Nassim Taleb

Nassim Taleb “lowers” himself to doing journalism and writes at the Huffington Post:

The story is as follows. Last year, in Davos, during a private coffee conversation that I thought aimed at saving the world from, among other things, moral hazard, I was interrupted by Alan Blinder, a former Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, who tried to sell me a peculiar investment product. It allowed the high net-worth investor to go around the regulations limiting deposit insurance (at the time, $100,000) and benefit from coverage for near unlimited amounts. The investor would deposit funds in any amount and Prof. Blinder’s company would break it up in smaller accounts and invest in banks, thus escaping the limit; it would look like a single account but would be insured in full. In other words, it would allow the super-rich to scam taxpayers by getting free government sponsored insurance. Yes, scam taxpayers. Legally. With the help of former civil servants who have an insider edge.

I blurted out: “isn’t this unethical?” I was told in response, “We have plenty of former regulators on the staff,” implying that what was legal was ethical.

He goes on to note:

The more complex the regulation, the more bureaucratic the network, the more a regulator who knows the loops and glitches would benefit from it later, as his regulator edge would be a convex function of his differential knowledge. This is a franchise. (Note that this franchise is not limited to finance; the car company Toyota hired former U.S. regulators and used their “expertise” to handle investigations of its car defects). […]

The more complicated the regulation, the more prone to arbitrages by insiders. So 2,300 pages of regulation will be a gold mine for former regulators. The incentive of a regulator is to have complex regulation.

He doesn’t offer any remedy, but it does make more clear something I’ve been wondering about since I started following him: on the one hand, he calls himself a libertarian and skewers regulators, and on the other he says stuff like this:

Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

I’ve always wanted to ask him about this apparent contradiction: who exactly is supposed to do this banning of derivatives and why should they be trusted? This article gives some clarity: he thinks there should be rules, but they shouldn’t be overly complex, because that breed corruption.

The idea that we should have hard and fast, clear rules as opposed to “regulation” is supported by the failure of the SEC’s revision of certain firms’ debt-ratio requirements. From Reason:

In 2004, the international Committee on Banking Supervision issued Basel II, an accord on banking regulation. In its wake, the SEC revised its regulations to allow five broker-dealer firms with more than $5 billion in capital—Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley—to participate in a voluntary program that changed the way their debt was calculated. The existing net-capital rules required firms to keep their debt-to-net capital ratios below 12-1 and to issue warnings if they started to get close to that. Under the new rules, broker dealers increased these ratios significantly. Merrill Lynch, for instance, hit 40-1. This was possible because the rule changed the formula for risk calculations and instituted more subjective, labor-intensive SEC oversight in place of hard and fast guidelines. “They constructed a mechanism that simply didn’t work,” former SEC official Lee Pickard told The New York Sun on September 18. “The SEC modification in 2004 is the primary reason for all of the losses that have occurred.”

So I’m guessing Taleb draws a line between banning a practice and “regulating” it – and between having rules that banks must follow and “regulating” them. It’s an interesting distinction and I wonder what other self-styled libertarians would think about it.

Taleb also notes how the debate over government and regulation goes back to Ancient Greece at least – which is a discouraging reminder that almost any modern debate we have on almost any subject goes back for centuries. It’s enough to make you want to live in a bathtub and nourish yourself onions.