Magazine article The New Yorker

Wiz Bucks

Magazine article The New Yorker

Wiz Bucks

Article excerpt

Any attempt to find causation or fault for what happened last week is fraught. So many things have gone wrong; so many people are to blame; so many people are now screwed. Often, the media exaggerates the significance of the ups and downs of the financial markets, while the sophisticates in the marketplace take them in stride. Not this time. Last week, the most farsighted market players were flabbergasted, even as they comprehended that they were witnessing a capitulation to some kind of greater truth--that Wall Street had got caught up in a pyramid scheme of its own devising. (The market soon recovered its truth aversion by demonizing short-sellers. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, of New York, called them "looters after a hurricane." Jim Cramer, on CNBC, took to invoking terrorists. The regulators, here and in London, clamped down. Meanwhile, Bloody Mary, on Bali H'ai, is prescribing happy talk.)

Over the past thirty years, Wall Street has honed the art of creating and selling financial products with an increasingly tenuous connection to reality. It has been an extraordinarily creative period--a modernism of money, with an equivalent trend toward abstraction. Relatively simple derivatives evolved into ever more arcane contrivances. The risk and the leverage piled up, and, in the short term, the billions rolled in. This is over now.

Glenn Greenberg, a value investor who started as an investment banker in the nineteen-seventies, thinks that Wall Street has been chastened. "It's kind of like when you get in a big mess and you say, 'Please, God, if you let me off this time, I'll never do it again,' " he said.

One problem is that the contrivers mistook their art for a science. A pre-modern money manager explained last week, "They looked at it all as a science experiment." They tested each new product--each hypothesis--against a bunch of historical precedents, running computer models to see how the product would fare under the conditions of various bygone catastrophes. "The problem was, they didn't have any historical precedent for when it all melts down. The historical precedents they used are not relevant."

In fact, it wasn't science at all. It was more like what anthropologists and psychologists call magical thinking--the tendency to believe that wishing it so makes it so. …

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