2nd March 2010: Fool’s Gold

‘Pair of hands’ editing and budget development on a research tender.

Finished reading Gillian Tett‘s book Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets, and Unleashed a Catastrophe (New York: The Free Press, 2009). Tett’s social anthropology perspective highlights the role of securitisation and financial innovation in the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Most of her sources appear to be a J.P. Morgan cohort, interviews with J.P. Morgan Chase chief executive officer Jamie Dimon, and industry conferences such as the European Securitisation Forum. Tett believes the J.P. Morgan cohort pioneered collateralised debt obligations in the mid-1990s and that this ‘super-senior debt’ had a pivotal role in the crisis. Fool’s Gold is most interesting when Tett describes the cohort’s original goals and the CDO innovation-to-market process; although Dimon is also portrayed as a savvy corporate philosopher and details-oriented manager.

In response to a Geert Lovink post on blind peer review in academia, Barry Saunders and academic friends tweet this process in an open ecosystem. My take? Many authors will already know who their critics are if there are clear personal agendas rather than constructive suggestions on how to improve an article. Look at the list of associate editors when applying to a ‘target’ journal as they will probably review your work. There are ways to handle ‘rejoinder’ processes – such as to show the internal inconsistencies between positive and negative reviewers. Many academic journals now use a hybrid approach.

In November, Ben Eltham and I wrote a conference paper and presentation on Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis. It’s been read by Australia’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, and been heavily downloaded. Today, Ben received news that University of East London senior lecturer Terri Senft has used our paper in her coursework on digital media culture here. Check out Terri’s personal site, LinkedIn profile, and LiveJournal blog.

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.

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”