Friday, January 30, 2009

How do we keep this from happening again?

It's becoming increasingly clear that the banking sector, in particular, has messed up a lot of stuff. Yesterday, Senator Claire McCaskill introduced legislation to keep Wall Street salaries from being no higher than what the President makes ($400,000). While that's a good start, there is a deeper issue at play here: the long term effects of the crisis on business decisions.

Over the course of this crisis, it's become clear that poor, greedy decisions on the part of few have had dire consequences for the rest of the economy. Agents and tellers loaned money to people that weren't likely to pay it back, brokers mislabeled the risk of the packages of these loans, and executives and accountants hid (and continue to hide) the true nature of the losses their companies suffered.

Quite simply, these people screwed up, and now it is much worse than it otherwise would have been, for all of us. And yet, these same people, who - more than anyone else - caused this mess, are not only getting off scot-free, but they're also getting bonuses or, even if they lose their jobs, fat severance packages.

Yes, this is bad, and we're all getting pissed off, but the bigger issue that's been bothering me lately is the precedent that our actions will set for future executives and decision-makers. If we are too lax, we run the risk of encouraging corporate irresponsibility; if we're too harsh, we violate civil rights.

The problem is indeed quite complex. My knee-jerk reaction, and what I consider to be the most "fair" solution, is to have the people who are at fault pay for this, literally. I mean, we know who they are, we have a documented history of what they've done. At best, we could go through and "assign" an amount for each person to pay back - lowly loans salesmen would foot a small amount, complicit money managers a little more, and executives would be forced to pay back a significant portion of their salaries and bonuses that let them pocket the false wealth that they created.

Of course, such an action is impossible - it violates a number of civil liberties and sets a potentially dangerous precedent for government interference in the market (though it's the former that is probably the overriding reason at this point).

How about something a little more realistic? If we focus on the executives, we could make an example out of the heads of the companies, deterring future executives from allowing these practices to exist within their organization. This would be a powerful deterrent, but again the approach runs the risk of infringing on civil liberties.

But if we don't do something (and something significant), we'll create a larger problem for ourselves. There needs to be some sort of justice, to punish these men and women and ensure future citizens know that corruption, greed, and incompetence at these levels (which have the ability to bring our economy to its knees) will not be tolerated.

Yes, our crisis has been of many causes, many of which are above my head. But there is a clear line that has been crossed, and we must ensure the line is not crossed again (or at least give people a reason not to cross it).

It'll be interesting to see how the government handles this. And, as a side note, it'd be great if Obama said tomorrow that he'd be forgoing his $400,000 salary and encourage others within the government to do so as well if they have the means...

(Too bad none of this will likely happen, and the criminals who played a part is causing this crisis will probably go unpunished...)

Saturday, January 03, 2009

A Black Swan

Or, rather, a black Cardinal. To fill you in, the Atlanta Falcons are playing the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card around of the playoffs. All week, the pundits gave the Cardinals very little chance. According to them, the Cardinals just didn't have the talent - specifically in both aspects of the run game - to keep up with the Falcons. Though there was only a 2 point line, most "experts" picked the Falcons, and even more agreed that the Cardinals would have a tough time running the ball or stopping the run.

The second quarter just started, but so far, in case you haven't noticed, the Falcons are playing outside their mind. Specifically, the Cardinals are running the ball at will, with Edgerrin James tearing it up. On the flip side, the Falcons are having very little success running the football, and the Cardinals' defense is simply stuffing them.

How could so many people, who supposedly know so much, be so wrong about the way that this match up (especially the running match up) would play out?

Cool sports example of the type of prediction bias (or, rather, our inability to make even reasonably accurate predictions) that Taleb makes a focus in Black Swan. Very interesting to see it so plainly in something I follow.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Facebook publishing error

And now a completely mundane post/question. I have my blog synced with my Facebook account, so blog posts get imported as Notes on Facebook. However, new versions of posts don't get updated - basically, if I post once, then edit and re-post, Facebook still shows the old version. I usually hit post without any sort of editing (as I did with my last post) and sometimes add information later, so this error is sort of annoying. Anyone know how to fix it (or if I'm doing something wrong)?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Hello 2009

I've forgotten about this blog a bit recently, but reconnecting with an old friend yesterday made me remember that you never know who is reading. I met up with a high school classmate of mine who moved back to Germany after sophomore year, and he mentioned that he's perused my blog once or twice over the years.

So anyway, in honor of that and the new year, I decided to chronicle some of the obscure thoughts and random reflections floating around my head as we journey into 2009. For starters, I don't think I've entered a new year in a world as scary/crazy as today's. A global economy in crisis, heightened tensions in the Middle East and South Asia, rampant corruption as our nation further swamps itself in debt, unemployed friends and family. The list really doesn't end.

And yet, personally, I'm not feeling the same sense of dread that has accompanied my musings the past few months. I can tell my outlook has been buoyed by a myriad of factors - the sounds of the Beatles (Love, their remastered/remixed album has been a recent favorite), the Who, Ratatat, and others (not to mention a rousing car ride rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody this afternoon); the thoughts of Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Black Swan; the return of old friends to the Bay Area for the holidays (and an amazing trip to Miami to see a bunch of family); and, perhaps above all, the best sandwich I've ever had to top off a great New Year's Day brunch (the Chicken Apple with avocado at the Brickhouse in SF at 3rd and Brennan).

Or perhaps, as our new President might say - hope springs eternal.

And that said, I'm still pretty pessimistic in terms of what's going to happen (I guess I'm just more ok with it now - it'll be quite a ride no matter what). Keeping in mind that I'm an idiot and don't know anything (and that, as Taleb says, we suck at this sort of stuff), I'm going to throw a few predictions out there.

I think we're going to see a few "Black Swans" in 2009 - things no one saw coming. Ultimately, who really knows, and it's these events that will likely shape this year the most. But I wouldn't be surprised by a few things. Economically, I think the carnage will continue - unemployment might hit 8% (or even 10%). I could see the Dow dropping below 5,000, and it's possible the currency manipulation that has gone on in Asian countries could produce some negative consequences.

Generally speaking, I wonder if 2009 will be the year we're forced to reap what we sowed with our national debt. For years now, debt growth has outpaced GDP growth - we're not producing more, but we're consuming more. This inherently unsustainable house of cards will come down one of two ways - card by card (preferable) or in one fell swoop. The geopolitical unstability that will result from the latter scares the hell out of me.

Geopolitically, though I definitely share some WW3 fears, I think we'll be ok - Obama should pull us through. What really worries me is that, domestically, Obama won't be the savior we all see him as - or, rather, that external circumstances will cause him to underachieve. Right now, I feel the hope of Obama is holding us together, to some extent. Some people are bound to be underwhelmed by his presidency, but if he loses some critical mass of this support - if enough people lose hope, so to speak - we could be in trouble. I fear there could be a level of the bottom falling out (economically, politically, etc.) that will get really, really ugly.

As for me, the new year comes with renewed optimism on my current venture, Athleague, as well as other things I have brewing. Not sure where the year will take me, but it'll certainly be fun. Haven't thought resolutions through, but this could be a quick list: start taking yoga classes (Stanford, 8am, thursdays, if anyone is interested) and be sure to meditate 4 times a week, stop late night fast food runs (fruit from a grocery store is such a better idea:), and probably a few others (perhaps I'll dedicated a post to resolutions in the coming days).

Most importantly, I'd like to wish you, family, friend, or random denizen of these crazy interwebs, all the best in the new year. Enjoy the highs and learn from the lows, and if things get darker (as they very well may), just breathe. Thanks for reading, and good luck.