1st June 2013: Proposal for ISA’s 2014 Annual Convention

The International Studies Association is holding its Annual Convention for 2014 in Toronto, Canada.


Below is one proposal I have submitted for consideration by the International Political Economy and International Security sections:


Geopolitical Flashpoints, Systemic Risk & Distal-Influenced Spatiality


Abstract: Geopolitical flashpoints and systemic risk are now global arbitrage opportunities for hedge funds and political risk firms. Bridgewater (Ray Dalio), AQR Capital Management (Aaron C. Brown), PIMCO (Bill Gross & Mohamed El-Erian), Roubini Global Economics (Nouriel Roubini), and Stratfor (George Friedman & Robert D. Kaplan) have each contributed to media, policy, and practitioner debates about the 2008-10 rare earths bubble, the United States pivot toward Asia, and Iran-Syria-Russia oil speculation. This paper uses develops a Bayesian inference framework which emphasizes distal (far away) and spatial cause-effect relationships, in order to explain how hedge funds and political risk firms as non-state actors can enact global arbitrage and actively influence/shape public debates. I integrate analytical research from the sociology of finance (Donald MacKenzie), international security (Stephen G. Brooks), critical world security (Michael T. Klare & Naomi Klein), intelligence studies (Amy B. Zegart, Robert Jervis, & Gregory Treverton), hedge funds (Andrew Busch & Andrew Lo), and fictional speculation (Richard K. Morgan), to develop a new, inductive theory-building alternative to current explanations that emphasize proximate (near) and temporal causes. This paper advances new understanding about ‘casino capitalism’ (Susan Strange), expert networks, hedge fund activism, and political risk arbitrage.

Mumbai Siege: The Hunt for the Perpetrators

Counterterrorism analysts search for answers as the official death toll from Mumbai’s siege rises to 183 people.  We now enter Susan Moeller‘s second stage of post-terrorist attacks: the hunt for the perpetrators and seeking justice.  See my October 2001 analysis here on the September 11 aftermath and Henry Rollins’ reaction in New York City.

Slate‘s Anne Applebaum observes that we don’t yet know much about the group that carried out the attacks.  Applebaum’s analysis echoes Walter Laqueur‘s ‘new terrorism’ thesis in the mid-to-late 1990s: attempts at mass casualty attacks, tactics from the guerrilla and insurgency playbook, an ideological mix, and groups that either do not claim credit or who are not on the radar of counterterrorism analysts.  Applebaum captures Gregory Treverton‘s distinction between solvable ‘puzzles’ and potentially unsolvable ‘mysteries’ in intelligence analysis.

“The particulars of the attacking group are unknown; the
political-military equation from which the group has almost certainly
arisen is not,” notes The New Yorker‘s Steve Coll.  The most plausible hypotheses for Coll and other counterterrorism experts are: (1) Pakistan’s intelligence services may have funded the group in a clandestine/proxy war with India; or (2) the group emerged as an autonomous cell that was ideologically motivated by the clandestine/proxy war.  Coll explains why at this early stage the Mumbai siege is closer to Treverton’s ‘mysteries’:

If past investigations into such groups prove to be any guide, it may
be difficult to find clear-cut evidence of direct involvement by
Pakistani intelligence or army personnel. This is because Pakistan,
knowing the stakes of getting caught red-handed, has increasingly
pursued its clandestine proxy war against India in Kashmir and on the
Indian mainland through layers and layers of self-managing and
non-state groups. The Pakistani government and its domestic Islamist
proxies, including nominally peaceful charities based in Pakistan but
with operations in Kashmir, almost certainly pass through money and
weapons on a large scale. They do so, however, in such a way that is
very difficult to trace these supplies back to the government.

Applebaum highlights the epistemological challenges that counterterrorism analysts face; Coll offers some guidance on how to conduct an investigation on the basis of ‘contingent’ beliefs and alternative hypotheses.

Pakistan’s government denies any role
in the Mumbai attacks.  Perhaps forensic analysis of crime scene
evidence will provide answers and shift the current speculation from
Treverton’s ‘mystery’ to ‘puzzle’.  Or maybe not.

The next day Coll analyses India’s claim that the group Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the Mumbai attack.

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.