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Tuesday, June 03, 2008


'the greatest risk you can think of'

via yves smith this weekend, nassim taleb in the times of london.

... with two books – Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life, and The Black Swan – and a stream of academic papers, he turned himself into one of the giants of modern thought. They’re still trying to tear him down, of course; last year The American Statistician journal devoted a whole issue to attacking The Black Swan. But I wouldn’t bother. A bad but rather ignorant review in The New York Times resulted in such a savage rebuttal from Taleb on his website,, that reviewers across the US pulled out in fear of his wrath. He knows his stuff and he keeps being right.

And what he knows does not sound good. The sub-prime crisis is not over and could get worse. Even if the US economy survives this one, it will remain a mountain of risk and delusion. “America is the greatest financial risk you can think of.”

Its primary problem is that both banks and government are staffed by academic economists running their deluded models. Britain and Europe have better prospects because our economists tend to be more pragmatic, adapting to conditions rather than following models. But still we are dependent on American folly.

The central point is that we have created a world we don’t understand. There’s a place he calls Mediocristan. This was where early humans lived. Most events happened within a narrow range of probabilities – within the bell-curve distribution still taught to statistics students. But we don’t live there any more. We live in Extremistan, where black swans proliferate, winners tend to take all and the rest get nothing – there’s Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and a lot of software writers living in a garage, there’s Domingo and a thousand opera singers working in Starbucks. Our systems are complex but over-efficient. They have no redundancy, so a black swan strikes everybody at once. The banking system is the worst of all.

“Complex systems don’t allow for slack and everybody protects that system. The banking system doesn’t have that slack. In a normal ecology, banks go bankrupt every day. But in a complex system there is a tendency to cluster around powerful units. Every bank becomes the same bank so they can all go bust together.”

He points out, chillingly, that banks make money from two sources. They take interest on our current accounts and charge us for services. This is easy, safe money. But they also take risks, big risks, with the whole panoply of loans, mortgages, derivatives and any other weird scam they can dream up. “Banks have never made a penny out of this, not a penny. They do well for a while and then lose it all in a big crash.”

... “Governments and policy makers don’t understand the world in which we live, so if somebody is going to destroy the world, it is the Bank of England saving Northern Rock. The biggest danger to human society comes from civil servants in an environment like this. In their attempt to control the ecology, they don’t understand that the link between action and consequences can be more vicious. Civil servants say they need to make forecasts, but it’s totally irresponsible to make people rely on you without telling them you’re incompetent.”

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