Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Complexity is a Cash Cow (but not for you)

“Fortuna's wheel had turned on humanity, crushing its collarbone, smashing its skull, twisting its torso, puncturing its pelvis, sorrowing its soul. Having once been so high, humanity fell so low. What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale.” – from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

Frank Partnoy, in his recent Financial Times commentary, makes the bold point that while “[most] for-profit companies are run for the benefit of shareholders … banks have been run more for the benefit of employees.”

Partnoy doesn’t delve too deeply into the basis for his claim, but he may well be alluding to the fact that traders were being financially rewarded for executing trades that brought short-term profits at the expense of long-term pain.

We have all heard about the Abacus case, where the bank was accused of siding with one client at the expense of others. (Goldman settled with the SEC for $550mm). In other cases it is argued that banks actually positioned themselves in direct opposition to their clients. Needless to say it doesn’t augur well from a long-term, shareholder value perspective for a bank to be adverse to its clients. Either the bank will suffer or its client will suffer.

From a corporate governance perspective one might argue that senior management failed to the extent its traders were not being compensated based on the long-term quality of their decisions, but rather on their short-term profits. In such a scenario, the traders would not have been incentivized, or forced, to consider the long-term benefits of strong client relationships. They would simply want to execute high margin, million dollar trades.

And hence the layering on of complexity, and the disappearance of transparency.


Complex, opaque, private trades afford broker-dealing banks numerous short-term money-making opportunities.

First up, the lack of asset transparency (inability to see through to the asset’s support) and trading transparency (inability, due to the private nature of certain markets, to follow the money or the trading levels) makes it easier for banks to get away with manufacturing prices to their advantage, or taking advantage of comparatively unsophisticated (trusting) clients.

Jim Grant (founder of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer) posited in a recent Bloomberg interview that the world we live in “is a world of fake prices and of manipulated prices.” For liquid, traded securities like municipal bonds or US Treasuries, it is understandably quite difficult to massage the numbers; but for lesser-traded, or illiquid, assets price discovery can be cumbersome if not impossible, making price manipulation all the more feasible.

In Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, Scion Capital’s Michael Burry warns that “[whatever] the banks’ net position was would determine the mark,” and that “I don’t think they were looking to the market for their marks. I think they were looking to their needs.”

The lack of transparency, too, is entirely convenient to banks in the know: it creates numerous opportunities to profit at the expense of those with less information. We call this imbalance an "informational asymmetry." It may be very difficult to sell Apple stock at an above-market price to even the least sophisticated of investors: they can readily tell that the security ought to be valued lower. But when the security is complex and privately traded, and when the comparatively unsophisticated investors do not have the market know-how or savvy to model the deals, it can be much easier for a bank to "pull one over" on them. The Fed ponders the severity of this very advantage in its aptly titled report "Could Asymmetric Information Alone Have Caused the Collapse of Private-Label Securitization?"

Complexity also undermines the potential for investigative journalism (they cannot get access to the data or make a complex deal sound too interesting) and, more importantly, the ability for regulators to oversee the markets they regulate. The IMF in 2006 warned that “[while] structured credit products provide a wealth of market information, there remains a paucity of data available for public authorities to more quantitatively assess the degree of risk reduction among banks and to monitor where credit risk has gone.”

Investors would do well to acknowledge the incongruent incentives banks may have to add their complexity to their products. But as buyers, complex deals can be difficult – and expensive – to analyze, and cumbersome if not impossible to trade (out of) during times of heightened volatility.

Investors can push back when offered complex deals that don’t meet their interests – and they can strive to ensure that their rights to high quality information and transparent disclosures are upheld.

Complexity allows for high margin trades that elicit high profits, but sometimes on terms that are not commercially reasonable. And in times of high volatility, they tend to be accompanied by high bid-offer spreads. As always, it’s buyer beware.


Anonymous said...

You can add to that the difficulty finding the documents necessary to sue them for their misconduct

Linus said...

Sure, the spirit of the RULE OF LAW went down the toilet a while ago. It is very difficult to get back to the path of justice.

Anonymous said...

I would actually argue that corporations acting in the best interest of their management rather than that of the shareholders is a fairly common failure mode.

Anonymous said...

You have a treshold of complexity where the rule of law is left behind. The easiest test is to ask "how much will it cost me to audit whether the return I get from the investment is precisely what I contracted for?". If you have to answer that question with "no idea", you will have a contract that is de facto outside the rule of law.

WoodenWheel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Raters said...

Also not the easiest to find other players so you can have standing in court. Each player is immaterial - perhaps the cynics will say the banks were careful to ensure they spreAd the risk among disconnected participants from Germany to Asia to native American tribes

buzzingstreet said...

Nice and quite useful blog. Would like to say that stock market hardly gives any second chance. Once opportunity lost means it’s gone forever. Now the biggest question is how to grab trading opportunities every time we trade?
Well here comes the technical analyses handy. Just rely on research rather than your guts feeling and one should stop speculating in the Share market.
Follow few basic trading rules and we are sure one can earn huge amount in the Indian stock market only by trading in NSE and BSE