The Treason of the Economists

LONDON – All epoch-defining events are the result of conjunctures – the correlation of normally unconnected events that jolt humanity out of a rut. Such conjunctures create what the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “Black Swans” – unpredictable events with a vast impact. A small number of Black Swans, Taleb believes, “explain almost everything in our world.”

The prosperity of the first age of globalization before 1914, for example, resulted from a successful constellation of developments: falling transport and communication costs, the technological breakthroughs of the second industrial revolution, the pacific state of international relations, and Great Britain’s successful management of the gold standard. By contrast, in the interwar years poisonous international politics combined with global economic imbalances to create the Great Depression and set the scene for World War II.

Now consider recent financial innovations. On the back of the new computer and telecommunications technology, a giant market for derivative instruments was built. Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs, mainly tied to mortgages) made a new population of aspiring homeowners supposedly creditworthy by enabling the originating banks to sell “sub-prime” debt to other investors.

Before securitization, banks typically held mortgages; now they could get them off their books. But securitized credit taken off one bank’s balance sheet usually ended up on another bank’s books. What resulted was a wonderful system for diversifying individual bank risk, but only by magnifying the default risk of all banks that held what came to be called “toxic” debt. Because all the derivatives were based on the same assets, if anything happened to those assets, all the banks holding the debt would find themselves in the same soup.