Debating financial speculation with speculators

By Felix Salmon
June 23, 2011

On Tuesday I moderated a panel at the New York Forum which featured, inter alia, Duncan Niederauer, the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, and Richard Robb, the CEO of Christofferson Robb, a money management firm which does its fair share of speculation.

My question at the beginning of this clip, for Niederauer, didn’t come entirely out of the blue. Amar Bhidé had previously talked about the casino aspect of markets, and Andrew Ross Sorkin had talked about the distinction between speculation and investment. But Niederauer was not happy when I pushed him on these concepts. Wall Street is increasingly a game of speculation rather than investment, I said, and asked how a casino operator pushing people to make bets over the course of a millisecond was not part of the problem. Rather than engaging with the question, he simply shut me down: “I thought my job description was quite different than what you just described,” he said. “So you must be talking to someone else.”

Niederauer then used all his media training to pivot and give a mini-speech instead about how self-regulation was better than Dodd-Frank. But Richard Robb, to his credit, engaged, even if what he said doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. “I don’t know what the difference between investing and speculation looks like,” he said, throwing up a straw man of everybody working at peoples’ tractor collectives. Robb’s prescription was essentially to do nothing but ban a few of his competitors: stop big banks from doing what he does, leave him alone to do anything he wants, and “let innovation find its own way, and if it’s parasitic and unproductive, it will not be rewarded by the capitalist system.”

That’s clearly false, of course: we can all think of parasitic and unproductive Wall Street innovations which have made millions of dollars for bankers and traders and money managers. Richard Robb himself gave a good example earlier on in the panel: structured investment vehicles.

And so Sorkin jumped in, making the good and obvious point that “it’s actually very easy to see what speculation is and what investing is.” Here’s one simple distinction: speculation is where you buy something in the expectation that it will rise in price, where investment is where you put money into something so that over the long term you can make a profit from the resulting cashflows, be they coupon payments or dividends. And as Sorkin said, if you make an investment for two seconds, that’s clearly speculation.

Robb’s response to Sorkin I think was one of the most telling points of the panel. “How about two days?” he asked. “Two weeks? Two months? Where would you draw the line?”

I could barely believe what I was hearing — was Robb really suggesting that holding a position for two days might be considered investment rather than speculation? Or even two months? All of them are speculation — and the fact that the likes of Niederauer and Robb can’t see that is I think a big part of the problem.

The subject of the panel was financial innovation, and Robb genuinely believes that he’s something of a centrist on the issue: he makes great play of agreeing with his friend Bhidé, for instance. But the fact is that if you’re talking to alumni of Goldman Sachs (Niederauer) or the University of Chicago (Robb), or someone who used to run the derivatives desk at a too-big-to-fail bank (Robb, again), then their idea of what’s good for the world is always going to be pretty skewed. They’ve made millions of dollars in the Wall Street casino, and they’re precisely the people being put on panels to ask whether the casino is a good thing. It’s reasonably easy to predict what they’re going to say — and to discount it heavily.

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