(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Crash

“The essence of investment management is the management of risks, not the management of returns”*…

Paris Bourse

In 1754, the infamous scam artist, diarist, and womanizer Giacomo Girolamo Casanova reported that a certain type of high-stakes wager had come into vogue at the Ridotto. The bet was known as a martingale, which we would immediately recognize as a rather basic coin toss. In a matter of seconds, the martingale could deliver dizzying jackpots or, equally as often, ruination. In terms of duration, it was the equivalent of today’s high-speed trade. The only extraordinary fact about the otherwise simple martingale was that everybody knew the infallible strategy for winning: if a player were to put money on the same outcome every time, again and again ad infinitum, the laws of probability dictated that not only would he win back all he may have previously lost, he would double his money. The only catch was that he would have to double down each time, a strategy that could be sustained only as long as the gambler remained solvent. On numerous occasions, martingales left Casanova bankrupt.

In modern finance, the coin toss has come to represent a great deal more than heads or tails. The concept of the martingale is a bulwark of what economists call the efficient-market hypothesis, the meaning of which can be grasped by an oft-repeated saying on Wall Street: for every person who believes a stock will rise—the buyer—there will be some other equal and opposite person who believes the stock will fall—the seller. Even as markets go haywire, brokers and traders repeat the mantra: for every buyer, there is a seller. But the avowed aim of the hedge fund, like the fantasy of a coin-tosser on the brink of bankruptcy, was to evade the rigid fifty-fifty chances of the martingale. The dream was heads I win, tails you lose.

One premonition as to how such hedged bets could be constructed appeared in print around the time when gambling reached an apex at the Ridotto casino, when an eighteenth-century financial writer named Nicolas Magens published “An Essay on Insurances.” Magens was the first to specify the word “option” as a contractual term: “The Sum given is called Premium, and the Liberty that the Giver of the Premium has to have the Contract fulfilled or not, is called Option . . .” The option is presented as a defense against financial loss, a structure that would eventually make it an indispensable tool for hedge funds.

By the middle of the next century, large-scale betting on stocks and bonds was under way on the Paris Bourse. The exchange, located behind a panoply of Corinthian columns, along with its unofficial partner market, called the Coulisse, was clearing more than a hundred billion francs that could change volume, speed, and direction. One of the most widely traded financial instruments on the Bourse was a debt vehicle known as a rente, which usually guaranteed a three-per-cent return in annual interest. As the offering dates and interest rates of these rentes shifted, their prices fluctuated in relationship to one another.

Somewhere among the traders lurked a young man named Louis Bachelier. Although he was born into a well-to-do family—his father was a wine merchant and his maternal grandfather a banker—his parents died when he was a teen-ager, and he had to put his academic ambitions on hold until his adulthood. Though no one knows exactly where he worked, everyone agrees that Bachelier was well acquainted with the workings of the Bourse. His subsequent research suggests that he had noted the propensity of the best traders to take an array of diverse and even contradictory positions. Though one might expect that placing so many bets in so many different directions on so many due dates would guarantee chaos, these expert traders did it in such a way as to decrease their risk. At twenty-two, after his obligatory military service, Bachelier was able to enroll at the Sorbonne. In 1900, he submitted his doctoral dissertation on a subject that few had ever researched before: a mathematical analysis of option trading on rentes.

Bachelier’s dissertation, “The Theory of Speculation,” is recognized as the first to use calculus to analyze trading on the floor of an exchange, and it contained a startling claim: “I have in fact known for several years that it would be possible . . . to imagine transactions where one of the parties makes a profit at all prices.” The best traders on the Bourse knew how to establish an intricate set of positions designed to protect themselves no matter which way or at what speed the market might move. Bachelier’s process was to separate out each element that had gone into the complex of bets at different prices, and write equations for them. His committee, supervised by the renowned mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré, was impressed, but it was an unusual thesis. “The subject chosen by M. Bachelier is rather far away from those usually treated by our candidates,” the report noted. For work that would unleash billion-dollar torrents into the capital pools of future hedge funds, Bachelier received a grade of honorable instead of très honorable. It was a B.

