10th March 2010: Three Chapters in Too Big To Fail

Follow-up emails with internal clients on various projects. Publication Syndicate written feedback.

Cover of

Three chapters into the audiobook edition of Andrew Ross Sorkin‘s book Too Big To Fail (New York: Viking, 2009). Sorkin did over 500 interviews and looked at primary and forensic evidence. Already, this book has loads of succinct, nuanced details of decisions, meetings, and organisational politics. Maybe Sorkin can be on CNBC ‘Squawk on the Street’ as a regular guest co-anchor.

In contrast, Gillian Tett‘s book Fool’s Gold (New York: The Free Press, 2009), which I wrote about here, is focussed on the J.P. Morgan team, its peers, and anthropological visits to securitisation fora.

It will be interesting to contrast how Tett and Sorkin portray decision-makers such as J.P. Morgan banker Jamie Dimon.

Tett and Sorkin’s books on the 2007-09 global financial crisis also illustrate two key points I made in November 2009 academic conference paper and presentation on journalists cowritten with Barry Saunders:

(i) Journalists are adopting methodological practices and innovations from areas outside media, such as anthropology, investment banking and criminology.

(ii) Business and financial journalists will conduct an average 250+ interviews for their investigations, which will take an average 9 months to 2 years to research and write. Some of the most influential investigations will have 300 to 500 interviews, which will include with key decision-makers.

Compare (ii) with many PhDs that can take 4 to 6.5 years to research and write instead of the allotted 3 years, and that may have only 20 to 40 interviews. Sorkin’s journalistic and non-fiction craft leads him to create a strong narrative, to condense the key facts and details, and to use ‘deep background’ interviews to cross-check and verify meeting accounts.

Worth Reading

Personal Research Program

McKinsey asks Conde Nast for an across-the-board 25% cut to its expenditure budgets.

US M&A deal flow is on the rise, such as the Xerox-ACS deal (CNBC video).

The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy on the ‘rational irrationality’ of financial markets.

How private equity targets the vulnerabilities of integrated supply chains in America’s automobile manufacturing industry.

Australian strategist Paul Monk on the rise of the market state.

Tweet Memes

New York Times and Slate obituaries on speechwriter and columnist William Safire.

TNR‘s Daniel Pauly poses a dystopian scenario: the ‘aquacalypse’ or end of fish.

Foreclosure Of A Hedge Fund Dream

Media personalities who took a career detour into managing hedge funds are the latest casualty of the subprime fallout, reports New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Sorkin profiles Ron Insana the former CNBC news anchor who founded Insana Capital Partners at the height of easy credit in 2006 and closed ICP in August 2008.  Insana raised $US116 million from major investor Deutsche Bank and media contacts.  Rather than invest directly in complex financial instruments Insana chose an intermediary position: a fund of funds investor in a diversified portfolio of hedge funds.

Insana made several errors that led to ICP’s blow-up.  Sorkin notes the US$116 million was a smaller capital raising than its blue chip competitors.  The fund of funds positioning meant a rational herds strategy on the hedge funds that ICP invested in.  Subprime-caused market volatility set off a cascade: the hedge funds didn’t make alpha returns above the market and ICP didn’t have the diversified portfolio to weather the volatility.  Consequently, ICP still had to pay out investors in full for their original investments (the ‘high water mark’ rule) before it could earn its ‘1.5 of 20’ fee (1.5% management fee on funds and 20% of fund profits).

Sorkin is insightful about the cost structures of hedge funds:

That would have been enough if it was just Mr. Insana, a secretary and
a dog. But Mr. Insana was hoping to attract more than $1 billion from
investors. And most big institutions won’t even consider investing in a
fund that doesn’t have a proper infrastructure: a compliance officer,
an accountant, analysts and so on. Mr. Insana had seven employees, and
was paying for office space in the former CNBC studios in Fort Lee,
N.J., and Bloomberg terminals — at more than $1,500 a pop a month —
while traveling the globe in search of investors. Under the
circumstances, $870,000 just wasn’t going to last very long.

This ‘contrarian’ observation highlights the leverage of institutional investors, and, in contrast to the usual media portrayal, the regulatory burdens of institutional compliance on funds.

Sorkin’s profile raises some interesting questions beyond his comparison of Insana and the media-savvy millionaires who blew-up after the April 2000 dotcom crash.  Did ICP adopt the trend following strategy from CNBC’s media coverage and Insana’s popular books?  If so, could Insana distinguish between market noise and critical events?  How did Insana grapple with the career change from CNBC news anchor to hedge fund head?  What risk mitigation steps did ICP’s investors demand, and did Insana exercise prudential caution? When he had to close ICP was Insana able to be self-critical about his past decisions and errrors?  Are there firm-specific, operational and positioning risks for fund of funds?  That would be a really interesting post-implementation review for aspiring hedge fund mavens.

Don’t expect to see it in CNBC European Business or Bloomberg Markets anytime soon.

Bryan Burrough on Bear Stearns’ Demise: A Dark Possibility

Bryan Burrough is legendary in M&A circles for co-writing Barbarians at the Gate (Harper & Row, New York, 1990) with John Helyar, the cautionary tale of RJR Nabisco’s leveraged buyout and the winner’s curse faced by deal-maker Henry Kravis.

Burrough’s latest investigation for Vanity Fair contends that short sellers used CNBC and other media outlets to spread rumours that destabilised Bear Stearns and sparked a liquidity run on the investment bank’s capital.  Burrough’s thesis has sparked debate that overshadows his investigation’s strengths: a strong narrative and character portraits, new details of the negotiations with JPMorgan Chase and the Federal Reserve, and a cause-effect arc that shifts from CNBC’s internal editorial debate to the effects its coverage has on the marketplace and the subjective perceptions of individual investors and senior decision-makers.

In the absence of a ‘secret team’ or a ‘smoking gun’ how could Burrough’s thesis be tested?

Theoretically, Burrough’s hypothesis fits with: (1) a broad pattern over two decades of how media outlets respond to media vectors, systemic crises and geostrategic surprises; (2) the causal loop dynamics and leverage points in systems modelling; (3) the impact that effective agitative propaganda can have in psychological operations; and (4) the complex dynamics and ‘strange loops’ in rumour markets (behavioural finance) and rumour panics (sociology), notably ‘information cascade’ effects on ‘rational herds’.

This is likely a ‘correlation-not-cause’ error although it does suggest a dark possibility for strategic intervention in financial markets: could this illustrative/theoretical knowledge be codified to create an institutional capability, deployed operantly, and which uses investor fears of bubbles, crashes, manias and various risk types as a pretext for misdirection?  Behavioural finance views on groups and panics, and George Soros‘ currency speculation against the Bank of England’s pound on Black Wednesday suggest the potential and trigger conditions may lie in the global currency/forex markets (using stochastic models like Markov Chain Monte Carlo for dynamic leverage in hedge funds) and money markets (using tactical asset allocation).  If possible, this capability could also create second- and third-order effects for regulators, the global financial system and macroeconomic structures, and volatility in interconnected markets, which may actually be more dynamic and resilient than this initial sketch indicates.

To meet quantitative standards and validate Burrough’s hypothesis a significant forensic and data analytics capability with error estimates would also be required.  ‘Strong’ proof may not be possible: Burrough’s hypothesis is probably an unsolvable ‘mystery’ rather than a solvable ‘puzzle’ (a distinction by intelligence expert Gregory Treverton that The New Yorker‘s Malcolm Gladwell later popularised).

Ironically, several CNBC analysts have already decided: they used parts of Burrough’s hypothesis to explain the subsequent short-selling driven volatility of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac‘s stock prices in mid-July 2008.