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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Destructive Power of the Financial Markets: Der Spiegel

 There are three more excellent pages on this, Part II.  I hope it gets you hooked enough to read the full whack. - Virginia
08/22/2011
  Out of Control

The Destructive Power of the Financial Markets

Photo Gallery: Taming the Financial Monster
Photos
AFP
Part 2: 'The Inability of Economists to Correctly Interpret the World'

And still, says Heiner Flassbeck, chief economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, "the time doesn't seem ripe, and the crisis wasn't severe enough, to grant -- in defiance of the neoliberal zeitgeist -- economic policy clear primacy over speculation-prone markets and to systematically restrict the financial industry to its function as a service provider to the real economy."
Flassbeck believes that the crises in the globalized economy have "a common root, namely the inability of economists to correctly interpret the world." Because financial markets function in a completely different way from markets for goods, Flassbeck argues, they should never be left to their own devices.
Of all people, it was an academic specializing in literary studies who managed to most accurately analyze the insanity of the financial markets and the impotence of economists. With his short 2010 book "Das Gespenst des Kapitals" ("The Specter of Capital"), Joseph Vogl wrote a closet bestseller that, despite being a tough read, attracted attention far beyond the arts section of newspapers -- including among economists.
His theory is that crises are not some kind of occupational hazard in the financial system. Instead, Vogl argues, it is the system itself that inevitably leads to new crises.
Vogl is sitting in his office at Berlin's Humboldt University, where he has a view of the Berlin Cathedral. He is dressed completely in black and is chain-smoking. Black-and-white photos on the wall depict his role models from Paris in the late 1960s: the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and, holding a megaphone, Michel Foucault.
Vogl was teaching at Princeton University when Lehman Brothers collapsed. He knew nothing about financial markets, and yet he was fascinated by the "confusing empiricism," which had so little to do with theory.
According to economic theory, the invisible hand of the market always leads to equilibrium, as Adam Smith wrote in his classic 1776 work "The Wealth of Nations," which Vogl refers to as the "Bible of economists." The same theory is still taught in universities today.
Tendency Toward Excess
But the theory also tells us that today's excesses in the financial markets should never have occurred. This leads Vogl to conjecture that "by no means does the capitalist economy behave the way it's supposed to."
While the theory tends to be based on the economics of a village market, completely different circumstances apply in the financial markets, where both goods and expectations are being traded, and where speculative transactions are used to hedge against other speculative transactions. Vogl describes the principle as follows: "Someone who doesn't have a product, and neither expects to have it nor will have it, sells this product to someone who also neither expects nor wants to have it, and in reality does not receive it."
This type of market will always have a tendency toward excess -- in either direction.
Paul Woolley holds the same view, but from a different perspective. He is intimately familiar with the financial markets, after having made millions working in the London financial district. He spent four years with the deeply traditional Barings Bank, which was eventually destroyed by a minor English trader in Singapore. He later worked for the American fund manager GSO, which specializes in making very rich people even richer.
In Woolley's experience, the idea that financial markets are efficient is erroneous. "All players in the financial markets behave rationally from their own perspective, but the outcome of this process can be disastrous for mankind," he says.
Woolley, 71, still wears a pinstriped suit, tie and white shirt, but now he works in a small office stuffed to the gills with academic studies at the renowned London School of Economics. Woolley donated 4 million pounds (€3.5 million) to the elite university and funded its Paul Woolley Centre for the Study of Capital Market Dysfunctionality.
His goal is to prove how dangerous the financial markets are. "It's like a tumor that keeps growing," he says. According to Woolley, there is no justification for the fact that this industry brings in more than 40 percent of all US corporate profits and pays the highest salaries in good years, while in bad years it is bailed out by taxpayers.
'Destroying Society'
In recent months, Woolley has spoken before the investment committee of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to major US fund managers at Harvard Law School. He is able to present his academic theories in the language of the market. And the turmoil on the markets is now so great that people are listening to this revolutionary in a pinstriped suit.
The former fund manager had his light-bulb moment when, in 2000, the dot-com bubble burst. Woolley had repeatedly told his clients, which included many of the world's major asset managers, that small, money-losing tech stocks would not always be valued in the billions on the market.
But his warnings fell on deaf ears, and GMO's clients withdrew 40 percent of their money when the company stopped investing in technology securities.
