The delicate machine we do not understand

Quote for the day:

The world has been slow to realize that we are living this year in the shadow of one of the greatest economic catastrophes of modern history. But now that the man in the street has become aware of what is happening, he, not knowing the why and wherefore, is as full to-day of what may prove excessive fears as, previously, when the trouble was first coming on, he was lacking in what would have been a reasonable anxiety. He begins to doubt the future. Is he now awakening from a pleasant dream to face the darkness of facts? Or dropping off into a nightmare which will pass away?

He need not be doubtful. The other was not a dream. This is a nightmare, which will pass away with the morning. For the resources of nature and men’s devices are just as fertile and productive as they were. The rate of our progress towards solving the material problems of life is not less rapid. We are as capable as before of affording for everyone a high standard of life—high, I mean, compared with, say, twenty years ago—and will soon learn to afford a standard higher still. We were not previously deceived. But to-day we have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time—perhaps for a long time.

John Maynard Keynes – The Great Slump of 1930.

Wall Street continues to reward failure as Moody’s chief gets 69% pay rise

A depressing piece in yesterday’s El País reports that Raymond McDaniel, CEO of the disgraced ratings agency Moody’s, who presided over the company’s devastating involvement in the financial crisis, took home $9.2 million in 2010, a 69% rise on the previous year. The justification for this? Apparently Mr McDaniel has “helped restore confidence in Moody’s ratings by improving knowledge of the role and function of ratings.”

The restoration of confidence was undeniably needed. After all, Mr McDaniels’s company it was that gave triple-A ratings to thousands of the sub-prime mortgage loans whose deterioration triggered the global recession. Triple-A, it should be noted, means a bond has less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of defaulting – in Moody’s’ estimation, as Michael Lewis points out in The Big Short, the sub-prime loans were as safe as US Treasury bonds (83 per cent of the triple-A ratings his firm gave to mortgage bonds in 2006 were subsequently degraded). McDaniels’s company, too, was still awarding triple-A ratings to Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG shortly before – in part because they believed the ratings and invested heavily in sub-prime bonds – they all went bust and almost brought the whole financial system down with them. Mr McDaniels, as Lewis reports, told an investor in 2007: ‘I truly believe our ratings will be accurate.’

A restoration of confidence is also needed in light of the congressional Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s damning verdict on the ratings industry, published in January. The rating agencies, the Commission concluded, ‘abysmally failed in their central mission to provide quality ratings on securities for the benefit of investors…The rating agencies placed market share and profit considerations above the quality and integrity of their ratings.’ The Commission selected Moody’s as its case study for bad practice in the industry.

The sheer ineptness of the companies is documented in embarrassing detail in The Big Short. In one of many examples of their incompetence, Lewis shows how they rated floating-rate mortgages, whereby borrowers would spend two years on a low, “teaser” rate before the rate rose sharply for the rest of the term, more highly than steadier fixed-rate loans. The ratings remained the same even when the interest payable on the loans soared: ‘The rating agencies simply assumed that the borrower would be just as likely to make his payments when the interest rate on the loan was 12 per cent as when it was 8 per cent.’

That floating-rate loans received higher ratings meant that more people were able to take them out – the proportion of US sub-prime mortgages with floating rates rose from 40 to 80 per cent in the five years to 2007. Buoyed by the lively trade in mortgage securities, lenders persuaded tens of thousands of people who could not afford it to saddle themselves with these loans. As Lewis notes, ‘sub-prime borrowers tended to be one broken refrigerator away from default – few, if any, should be running the risk of their interest rate spiking up,’ but Moody’s couldn’t get the loan ratings out of the door quickly enough: the agency went from spending six weeks assessing the credit-rating of a single security to issuing thirty new triple-A ratings on mortgage bonds every day (the Commission called the company a “Triple-A factory”).

But it was not just stupidity that threatened the system; it was also a complete – and sometimes suspicious – lack of transparency. Another passage from The Big Short relates what happened when two investors, Danny and Vinny, went to meet a woman from Moody’s to ask how she went about rating sub-prime bonds:

The woman from Moody’s was surprisingly frank. She told [the investors] that even though she was responsible for evaluating subprime mortgage bonds, she wasn’t allowed by her bosses simply to downgrade the ones she thought deserved to be downgraded. She submitted a list of the bonds she wished to downgrade to her superiors and received back a list of what she was permitted to downgrade. “She said she’d submit a list of a hundred bonds and get back a list with twenty-five bonds on it, with no explanation of why,” said Danny.

“Here’s what I don’t understand,” said Vinny, hand on chin. “You have two bonds that seem identical. How is one of them Triple-A and the other one not?”

“I’m not the one who makes those decisions,” said the woman from Moody’s, but she was clearly uneasy.

“Here’s another thing I don’t understand,” said Vinny. “How could you rate any portion of a bond made up exclusively of subprime mortgages Triple-A?”

