Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world

Here’s a reprint from an article that appeared in the Financial Times today by one of my favorite author’s Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I first mentioned Taleb in the post Its Official: Hell Freezes Over. If you are unfamiliar with his work, definitely check out Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. It’s one of those life-enriching books (in a geeky sort of way).

Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Published: April 7 2009 20:02

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks – and hence the most fragile – become the biggest.

2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains. Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bail-out should be free, small and risk-bearing. We have managed to combine the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France in the 1980s, the socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus. The economics establishment (universities, regulators, central bankers, government officials, various organisations staffed with economists) lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system. It is irresponsible and foolish to put our trust in the ability of such experts to get us out of this mess. Instead, find the smart people whose hands are clean.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show “profits” while claiming to be “conservative”. Bonuses do not accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives: capitalism is about rewards and punishments, not just rewards.

5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. The complex economy is already a form of leverage: the leverage of efficiency. Such systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy; adding debt produces wild and dangerous gyrations and leaves no room for error. Capitalism cannot avoid fads and bubbles: equity bubbles (as in 2000) have proved to be mild; debt bubbles are vicious.

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning. Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”. Cascading rumours are a product of complex systems. Governments cannot stop the rumours. Simply, we need to be in a position to shrug off rumours, be robust in the face of them.

8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains. Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homeopathy, it is denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it is a structural one. We need rehab.

9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement. Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as storehouses of value: they do not harbour the certainties that normal citizens require. Citizens should experience anxiety about their own businesses (which they control), not their investments (which they do not control).

10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs. Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the “Nobel” in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.

Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.

In other words, a place more resistant to black swans.

The writer is a veteran trader, a distinguished professor at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute and the author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Is Your Money Market Safe?

Did you know that you Money Market Account could have sub-prime mortgage exposure and thus you could your principle? Did you know that they are also not FDIC insured? Its true, MMA’s invest in RMBS (Real estate Mortgage-Backed Securities) and other SIVs (Structured Investment Vehicles). Both RBMS and SIVs can be used to invest in sub-prime or alt-A mortgages, both of which are a risky proposition right now. Maybe even prime mortgages are risky too. With such lax underwriting standards the past few years, it really isn’t a surprise that there are so many defaults occurring.

Another thing to consider is that MMAs are not covered by FDIC.

The fact that FDIC may not even have enough money to pay out all the investors if several banks go under is a separate discussion.

Also, stay away from savings accounts with banks that have significant mortgage exposure. If you have less than the FDIC limit of $100,000 you’ll get your money back, eventually, but its still a hassle.

Banks like Countrywide, which is facing HUGE mortgage-related losses, could fold and unnecessarily tie up your money for several months. Much better to spread your risk around.

I do not have a money market account. And I have my savings spread out between Bank of America, ING Direct, Commerce Bank and Capital One Bank. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but based on the impossible black-swan events that keep occuring in the financial markets, I’d rather be safe than sorry.

In fact, I think keep my cash in a brokerage account with no exposure to mortgage-backed securities may not be a bad idea. Most brokerages are covered by SIPC rules which extend to $500,000. And buying Treasuries, Munis or even Senior Income Trusts like VVR may not be a bad idea!

Its Official: Hell Freezes Over

Last week, hell froze. The Financial Times reports:

In a rare unplanned investor call, the bank revealed that a flagship global equity fund had lost over 30 per cent of its value in a week because of problems with its trading strategies created by computer models. In particular, the computers had failed to foresee recent market movements to such a degree that they labeled them a ‘25-standard deviation event’ – something that only happens once every 100,000 years or more.

“We are seeing things that were 25-standard deviation events, several days in a row,” said David Viniar, Goldman’s chief financial officer.

Losses in the Goldman fund could go over $1.5 billion. But heck, everyone makes mistakes. And even a great mathematician such as James Simons, founder of Renaissance Technologies, takes a loss from time to time. Simons used to do math for the Pentagon. Then, he discovered that he could make billions running a math-based hedge fund. But last week, Simons was forced to write a letter to his investors. His fund lost about 9% in the first few days of August…and now Simons says, “we cannot predict the duration of the current environment.

So apparently, math whizzes find they don’t know which way the market is going, despite all their fany financial modeling and risk calculation and mitigation through the use of derivates.

No matter what kind of math you do, sometimes things take you by surprise.

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest best seller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable , improbable events with infinitely small odds of occurrance seem to occur every so often, especially in the financial markets. And with disastrous results!

And if this wasn’t enough, Sentinel Management Group, with $1.6 Billion under “management” has frozen access to Money Market Accounts!
According to the Chicago Tribune,

“If you attempt to withdraw money from Sentinel, they will tell you they will not honor that request,” said lawyer Jeffrey Barclay, who represents some of the futures brokers and investment pools whose money is frozen at Sentinel.

With $1.6 billion under management, Sentinel had advertised itself as an ultrasafe cash manager for people in the futures industry, corporate treasurers and well-to-do individuals.

Now the company is saying nothing publicly and has taken down its Web site. “We are not taking any media calls,” said a person who answered the phone at Sentinel on Wednesday.

What is the world coming too?

Related Readings:

1. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

2. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

3. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management