Woolley has observed the same phenomenon again and again. "The herd runs behind a trend until a crash occurs." Society, he says, also pays a high price for this behavior. "The financial industry is doing a pretty good job of destroying society," says Woolley. Many of his former colleagues, he adds, have a guilty conscience because "they can't believe that the financial industry is still getting away with it."
He feels that bankers have a strong incentive to design products to be as complex and non-transparent as possible. These products enable them to earn returns upwards of 25 percent, because customers simply do not understand the extent to which they are being had. Structured mortgage-backed securities, the risks of which even their creators no longer understood in the end, as well as credit default swaps, which allow investors to bet on the bankruptcies of entire countries, are only the best-known examples.
The more activity there is in the markets, the higher the fluctuations and the greater the potential profits. There is little that the traders at investment banks and hedge funds fear more than a boring market, one in which the economy is humming along nicely and the prices show little movement. The conditions that are reassuring to managers and employees in the real economy often lead to depression in the financial sector.
Two weeks ago, the share price of Société Générale, a major French bank, fell by 14 percent, after the British newspaper Daily Mail had reported the previous day on alleged problems at the bank. Even though the bank promptly denied the veracity of the report, the rumor had been set in motion. Apparently no one cared whether or not it was true. It was later rumored that journalists at the British paper had taken a piece of summer fiction printed in the French newspaper Le Monde, about a breakup of the euro zone and troubles at Société Générale in 2012, to be the truth -- which the Daily Mail promptly denied.
Too Complex For Humans
This story seems almost antiquated, because share prices are usually set by computers nowadays. When Deutsche Börse decided to move from Frankfurt to the nearby town of Eschborn, the town saw a rapid increase in the demand for air-conditioned basement space, where so-called high-frequency traders, as well as banks, set up their state-of-the-art supercomputers. These computers are programmed to independently buy or sell stocks at intervals down to the millisecond, which enables them to react to the latest trends in the market.
Whoever has the fastest connection to the market stands the best chance of taking advantage of a critical millisecond and thus reacting to a price signal ahead of the competition. The computers are far more efficient than any human trader, because they can process hundreds of pieces of information per second. At the same time, such programs can also amplify -- or even trigger -- a crash.
On May 6, 2010, prices on Wall Street plunged by almost 10 percent within a few minutes. To this day, no one knows exactly what caused the so-called Flash Crash. Because this sort of thing happens with growing frequency, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has imposed a waiting period on computers in emergency situations. If the price of a stock has dropped by 10 percent within five minutes, trading is temporarily halted, allowing the human players to consider whether there is in fact a real reason for the sharp decline.
Woolley believes that this regulation is insufficient. He is calling for a strict ban on high-frequency trading, which, in his view, has no social value whatsoever.
Computers have long set the tone in foreign currency trading. The currency markets are now too complex for humans to manage alone. "We realized that you couldn't really manage this with the human thought process, it was too difficult, there were too many variables," says New York hedge fund manager Taylor. Many of his roughly 60 employees are IT experts, mathematicians and engineers. They feed massive volumes of data into the computers, including figures on the gross domestic product of countries, interest rates, commodities prices and inflation rates. "The only thing the computers can't handle are political developments, that is why we have me as Chief Investment Officer," says Taylor, although he points out that the money ultimately follows the instructions that are spat out by the computers.
But even Taylor isn't entirely convinced of the myth of purely rational markets that obey nothing but the logic of numbers.
For example, says Taylor, he is "sure" that legendary speculator George Soros is "plotting against the euro." Although Soros denied such accusations in an interview with SPIEGEL last week, he also said: "Financial markets have a very safe way of predicting the future. They cause it."
The 81-year-old is one of the founders of the hedge fund industry. In the early 1990s, he suddenly became the quintessential unscrupulous speculator, one who takes advantage of even the tiniest weakness in the system without regard to the consequences. He borrowed 10 billion British pounds, then sold them on, triggering a wave of speculation that meant the Bank of England could no longer maintain the pound's fixed exchange rates against the other currencies in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The pound had to be devalued and withdraw from the ERM. Soros was able to buy back the sum of money he had borrowed from the bank at a lower exchange rate. It was a bet that earned him more than $1 billion (€700 million).

Rest is at link above.
Here are the other parts of the series:

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