Archive for February, 2009

Writing systems and cultural survival

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Assertion:  the degree of cultural survival in shocks (e.g. colonization) is directly proportional to the degree of sophistication in the pre-existing writing system.

As a result, Europe’s North American colonizations were like a cultural neutron bomb:  even where the population survived, little remained of the original culture.  Yet in India, after 300 years of British rule, people generally still spoke Hindi, wrote in Sanskrit, liked Buddha, etc.  Similar case with China.  India and China both had well-developed independent writing systems, which accounts for the difference.

Similarly, Korea maintained a separate language and writing system (though not religion) despite hundreds of years of domination by China and Japan.  Why?  unique writing system.

But the Philippines was another neutron bomb situation, with nothing left but Tagalog (pidgin Spanish overlaid on a pre-existing language) and several geographically isolated regional dialects. Again, no pre-existing writing system.

Perhaps the most extreme case might be the Israelites, who maintained an independent language, religion and culture for over a thousand years despite having no country.  The reason is seemingly Hebrew.

In conclusion, your mom was right:  if you want to remember something, write it down.

What if it’s all about transparency?

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

As we launch into the biggest Keynesian stimulus in history, it bears mentioning that its purported efficacy is based on a single historical example, whose success is still debated.

So, as long as we are making unproven assertions about what cures a great depression, here is an alternative. Judge for yourself.

High debt and unknowable exposure don’t mix. You can have one or the other, but not both. If you have low debt, you can tolerate uncertainty about exposure and risk. If you have high debt, you can still take risks, but critically, you need to know exactly where your exposure is, how big it is, or you quickly become insomniac and sensitive to loud noises.

Thus, if you have a debt-driven depression, the first order of business is to massively increase transparency, so that risk can be better quantified by anyone who wants to risk their capital.  Under this model, even bad news would unlock capital, if that news served to quantify exposure.

Repeat:  if you have high debt, unknowns may be OK, but unknowable unknowns are not.

What is a financial panic?  It is the fear of unquantifiable exposure.

“How bad is it right now?” ask investors, consumers and managers. If they can’t answer the question even approximately, then they must assume the worst. When you aggregate those assumptions together, you get a depression.

The obvious policy response is to massively increase the transparency of such exposure. That may bring bad news, but according to Adam Smith (remember him? policymakers sure don’t), individual agents are quite efficient at working around problems, if they know what they are.

This seems to be a forgotten lesson of the Great Depression. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  What fear? Unknowable unknowns. For example, how safe is your bank?  Are you really getting market price from your broker when you buy a stock? Everyone thought they knew the answers in 1928, but found they could not estimate them even approximately in 1931.

One of the primary policy responses then was to make risks more knowable. For example, consider banking regulation. If a depositor knows his bank must disclose its exposure in great detail to the federal government, his loss exposure is not zero, but it becomes somewhat predictable. Such transparency is much more useful than deposit insurance, because it guides good decisions for both banks and depositors, without moral hazard on either side.

Now investors, managers and consumers are faced again with a sudden tidal wave of unknowable uncertainty.  They thought they knew these basic things, and now realize they know nothing:

  • What is the true default risk of a Moody’s AAA rating?
  • What is the resale value of this or that mortgage-backed security?
  • What is the true financial position of my bank, insurance company or broker?

Throwing money around doesn’t address this problem. No matter what the Fed or Treasury does, the credibility of the credit rating agencies is still suspect. No one knows what certain unregulated securities are worth. Again, high debt is intolerable without transparency.  Until transparency is restored, everyone will still be racing to deleverage, and the ship will keep going down.

Here are some specific actions, which could be taken immediately, that would help restore transparency, permitting all those little rational agents to resume their business:

  1. Create a regulatory agency specifically overseeing credit rating agencies.  Enforce limitations on conflict of interest.  Force one more re-rating of all MBS.
  2. Create a federal mortgage-backed security information website.  Display the contact info of any entity owning more than 10% of a given issue.  Display the deal terms.  Display the actual individual properties held by each mortgage-backed security, scrubbed of personal info, but  still showing 9-digit zip code, square feet, and so on. This would permit anyone to value any MBS, and to contact major owners to make offers.
  3. Several months later (after there has been time to absorb the information), require at least one US exchange to offer a listed market in MBS, displaying bid/ask prices publicly.
  4. Several months later (again, for info absorption time), require all banks and all public companies to disclose their specific MBS holdings.  On the balance sheet, they may either mark to market or hold to maturity, but in any event, must disclose all individual holdings.

