’t new.  

Capitalism Can’t Work Without Loss Potential

May 24, 2011 Leave a comment

An important piece from Floyd Norris in last week’s NYT, and a view not articulated often enough these days.  Japan  and Tepco are an example here, but this is not about them—this attitude is pervasive in the last couple years.

Flash Crash Fallacy?

May 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve read a lot lately about how the recent drop in oil was a “flash crash” of sorts, and caused by speculators, stop-losses, and a vicious cycle of ever-lower prices triggered as certain price thresholds were hit. Or, said differently, all non-fundamentals. Thus, that big drop in oil (and commodities with futures markets generally) have been totally delinked from the real economy.

Here’s what I don’t get: If it really was a “flash crash” in oil—and mind you, we’re talking about the deepest commodity market in the world—then why didn’t the price snap back just as quickly? Or at least within a few days?

Of course, the recent slide in oil was breathtakingly fast, but it’s also true that commodities don’t exactly have a history of smooth and easy linear movement. It was also breathtaking how fast oil went up and back down in 2008. From my view, there’s been quite a lot of reporting lately about bigger than expected oil inventories, and higher than expected production globally.

The point: Let’s not be so quick to call everything a flash crash. Markets can and will move sharply and quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean reality isn’t being reflected in the process—markets, once they figure something out, will price in truth very, very quickly, and generally without warning.  

Total Time Warp

May 19, 2011 Leave a comment

A purely anecdotal observation: an investor’s sense of time is often skewed. We’ve all heard “time flies when you’re having fun”, but I think the opposite is probably true in bad times: “time drags when the chips are down”.

The bear of 2008 not only still has sting for folks, but that period felt like it took forever and a half. Conversely, we’re into the third year of a new bull market and most don’t even realize it. Whizz-bang-boom! That was fast! Folks I talk to around the country—average investors of all sorts—seem to feel this way. They don’t see stocks are starting to approach their previous all-time highs, GDP in many regions (including the US ) is back at all-time highs, or earnings are set to make new all-time highs this year. Time flies when it’s not so bad.

Part of this is likely prospect theory: the Nobel Prize winning notion that people tend to dislike a loss 2.5 times more than they like a similar gain. So the sting is bigger, especially after an outsized bear market. But I also think the mind naturally plays tricks on us in terms of its perception of time—epochs of intense negativity have that agonizing, never-gonna-end feel to them. Whereas, when things are recovering or moving up generally, maybe attention gets diffused elsewhere, you worry less and less, and the next thing you know, time has flown by.

I have nothing to back this up other than my intuition and personal experience—here’s hoping a behavioral economist will take this question up soon (maybe someone already has and I just haven’t seen it yet). Either way, this is one of those issues where it pays to let the data tell you what’s going on—this includes history. Our memories are often distorted and we need to be reminded just how things happened.  

The DSK Debacle and Markets

May 17, 2011 Leave a comment

The wildly theatrical perp walk and amazing no-bail incarceration of Dominique Strauss-Kahn—International Monetary Fund Managing Director, aspiring next president of France , and, perhaps, part-time philanderer—is less a catastrophe for markets than is being bandied about in the media.

 Mohamed A. El-Erian, titan of PIMCO, believes this is a big deal. I have the utmost respect for Mr. El-Erian, but disagree. Indeed, in Mr. El-Erian’s own words:

Should he be forced to step down, DSK would be the third successive head of the IMF to leave suddenly. Once again, this would catch the institution with a selection process for the top position that is still overly dominated by politics, horse-trading between Europe and the US and other outmoded characteristics.

These facts alone strongly suggest the world gets along just fine no matter the IMF leader. My view is that the mainstream media has overblown this thing by initially saying, “Hey, this is an important guy most of you’ve never heard of!”, which has been conflated to “he was so important, in fact, that without him potentially all the European sovereign debt woe solutions will be derailed.” Unlikely. The IMF is a highly political, and ultimately fairly small, issue in all of this. True, their capital has assisted with the bailouts in Europe so far, but ultimately it’s the EU (with a heavy dose of Germany ) calling the shots here. If there is to be more help from the IMF, it’ll come with or without DSK.

This whole thing roils French politics, no doubt. DSK was the shoe-in presidential candidate to overtake a severely weakened Sarkozy. Now, that seems done. It’s worth noting though, that DSK was a leader in the socialist party—something the French need less of. So his departure from both the IMF and the political scene, from an economic ideological standpoint anyway, is not a negative to my view.

Bottom line: there’s little or nothing about this sensational scandal that should derail global capital markets, which have been through many catastrophes, scandals, and even assassinations of important leaders, and lived to tell the tale.  

Debating the Role of Risk on Wall Street

May 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Twitter News Flies Faster

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Increasingly clear over the course of the last couple years is that traditional “breaking news” feeds just aren’t good enough anymore. Traders, hedge funds, and others that need to know “first” about events that could move markets have moved on from the AP and Bloomberg. Those things are slow as snails nowadays.

Instead, play around with Google News—you’ll notice immediately that Tweets, blog posts, and other information hits a Google search basically instantaneously, and this is now the way to get up to the millisecond news. There have been all sorts of amusing articles in the last months about hedge funds who base some of their strategies on Twitter feeds, have their own proprietary internet search software to crawl the web, even have folks on the ground in key spots to text and email news wherever it happens! And I believe it.

Mind you, I have no idea why an average investor would want most of this kind of information—my sense is that it would do nothing but give the illusion of knowledge and make you ever more prone to investment mistakes (if you don’t have the fastest trading technologies and strategies, fastest news means little). Also, this kind of breakneck speedy news also screams the possibility of falsities, unfounded rumors, etc.

But at any rate, the way folks get their market information is evolving.  

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