“That’s a very good question.”

It’s a question the ratings agencies prefer to duck. Ray McDaniel, of course, is not alone in benefiting from the mess he helped cause – most of the heads of the investment banks that conned or bullied the agencies into upgrading sub-prime ratings (Moody’s complied not just because it didn’t understand the complex bond packages but because of the threat that the banks would go to its rival, S&P, if the rating wasn’t high enough to sell the securities on to pension funds and insurance firms), or that bet on the dodgy bonds themselves, are still in their jobs, and still raking in obscene bonuses.

Those banks are again making profits, thanks to being bailed out by the US taxpayers they had already shafted once. Moody’s net annual profit, on the other hand – despite the alleged restoration of confidence in the company – was 10% lower in 2010 than it was in 2005 when McDaniels took the helm. During that time, according to El País, the salaries of top staff have doubled. Why there hasn’t been a revolt against these people (not least from the shareholders who are so obviously being taken for a ride) is a mystery, but as with the Middle Eastern dictators they resemble, who are finally being punished after years of pillaging their countries, the day of judgement is surely only deferred.

Russian bear hugs the West tighter?

Two years ago, Georgian forces shelled the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia hitting the base of Russian peacekeepers as well as civilian housing. Russia responded immediately with a massive ground and air assault and in five days inflicted a heavy defeat on its tiny neighbour, occupying a band of Georgian territory into the bargain.

The conflict had several immediate results.

Already fraught relations between Moscow and Tbilisi plunged to new depths and diplomatic relations were severed.

Russia and three other countries recognised the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

And relations between Russia and the West – the US and the EU – deteriorated to their worst level since the collapse of the USSR – there was even talk of a new Cold War from western politicians.

The Cold War analogies led some commentators to argue Russian foreign policy had taken a decisive anti-western turn and things could and/or should never be the same again

Two years later, the one thing that seems unlikely to ever be the same again is the shape and size of Georgia. If recognition from Russia was not enough, the recent International Court of Justice opinion that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was not against international law, makes it even less probable Tibilsi could regain control of its lost regions. (more…)

On the web: US introspection, development aid, and challenging economic orthodoxy…

– This week’s Economist sees Lexington bemoan those advancing the discourse of American exceptionalism, suggesting that “[t]he last thing the country needs is to be distracted from its practical problems by the quest for an elusive greatness”. Elsewhere, The Spectator’s Coffee House blog remembers Jimmy Carter’s fabled 1979 speech in which he spoke of a US “crisis of confidence”.

Delivering the annual lecture at The Ditchley Foundation last week, Strobe Talbott suggested that the “promise” of the Obama Presidency – both in the domestic and the international arenas – is now “at risk”. “[W]hatever fate is in store for the current president of the United States”, Talbott argued,

“one thing is for sure.  His success in tackling the major issues of our time will depend on his establishing a degree of common purpose with his partners in national governance at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and with his partners in global governance around the world.”

– Elsewhere, over at The Cable, Josh Rogin reports on the slow progress of reviews into US development policy – the Presidential Study Directive on Global Development and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.  The Economist, meanwhile, highlights Brazil’s growing identity as a significant aid donor.

– Finally, the head of the UK Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner, cautions against the default acceptance of prevailing economic ideology, suggesting that policymakers would do well to draw on a diversity of economic opinion. Joseph Stiglitz, meanwhile, explores the Keynesian prescription for the global economy.

On the web: history and economics, the voice of the BRICs, and the UK’s emerging three-party politics…

– Writing in the The New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman and Robin Wells highlight the importance of historical perspective in understanding the financial crisis. Experience, they suggest, shows that a failure to implement significant post-crisis reforms leads to “a resurgence of financial folly, which always flourishes given a chance.”

Michael Pomerleano explains the need for a new institution with the necessary legitimacy to provide global financial stability, arguing that “[n]ational public policies can no longer be independent of global collective-action problems”. Amartya Sen, meanwhile, explores the continuing significance of the 18th Century ideas of Adam Smith to contemporary global economic troubles.

– Elsewhere, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Henry Kissinger offers his views on Obama’s recent nuclear initiatives, US-China relations, and coherence among the BRICs. Over at World Politics Review, Nikolas Gvosdev reports on the lack of support forthcoming among BRIC countries for strict sanctions on Iran and highlights some of the other options open to the US administration in dealing with Tehran. Jonathan Holslag, meanwhile, assesses China’s recent diplomatic “charm offensive”, concluding that this will yield little over the long-term if words aren’t backed up by meaningful action.

– Finally, two television debates and nearly three weeks into the British general election campaign, David Marquand explains why this is “a moment for careful historical reconnaissance”. Assessing the rise of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, he explores comparisons with the three-party politics of Britain in the early 1920s. The FT’s Philip Stephens, meanwhile, assesses the impact of the debates and the implications of a hung parliament for the British electoral system.