Overconfidence and the financial crisis

May 5, 2009

Malcom Gladwell kicked off this morning’s New Yorker summit with a talk about the causes of the financial crisis in general, and of the collapse of Bear Stearns in particular, and started provocatively, by saying that if his diagnosis of the problem is correct, then really “there aren’t any solutions”.

Gladwell’s diagnosis is simple: massive amounts of overconfidence, as revealed by its two most common symptoms, miscalibration and the illusion of control. Both of which can be seen in spades in the person of Jimmy Cayne, whose interviews with William Cohan for House of Cards show a man who’s really very deluded about what Cohan, and Cohan’s readers, are going to think of him.

More generally, said Gladwell,

What’s going on on Wall Street isn’t the result of experts failing to act as experts: it’s the result of experts acting exactly like experts act. It’s not a result of incompetence, it’s a result of overconfidence.

When we look for evidence of miscalibration in people, he said, we find it overwhelmingly in experts. We find it when people are in conditions of great stress and complexity and competitiveness. And we find it overwhelmingly with older, more experienced people, doing difficult things which they feel very strongly about.

Jimmy Cayne, said Gladwell, is the picture of overconfidence — and he’s quite typical when it comes to heads of Wall Street banks. And so, Gladwell concluded:

Our goal is not to enhance the expertise on Wall Street. Expertise they have in spades. Our goal is to rein in the expertise on Wall Street. Wall Street needs to be slower, less competitive, and a lot more boring.

This is undoubtedly true — the difficult thing, of course, is how to legislate it, in a world where banks are falling over themselves to repay TARP funds and start taking on lots of risk again. Here’s Matthew Richardson and Nouriel Roubini write in the WSJ this morning:

Consider also recent bank risk-taking. The media has recently reported that Citigroup and Bank of America were buying up some of the AAA-tranches of nonprime mortgage-backed securities. Didn’t the government provide insurance on portfolios of $300 billion and $118 billion on the very same stuff for Citi and BofA this past year? These securities are at the heart of the financial crisis and the core of the PPIP. If true, this is egregious behavior — and it’s incredible that there are no restrictions against it.

But if there were restrictions against this behavior in particular, the same banks, or other banks, would find other ways to chase risk, just because they’re so confident that they can make billions of dollars — and get themselves out of their present hole — by doing so. They might even be right: 95% of the time, they probably are right. But that’s the Rubin trade: it works until it doesn’t. And although it’s the easy solution to the problem, it’s also a very worrying solution to the problem, because it just sets up yet another inevitable meltdown at some unknown point in the future.


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