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.

Efficiency Perils in Global Food Markets

The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki provides an overview of volatility in the global food market.  Three insights emerge for me:

(1) Differences between policymakers and food security experts at the problem diagnosis stage may have complicated the implementation of structural adjustment programs.  Food security poses solutions that are potentially counterintuitive to policymakers: the former will value food stocks to ensure stability in sovereign nation-state the international political economy whereas the latter may prioritise food flows for international trade, to hedge commodities and currency risks.  Surowiecki explores a contemporary scenario of potential market failure due to demand-supply, pricing and other distortions with the allocation mechanisms.

(2) David Ricardo‘s theory of comparative advantage – in which each nation specialises in the efficient production of goods and services to trade with others for maximum payoff – may not be scalable in its simple form to a complex, interconnected and global system.  Surowiecki’s analysis suggests tha the over-reliance on a few countries for specific foods will undermine the global system’s resilience and capacity to cope with exogenous shocks and volatility.

(3) Paramaters for investor and market models of the global food market using Vensim simulation software: production supply, demand volatility, pricing, subsidies/tariffs, stocks and flows, and leverage points.  Undertake different short- and long-run simulations noting the role of capacities, dynamics and thresholds, and the impacts of exogenous shocks and volatility.

Subprime Winners: Rational Herds & Decision Researchers

US capital and derivatives markets in mid-2008 provide a real-time laboratory for behavioural finance analysts who want to understand the madness and wisdom of crowds.  The past week’s case studies include the implosion of the US bank IndyMac and the market volatility triggered by fears that Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac are highly exposed to liquidity risk.

As financial reporter Michael S. Rosenwald notes in The New York Times, these recent events appear to fit the behavioural finance hypothesis that individual investors who make fear-driven and risk-averse decisions can trigger pricing shifts as an aggregate rational herd.  Guillermo A. Calvo and Enrique Mendoza found in a 1997 paper that globalisation counteracts the emergence of rumour markets based on imperfect information and country-specific knowledge, although not in emerging markets due to uncertainties.

However the recent events have different conditions that set delimits on Calvo and Mendoza’s model: the United States is the epicentre of the bear market triggered by the 2007 subprime crisis, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have psychological primacy as major financial institutions with US Federal Government backing, and investment media firms such as Bloomberg and CNBC use globalisation to create de facto rumour markets amongst day-traders and others.

Readers interested in rational herds should also check out Christopher P. Chamley’s book Rational Herds: Economic Models of Social Learning (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 2004), excerpt here.

Decision researchers are the other early winners of the 2007 subprime crisis, due to the failure of many quantitative models to predict the Black Swan event.  Rosenwald mentions Harvard University’s new Bio-Behavioral Laboratory for Decision Science which conducts ‘conducts research on the mechanisms through which emotional and social factors influence judgment and decision making.’  He also refers to the Oregon-based nonprofit group Decision Research.  An Australian-based counterpart might be the Capital Markets CRC, an R&D consortia that focuses on ‘new technologies and improvements in market design’.

Investment analysts still have divergent opinions on recent events.  However the research agenda above prompts several new questions:  What happens to rational herds and rumour markets when bio-behavioural methods of decision-making are no longer ‘imperfect information’ but are widely understood and integrated into investment choices?  How will markets be redesigned to cope with this eventuality, and who will take on this responsibility?  What new financial instruments, markets and products will emerge generativity?

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.