Financial Rigor

One of the things you learn in engineering is to be rigorous. If you build a bridge that falls down on a windy day, there’s going to be hell to pay. Financial markets are not like that; they are very noisy. It’s hard to tell who’s skillful and who’s just lucky. And a lot of analyses are done in extremely haphazard, primitive ways, but the investing public doesn’t know any better.

Feb 23, 2009 issue of Wired.

Dan diBartolomeo is the head of Northfield Information Services, a Boston financial analysis firm. He has a long history of analyzing investment strategies and complex securities. His comparison of financial markets to the rigors of engineering is noteworthy.

Checks and Balances

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

— Lord Acton

I was born in Canada and came to the US between my sophomore and junior year in high school. One of my first courses in my newly adopted country was high school civics. I learned with a newcomer’s sense of awe about the three branches of government and their important role in each checking the power of the other. It is highly attributed that this system of checks and balances is the genius of the America.

In the intervening years since those wide-eyed high school years I have been a casual observer of the reality that power and money are self preserving. …

Consumers Go On Strike

As the economy continues to sour, consumers have gone on strike. For the past few months, I have been contemplating the following economic and social trends that seem to explain why.

  • American productivity has risen almost 20% in the last decade (Source)
  • Real median income over the same period has declined (Source)
  • Executive compensation has risen astronomically (Source)
  • Consumer debt has risen substantially (Source)
  • Consumer spending comprises 70% of GDP

Rising productivity is what enables companies to increase employee’s pay. Increases in pay result in the overall rise in our standard of living. However, in the last decade, this relationship between productivity and rising employee pay seems to have been fractured.

Simple Financial Recovery Plan

Simple Financial Recovery Plan

My new favorite podcast is Planet Money. As the economic turmoil has progressed from frightening to surreal, the NPR crew at Planet Money have done a wonderful job explaining the intricacies of the complex financial world in terms that are easy to understand.

Here is what I have been able to figure out so far. Forget about the subprime mortgage crisis. A huge part of the problem is these credit default swaps – to the tune of $55 trillion dollars. These “insurance policies” were not only taken out by people who lent money to protect themselves against potential loss. Financial gamblers were also taking out credit default swaps on other people’s loans! This is raw gambling. Some analysts estimate that for every CDF taken out to by a lender to protect a loan, ten other CDFs were sold by and for third parties on the same loan.

On the Financial Meltdown

As they say on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, “and now for some quotes from this week’s news.”

First, a delightful blog I discovered called The Big Picture by Barry L. Ritholtz. In a post titled The Underlying Basis of Finance and Credit, Mr Ritholtz observes:

Over the entire history of human finance, the underlying premise of all credit transactions — loans, mortgages, and all debt instrument — has been the borrower’s ability to repay.

Except for [the 5 year period from 2002 to 2007] the entire history of human finance was rather reasonable about the basis for making loans in general, and extending mortgage loans in particular.

For 99.9996% of the last 1.2 million years, loans were granted primarily on the condition of whether or not the lender believed that the borrower could repay. Between 2002 and 2007 this condition was dropped.

Mortgage Debacle

Gretchen Morgensen has written an insightful article in the Sunday Business Section of the New York Times. After the heartbreaking introduction of a homeowner in New Jersey who would like more than anything to keep her home, Gretchen offers the following insight:

Lenders, government officials and loan servicers, who take in borrowers’ monthly mortgage payments, contend that troubled borrowers everywhere are being helped to stay in their homes by those overseeing their loans. But neither data nor anecdotal evidence supports this view. A recent survey of 16 top subprime loan servicers by Moody’s Investors Service found that for the first six months of 2007, an average of only 1 percent of loans experiencing an interest rate adjustment, or reset, had been modified.

A few minutes of logical thought would lead one to assume that lowering the interest rate of troubled loans so that the homeowner can continue to make payments and keep the house would be the best result for all concerned. …