20th May 2010: On Michael Milken


In November 2009, the Australian cultural policy author Ben Eltham and I published a conference paper and presentation on Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis. One of our conclusions was that as a social network platform Twitter can be prone to rumours and two dynamics: information cascades (people making the same choices) and rational herds (a form of social learning in which individuals self-organise into groups, usually on the basis of shared affinities, identity or preferences). We cited Christopher Chamley and Mark Schindler‘s work, whilst Cass Sunstein has written important work on how information cascades and rumours spread.

Collectively, these authors observe the tendency for people to forward and filter information without checking the pertinent facts, evaluating the motives of their source, personalising the ‘other’, and also not considering the original, appropriate context.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the pre-Twitter career of financier and philanthropist Michael Milken (personal site). In the early 1970s, as a young analyst at the leveraged buyout firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, Milken foresaw a new market in high-risk securities that blue-chip investment firms would not touch: high-yield or ‘junk’ bonds of debt-laden companies. As depicted in Connie Bruck’s excellent book The Predator’s Ball (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), a source for Adam Curtis‘ must-see documentary The Mayfair Set (BBC, 1999), Milken became a major driver of the 1980s private equity boom. Despite being implicated in the Ivan Boesky arbitrage case, and being barred for life from the securities industry, Milken has subsequently reinvented himself through the Milken Institute think-tank and other activities.

The power-users of social networks like Facebook and Twitter may joke about gaining ‘world domination’. As a self-styled ‘Master of the Universe’, Milken actually achieved this goal, if only for a brief time. Consider the strategic dimension of how Milken did so. As a true innovator, he foresaw new markets and macroeconomic trends a decade before others did. He developed powerful, financial innovations in debt securitisation, mergers and acquisitions, and risk arbitrage. He built a loyal and private network, together with the organisational capabilities to leverage deal-flow. He also controlled the public dissemination of market information through conferences and media interviews. He understood the subtle power of crafting and framing a media image around themes which appealed emotionally to people — entrepreneurship, freedom, and being the revolutionary vanguard — which Curtis argues was really a personal agenda to cement Milken’s influence, power and social status. Many of Milken’s strategies tapped the dynamics of rumours, information cascades and rational herds, apparent in the 1980s private equity boom.

Perhaps this is why Milken tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Bruck not to publish her book.

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?

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.