The Fault, Dear Trader, Lies Not In Our Deals

Over the past few weeks of this summer of discontent, the search for sub-prime villains has grown ever more intense and sordid. Media-bound auto da fe has been set up to burn the most obviously flawed Wall Street personalities at the stake of incompetence, allegedly in order to renew the faith of the gullible populace and, who knows, perhaps allow them to make peace with the presence of unbridled greed in this great land of ours.

A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine had the solitary courage to engage in healthy, albeit useless, speculation on the role of Goldman Sachs in the aftermath of the fall of Bear Stearns. A cat has nine lives; how many does a Bear have? In some sense, we should all be thankful for the very existence of Goldman Sachs, for what would be left of Dallas without J.R. Ewing?

Even more recently, an entertaining Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis focused on AIG FP’s Joe Cassano as the unlikely infidel responsible for some $180 billion of his firm’s debts, presumably picked up by Uncle Sam. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that the credit crisis was devilishly engineered by one man acting out of angst that demons were messing around with his bodily fluids. We can now rest easy knowing that a deep-seated and all-consuming self-hatred, and against which Joe’s bosses and associates were of course powerless no matter how much they “cared” about their firm, is greatly to blame for the predicament in which the US now finds itself. Thank God that the anti-Christ has now finally been exposed so we can all safely go back to work. The truth is that Joe Cassano is as responsible for the sub-prime crisis as Joe the Plumber and G.I. Joe. People like him have been around for centuries, either on Wall Street or Main Street, and abound in structured finance at this very moment. Believe it or not, some have even gone to jail.

Other than easily forgettable beach reading occupying the mind between two sultry and evanescent bikinis, it is difficult to see how this type of denial could have any positive impact on the current limbo situation in the US capital markets. Even worse, it adds more confusion to the massive amount that already exists in the public’s mind as to how this mess could happen in such a pleasant and righteous country as ours. It also takes us further away from the difficult choices that we, as a people, and our leaders in Washington must now make. A tragedy of this magnitude can only take place with the connivance and acquiescence of all those involved who had the means to put the brakes on, but who instead chose to hit the gas pedal. Financial regulation is such a contradictory maze that it’s amazing the system can even function, let alone thrive.

Americans are too ready to blame everybody but themselves. If you get hit by a car, it’s not because you crossed on a red light, but that the other driver was “reckless” or drunk. Every bond trader whose portfolio goes up by pure chance “makes a lot of money.” When he loses for the same reason, though, it’s because “the market moved against him,” as if the market actually cared about his fate. Unless and until we actually look in the mirror, we will never know who is truly responsible for this “liquidity” crisis, as Mark Hulbert put it so delightfully, and so naively, in last Sunday’s New York Times. One more thing — please don’t blame hedge funds; most of them are neither hedged nor “funds.”

One day next year, we will indeed go back to work, but the scars of the crisis will remain forever etched in our collective consciousness. Rating agencies as we know them will have ceased to exist and a new, dynamic financial paradigm will eventually emerge out of the primordial stew in which we are now aimlessly wallowing. This new financial order will be more mathematical and less “logical.” “More mathematical?” you say; “Are you insane?” Perhaps we are. On the other hand, maybe insanity is nothing but the origin of sanity.

The reason why a so-called “quant” with a Ph.D. in physics cannot make a real contribution to finance is not that he doesn’t understand finance — for how long does it take even a total neophyte to grasp the net present value? The reason, rather, is that he does not understand physics. And that, dear Brutus, is certainly not Joe’s fault.