Wall Street’s Math Wizards Forgot a Few Variables

September 14, 2009

by Steve Lohr
Monday, September 14, 2009
The New York Times

In the aftermath of the great meltdown of 2008, Wall Street’s quants have been cast as the financial engineers of profit-driven innovation run amok. They, after all, invented the exotic securities that proved so troublesome.

But the real failure, according to finance experts and economists, was in the quants’ mathematical models of risk that suggested the arcane stuff was safe.

The risk models proved myopic, they say, because they were too simple-minded. They focused mainly on figures like the expected returns and the default risk of financial instruments. What they didn’t sufficiently take into account was human behavior, specifically the potential for widespread panic. When lots of investors got too scared to buy or sell, markets seized up and the models failed.

That failure suggests new frontiers for financial engineering and risk management, including trying to model the mechanics of panic and the patterns of human behavior.

“What wasn’t recognized was the importance of a different species of risk — liquidity risk,” said Stephen Figlewski, a professor of finance at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University. “When trust in counterparties is lost, and markets freeze up so there are no prices,” he said, it “really showed how different the real world was from our models.”

In the future, experts say, models need to be opened up to accommodate more variables and more dimensions of uncertainty.

The drive to measure, model and perhaps even predict waves of group behavior is an emerging field of research that can be applied in fields well beyond finance.

Much of the early work has been done tracking online behavior. The Web provides researchers with vast data sets for tracking the spread of all manner of things — news stories, ideas, videos, music, slang and popular fads — through social networks. That research has potential applications in politics, public health, online advertising and Internet commerce. And it is being done by academics and researchers at Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook.

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Bailed-out bankers to get options windfall: study

September 2, 2009

Wed Sep 2, 2009 11:14am EDT
By Steve Eder

NEW YORK (Reuters) – As shares of bailed-out banks bottomed out earlier this year, stock options were awarded to their top executives, setting them up for millions of dollars in profit as prices rebounded, according to a report released on Wednesday.

The top five executives at 10 financial institutions that took some of the biggest taxpayer bailouts have seen a combined increase in the value of their stock options of nearly $90 million, the report by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies said.

“Not only are these executives not hurting very much from the crisis, but they might get big windfalls because of the surge in the value of some of their shares,” said Sarah Anderson, lead author of the report, “America’s Bailout Barons,” the 16th in an annual series on executive excess.

The report — which highlights executive compensation at such firms as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), Morgan Stanley (MS), Bank of America Corp. (BAC) and Citigroup Inc. (C) — comes at a time when Wall Street is facing criticism for failing to scale back outsized bonuses after borrowing billions from taxpayers amid last year’s financial crisis. Goldman, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have paid back the money they borrowed, but Bank of America and Citigroup are still in the U.S. Treasury’s program.

It’s also the latest in a string of studies showing that despite tough talk by politicians, little has been done by regulators to rein in the bonus culture that many believe contributed to the near-collapse of the financial sector.

The report includes eight pages of legislative proposals to address executive pay, but concludes that officials have “not moved forward into law or regulation any measure that would actually deflate the executive pay bubble that has expanded so hugely over the last three decades.”

“We see these little flurries of activities in Congress, where it looked like it was going to happen,” Anderson said. “Then they would just peter out.”

The report found that while executives continued to rake in tens of millions of dollars in compensation, 160,000 employees were laid off at the top 20 financial industry firms that received bailouts.

The CEOs of those 20 companies were paid, on average, 85 times more than the regulators who direct the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, according to the report.

(Reporting by Steve Eder; editing by John Wallace)


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