Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Traders, Guns and Money

Although I read this delighful book a few months ago, I was reminded of it today as the author (Satyajit Das) wrote a long article on the whole 'green shoots' business in the Mint today.

The book is a side splitting and very very accurate take on life in the daring world of derivatives. The author, thanks to his massively varied experiences (true or apocryphal, I know not!) paints a rollicking picture of banks vs. clients (sophisticated companies, ignorant companies, MNCs, small noodle makers - the only thing they have in common is that they get shafted :-). Replete with incidents like the 'big swinging dick' trader farting (and more... its so gross its quite funny) loudly to make his point on the trading floor, or an English lawyer turning the tables on the big bad bankers from Goldman or the hookers used by the sales guys for their Indonesian clients, the book keeps one laughing most of the time. Add to that the fact that our dude author talks very intelligently about derivatives, and you have a winner on your hands.

Some excerpts (from this interview of the author):
Story 1
A trader I know thought that it might be useful to have his business cards translated into Japanese. His official title was “Trader- Fixed Income”. The Japanese translation was “Trader on Fixed Salary”. The card brought strange looks from the bemused Japanese clients. It seemed more than a little was lost in translation.
Story 2
Around 1999, I met an ERM (Enterprise Risk Management) advocate,. Dudley , the head of risk for an investment bank. He wanted to meet me. I had no idea why. I soon discovered that Dudley had reached ERM. It was the “new”, best-est thing. It was revolutionary. Dudley was at the forefront. He would give me an example of the problems he was trying to model.
“Let’s say our head trader has a complex trading strategy only he understands, yes”. I nodded. I didn’t think any strategy could be that complex, at least if a trader had put it on. But it was quite likely that no one knew about it. The trader may have not told anyone. “Let’s say the trader bicycles to work”. I did not think this likely. Traders prefer Porsches. Not wishing to prolong the discussion, I did not disagree.
“On the way to work, he is hit by a bus. His mobile phone is knocked away from him and damaged. He is unconscious. Assume that simultaneously market prices move due to surprise news. This news is vital to the trader’s position. He does not know. Nobody knows what to do with his position”. I nodded. “That’s not all. Assume simultaneously, there is fraud in another bank”. I nodded in real agreement. That was very likely. “This bank goes into bankruptcy. It creates a financial crisis. This of course affects the trader’s position. He doesn’t know of course. He’s unconscious”. I was hoping he would get to the point soon.
“At the same time, assume there is an accident at a power plant. There is a blackout. The bank’s back-up generator fails. The mechanic forgot to check the fuel tank. The bank’s computer system goes down. The trader can’t get prices or model the risk on his position”. I reminded Dudley that the trader was unconscious, maybe deceased. “Exactly”, he replied cheerily. It went on.
Eventually after a tragedy of biblical proportions had been outlined, Dudley reached the end. “I am modeling the probability that such an event could occur”. For me, it was one step too far in the search for “holistic risk”. Risk management seemed to have completed its transformation into pure entertainment. Dudley seemed the epitome of a risk manager who would drown crossing a river that was 12 inches in depth on average.
Story 3
Nero and I marketed together a fair bit. I provided the technical bits. He smoozed the clients. Nero and I were making a pitch for a new structured product with a portfolio manager from an overseas fund over dinner. Dinner was a 3 martini, 2 bottles of French red wine and cigar and brandy affair. I kept looking for a moment to interject and explain the structure and benefits of the trade. I didn’t get a chance.
Towards the end of the evening, the fund manager turned to Nero and said: “The girls are coming up to my room, right?” I looked at Nero surprised. “You didn’t forget the stuff, it drives the girls wild?” Nero muttered something and carefully steered the conversation in a different direction. After dinner, Nero and I left the hotel. Nero stopped and drew his hand in a cutting motion across his throat. “Remember IBGYBG,” he said. “I be gone, you be gone. Got it kid.” A week later the portfolio manager was on the phone. “Been thinking about your deal. Like it a lot. Send me a term sheet. I think we can do something there.” We closed a juicy trade for $200 million booking profits of over $2 million.
Years later, one of Nero’s boys was pitching a deal to a client. Coincidentally, I happened to be a consultant to the customer. During the presentation, I asked some questions. Nothing personal, I was doing my job. The presentation wasn’t going to plan. Eventually, the salesman stood up and said: “The product is unsuitable for you. It is intended for someone less sophisticated.” I rang and told Nero. He killed himself laughing. True lies, all of them.

I think I'll read it again this weekend!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Eaten alive

Last week the wife and I decided to try something off the beaten track. We tried an experiment where we were fodder from some creatures called 'doctor fish' (garra rufa for the scientifically inclined) flown all the way from Turkey. The concept is quite simple - the fish are supposed to eat up dead skin, giving the person a natural derm-abrasion, and leaving behind only healthy skin. While one can get a full body treatment, we were only adventurous enough for a feet therapy session. Some pictures (not very clear since taken from a phone camera):
The biggest problem in the entire 20 minute experiment was keeping ourselves from laughing uncontrollably from all the tickling. The verdict - only good for experimenting, definitely nothing that dramatically improves the feet or your skin. Will I go again? No, unless I'm in a blue funk and need a lot of giggling to get me out of it!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

'Black Swan' author talks sense

in this article from FT...
Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Published: April 7 2009 20:02 Last updated: 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

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


These creative advertising types certainly can be innovative.
Courtesy (of all places!!):