The above would drain the swamp in MBS and the rating agencies.  Yes, it would be ugly.  Banks would fail.  But, er, at risk of stating the obvious, if they are holding bad assets, they will fail anyway.

These are the sorts of changes that would bring a true solution.

Nokia didn't get this memo?

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Nokia signs €500 million loan for Symbian R&D – Engadget, Feb 18 2009

Er, Symbian is a 10-year failed effort with low installed base and no market power.  Some perfectly good mobile operating systems are available free, right now.  Why on earth would one spend half a billion on something with no economic value?

The information technology strategy playbook is quite clear on what to do in this situation.  Once you are losing with a closed standard, you never catch up.  You are certain to lose.  If you are certain to lose with a closed standard, immediately embrace an open standard.  This lowers your costs and helps prevent rivals from winning with a closed standard.

This has been widely understood for at least 10 years.  What can they be thinking?

Power of Transparency

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009
Transparency deflates back-room politics at every level, from the White House to the small office.  If political snakes slither unseen in the grass, just mow the grass, forcing visibility.

Here’s an example.

Caitlin (not her real name) was art director on a dysfunctional project assigned to me in 1995.  Turned out the team was falling apart because Caitlin badmouthed other members behind their backs.  She did this privately, one-on-one, then denied it when confronted.  She gained a strange power through private accusations — everyone was angry and afraid.

The solution was simple (wish I thought of it, but the kudos go to Sam):

Get everyone on the team into one room, and force accusations to be public.  ”Caitlin, is it true you told Bonnie that Charles is dishonest?”  Caitlin, Bonnie and Charles are all sitting right there.  Caitlin now has a dilemma:  if she says “yes,” Charles can defend himself;  if she says “no,” then many in the room know she is lying.  Caitlin, in this instance, chose to lie;  her credibility vanished instantly and forever.  

Problem solved in 10 minutes.  I’ve used this many times since.  It works.  Guess that’s why the right to face your accusers is written into the Constitution.

Secret accusers, like vampires, thrive in the shadows.  Shine a bright light, and they shrivel.  


The qualitative crisis

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

The US invented, and has largely succeeded with, quantitative management techniques.  Rightly so:  measurement is the basis of reasoned discovery.  But as a result, we have a tendency, when faced with a complex problem, to focus on the parts that are easiest to measure, rather than the parts that are obviously most important.

It appears the financial crisis is such a problem, whose root causes are essentially non-quantitative.

Let’s back up a few months, to summer 2007, before demand had collapsed.  What was the problem then?  The cost of borrowing was exploding, putting firms at risk, and financial firms in particular.  Why did that happen?  Two reasons.  First, the credibility of bond rating agencies was destroyed by the mortgage crisis.  No one trusted a triple-A bond to stay triple-A, so no one wanted to buy bonds.  Second, investors began to realize that various firms had vast exposure off the balance sheet, and there was no way to estimate risk.

Both of these problems, it would seem, can be traced to what governance expert Daniel Kaufmann calls “legal corruption,” which basically means blatant conflicts of interest that are not explicitly illegal.  These are rife in the US financial system, too many examples to list — refer to Kaufmann’s recent Forbes article for more.  Perhaps because they cannot easily be measured, these activities are getting almost no attention.

This is, one hopes, what the current administration means by the pursuit of “transparency,” which could be construed to mean the following:

  1. Force big auditing firms and banking regulators to require clear disclosure of off-balance-sheet exposure by public firms.
  2. Regulate the bond rating agencies, which have demonstrated they cannot regulate themselves.

These two things alone would go far to restore investor trust, which would by itself stabilize markets.  I suspect these would accomplish more than any fiscal stimulus.