21st March 2010: Bloomberg on Michael Lewis and The Big Short

Wrote two pages for PhD draft on Alastair Johnston‘s generational model of strategic culture analysts in security studies and international relations theory.

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Michael Lewis on Bloomberg‘s ‘For the Record’ to promote his new book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010). Amazon’s #1 book although the reviews are affected by end-user problems with the Kindle  version. Lewis clearly has had extensive media training.

Major points that Lewis makes:

The five main people that Lewis profiles are outsiders — stockmarket analysts rather than bond market specialists — who had to learn about the subprime mortgage market in order to track stocks that they were interested in, and who then decided to short the market.

Financial innovation should be regarded with some skepticism – we can see examples that led to greater inefficiencies rather than more efficient markets, so some innovation can have a downside, and this may be clear only in retrospect. Lewis believes collateralised debt obligations should be more transparent, i.e. traded on exchanges and clearinghouses, so that all parties can manage their counterparty risk.

Financial service firms are now more professional than what Lewis saw at Salomon Brothers during the late 1980s. Yet Wall Street is now far more cynical: bonuses, incentives and hypercompetition have eroded the partnership ethic that keeps these firms stable.

Reviews of The Big Short: The Big Money, Washington Post.

A 20th anniversary piece on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks has a couple of interesting anecdotes on how Lynch dealt on-set with his actors.

Roger Lowenstein asks: Who needs Wall Street?

John Kay on oblique decisions.

Errors In Quantitative Models & Forecasting

Could the roots of the 2007 subprime crisis in collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) lie in financial analysts who all used similar assumptions and forecasts in their quantitative models?

Barron’s Bill Alpert argues so
, pointing to a shift of investment styles after the 2000 dotcom crash from sector-specific, momentum and growth stocks to value investing.  Investment managers who prefer the value approach then constructed their portfolios with ‘stocks that were cheap relative to their book value.’  In other words, the value investors exploited several factors — the gaps in asset valuation, asymmetries in public and private information sources, price discovery mechanisms and market participants — which contributed to mispriced stocks compared to their true value.

However, the value investing strategy had a blindspot: many of the stocks selected for investment portfolios also had a high exposure to credit and default risk.  The 2007 subprime crisis exposed this blindspot, which adversely affected value investors whose portfolios had stocks with a high degree of positive covariance.

Alpert quotes hedge fund manager Rick Bookstaber who believes that financial engineers have accelerated crises and systemic risks via the complex dynamics of new futures contracts, exotic options and swaps.  These new financial instruments create interlocking markets (capital, commodities, debt, equity, treasuries) which have the second-order effects of larger yield curve spreads and trading volatility.  Alpert and Bookstaber’s views echo Susan Strange‘s warnings a decade ago of ‘casino capitalism’  and ‘mad money’ as unconstrained forces in the international political economy.

Quantitative models also failed to foresee the 2007 subprime crisis due to excessive leverage, difficulties to achieve ‘alpha’ or above-market returns in market volatility, and the separation of risk management from the modelling process and testing.  Other commentators have raised the first two errors, which have led to changes in portfolio construction and market monitoring.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb has built a second career on the third error, with his Black Swan conjecture of high-impact events, randomness and uncertainty (see Taleb’s Long Now Foundation lecture The Future Has Always Been Crazier Than We Thought).

Alpert hints that these three errors may lead to several outcomes: (1) a new ‘arms race’ between investment managers to find the new ‘factors’ in order to construct resilient investment portfolios; (2) the integration of Taleb’s second-order creative thinking and risk management in the construction of financial models, in new companies and markets such as George Friedman’s risk boutique Stratfor; and (3) a new ‘best of breed’ manager who can make investment decisions in a global and macroeconomic environment of correlated and integrated financial markets.

Jamie Dimon’s Deal & Risk Strategies

Bloomberg Markets‘ Lisa Kassenaar and Elizabeth Hester profile Jamie Dimon the CEO who spearheaded JP Morgan Chase‘s acquisition of investment bank Bear Stearns.

Dimon compares the managerial bias for action and velocity of a pre-deal team to the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army — reminiscent of John Boyd‘s influence on business strategists with his ‘observe-orient-decide-act’ loop used in air combat.  This bias and velocity is crucial for: (1) strategic execution and rollout of high-growth strategy; (2) anticipatory responses to hedging and catastrophic risk; and (3) negotiation in surprise events such as the Bear Stearns collapse.

Dimon focuses on costs in structuring a deal, leveraging strengths and triaging this with risk management and growth strategies that are quickly scalable.  Dimon claims this is why JP Morgan Chase did not venture into the securitisation markets for collateralised debt obligations, subprime mortgages and exotic options.  Instead, his ‘fortress balance sheet’ is ‘defined by efficiency, stable sources of revenue and risk management that protects assets’.  Equally, the risk dimension of ‘risk-return’ is central to banking, securitisation and the leverage of future cashflows.

Kassenaar & Hester’s interviewees suggest Dimon has an ‘information filter’ that oscillates between ‘details’ and ‘the big picture’ to keep track of deals.  In particular, Dimon uses one sheet of paper with ‘things I owe people’ and ‘things people owe me’ rather than a Blackberry.

Dimon’s career management insights: (1) take time off after termination to create a new space; (2) make a financial commitment via an equity stake as a signal to others in your 90-day period to transition-in. Continue reading “Jamie Dimon’s Deal & Risk Strategies”