Black Swan

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Risky Business

Published June 29th, 2009 edit replace rm!

Last week I gave my talk on Agile Banking at Reboot 11. This week I have taken my talk and turned it into a series of blog articles that I will post here once a day.

The world is in serious trouble. Recession is hitting most parts of the world. While many people debate the exact reasons for it, most agree that the reason it has grown to the current extent is due to structural problems with our banks. We have become too reliant on them and they have grown so intermingled that our politicians believe they are too big to fail.

While we can talk about all kinds of things, such as sub prime mortgages, monetary policies etc. etc. The real problem is one of risk.

Risk is not a number

Imagine you going to a horse race to bet on a horse that is such a sure bet that it is only 1/10 chance that it will lose. The horse is faster than all the others, has a great jockey, you are set to win. You take out all your cash, take out all the money from your credit cards and remortgage your house to make a huge bet. After all there is no way you can lose. You make the bet and 10 meters before the finish line the horse falls. Against all odds you have lost all your money and are now in incredible debt.

This is essentially what has happened to the worlds financial system. It is irrelevant (but interesting) to discuss why the horse fell. The real issue is the lack of understanding of risk that made you put all on that one horse.

The banks of the world all went together and borrowed all of our money and all at the same time made the same really, really safe bet. After all it was a sure thing. The only problem was that the impossible happened and now everyone is trying to hide from the bookmaker.

Banks like most other people don’t understand risk. In many cases Banks don’t even understand themselves. Most very large banks have no clue of their own liquidity (how much cash they have) at any given time.

Imagine if you started writing checks like crazy without really having an idea how much money you have in your checking account. Banks frown on it if you do it, but they themselves are for the most sake guilty of this.

Because of this you get situations where you have one risky trade and they’re gone. We have seen this before with individual banks, however this time all of them made the same bet and most of them are in serious trouble.

Traders love risk numbers. What I mean by risk numbers is a number generated by some magic formula that condenses certain factors about an investment. This makes it easy for them to compare how risky an investment is.

Regulators also love risk numbers. It makes it easy for them to regulate the banks. They can specify what risk formula their banks should use and then look at a spreadsheet and see quarterly risk numbers for each bank. If a banks risk number is too high, they can send scary letters to the banks saying you need to take less risks.

The Black Swan

The only problem is what Nassim Taleb calls the Black Swan. Before the discovery of Australia Europeans thought there was no such thing as a black swan, it was impossible. Yet they were in for a surprise when they discovered it in the land of the Koala.

In other words the improbable will happen. The Black Swan is an unforeseeable event, that nevertheless happened. If you can’t imagine something happening you can’t calculate the possibility of it happening, thus any particular risk number can never take a black swan in to account.

Nassim states that Black Swan’s happen all the time. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad. Yet in most cases they have had much larger influence on the world than anything we ever planned for or predicted.
The current financial crisis could not be seen in the analysts risk numbers. Yet it happened and the banks were not ready.

Risk numbers are good for black jack and other casino games, where all different outcomes can be calculated. But they can never be trusted if you can’t 100% guarantee you have taken into account all outcomes.

Outside the casino there are very few areas where you can calculate all outcomes, thus they are useless in the real world.

In short “shit happens”.

For more on the Black Swan check out these quite entertaining two podcast interviews with Nassim:

Any fix to the banking system must accept this. Risk can be managed through limits and real diversity, but not by relying on a single number or forumla.

So, who is going to fix our banking system?

You would think the banks would like to fix themselves. They might but most are too big to fix. I am willing to bet they even know this themselves. The only way save them without huge fundamental changes is through some sort of artificial protection.

Who will protect them? The same people who are meant to keep them under control of course, the regulators. The regulators are the government agencies looking after the banks. In the US the FDIC and Federal Reserve. Every country has one or more government regulators.

So far the regulators have been very busy. They’ve given us lots of words, spent lots of our money and not made any real changes.

The problem is that regulators are not innovators. Their solution? Besides limiting the bonuses of high level bank employees, which has absolutely nothing todo with any of the causes of the current crisis, their gut instinct is to regulate harder.

They raise limits and increase reporting requirements. In reality they are not physically capable at the moment of doing anything but raising limita and telling people off after the fact.

What this actually does is that it raises the barriers of entry for new banks or banks trying to innovate. Large established banks can easily afford to pay themselves out of this by building up larger compliance departments. Regulators think this makes their job easier and it also allows them to say to the public that they are getting tough on banks.

What we really need is innovation. The system is broken and we need to think differently. We as entrepreneurs are stuck with the job. Innovation can only come from small startups and activists. These are the only ones without vested interests in keeping the system the way it is. But as I mentioned the regulators make it very hard to innovate in banking.

I have a plan!!!

Where in we go back to basics, but lets rewind things a bit first.

In tomorrows post I will cover some history.

The Black Swan and You

Published July 9th, 2008 edit replace rm!

By now many people have heard of Nassim Taleb’s amazing book Black Swan. This book has completely changed the way I think about the world as a whole and startups in particular.

I really recommend you read the book as I can’t possibly do it justice myself. However I will give a brief overview here. Hopefully in later posts I will go on about how this all applies to startups and technology.

The Black Swan itself signifies the highly improbable. Until one was discovered in Australia, Europe thought the idea of a black swan as being impossible. See Nassim’s own video explanation here. Anyway Nassim uses the term Black Swan as meaning a highly improbable event.

The importance of these highly improbable events are that it is very hard to properly analyze and plan anything as just about any major change (both good and bad) come through Black Swans.

Nassim Taleb's Top 10 Life Tips

Published June 1st, 2008 edit replace rm!

Great interview with my favorite author Nassim Taleb at The Times.

I will write my own review of his theories at some point and how they apply to startups, but until then he gives these 10 tips in the above interview that I think spell them out pretty well.

Taleb’s top life tips

1. Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.

2. Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.

3. It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie. If possible, tease people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.

4. Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act — if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.

5. Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. We don’t understand their logic. Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific ‘evidence’.

6. Learn to fail with pride — and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error — by mastering the error part.

7. Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network. Never take ‘no’ for an answer (conversely, take most ‘yeses’ as ‘most probably’).

8. Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or (again) parties.

9. Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.

10. Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them.

About me

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My name is Pelle Braendgaard. Pronounce it like Pelé the footballer (no relation). CEO of Notabene where we are building FATF Crypto Travel Rule compliance software.

Most new articles by me are posted on our blog about Crypto markets, regulation and compliance

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