Needless to say, Bachelier’s views of math’s application to finance [published in 1900] were ahead of his time. The implications of his work were not appreciated, much less exploited, by Wall Street until the nineteen-seventies, after his dissertation was discovered by the Nobel Prize winner Paul Samuelson, the author of one of the best-selling economics textbooks of all time, who pushed for its translation into English. Two economists, Fischer Black and Myron Scholes, read the work and, in a 1973 issue of the Journal of Political Economy, published one of the most famous articles in the history of quantitative finance.

Based on Bachelier’s dissertation, the economists developed the eponymous Black-Scholes model for option pricing. They established that an option could be priced from a set-in-stone mathematical equation, which allowed the Chicago Board Options Exchange (C.B.O.E.), a new organization, to expand their business to a new universe of financial derivatives. Within a year, more than twenty thousand option contracts were changing hands each day. Four years after that, the C.B.O.E. introduced the “put” option—thus institutionalizing the bet that the thing you were betting on would lose. “Profit at all prices” had joined the mainstream of both economic theory and practice…

From the remarkable story of the French dissertation that inspired the strategies that guide many modern investors ad al that it has wrought: “A Brief History of the Hedge Fund.”

Spoiler alert: it hasn’t always worked out so well (c.f. Long-Term Capital Management)… at least for investors. As Janet M. Tavakoli observed in Structured Finance and Collateralized Debt Obligations: New Developments in Cash and Synthetic Securitization

Hedge funds have made massive leveraged credit bets, knowing that their upside is billions in fees and their downside is millions in fees.

Benjamin Graham

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As we ruminate on risk, we might recall that it was on this date in 2020 that the Federal Reserve rode in to rescue financial markets to prevent their complete freezing up– which could have entered history books as another global mega-crash. The Dow Jones stock market index had hit an all-time record of 29,551 on February 12, 2020. Then, the coronavirus emerged in earnest in the U.S., unemployment soared, and on March 9 the DJIA took a dive of over 2,000 points; it continued to fall, down to 18,321 on March 23… at which point the Fed intervened, pouring vast sums of cash into the financial system, resulting in a stock market bonanza in the midst of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. The Dow stands at this writing at over 35,000.

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“Bus stop, bus goes”*…

 

The Soviet Union was a nation of bus stops. Cars were hard to come by, so a vast public transport network took up the slack. Buses not only bore workers to their labors, but also breathed life into the ‘union’ itself by taking travelers from town to taiga to desert to seaside. In remoter parts of the country, bus shelters mattered even more than buses, providing convenient places for people to gather, drink and socialize. They were caravanserai for the motor age, and while the empire they served no longer exists, most of them stand right where it left them…

If they are in various stages of ruin now, they are all the more attractive for it. ‘Bus pavilions’, as they were known, were the experimental territory, and ultimately the legacy, of architects who might otherwise have been thwarted by central planning. Many reflect local cultures, and make memorable landmarks. Christopher Herwig [bio here], a Canadian photographer, started documenting them when he cycled through the Baltic states in 2002, and kept going after he moved to Almaty a year later. He has since shot varying numbers of them in all the former Soviet republics except (to judge by this book) Russia and Azerbaijan, a labour of 12 years and more than 18,000 miles.

Read more at “The caravanserai of the motor age,” and see more (and larger) photos from the series at Herwig’s site.

* The Hollies, “Bus Stop”

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As we quietly queue, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that Orville Wright demonstrated the Wright Flyer for the US Army Signal Corps division at Fort Myer, Virginia.  Wright circled the base at 150 feet; on his fourth circuit, his propeller broke.  The plane crashed.  Orville suffered a broken left thigh, several broken ribs, and a damaged hip, and was hospitalized for seven weeks. His passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, suffered a fractured skull, and died– the first person to die in a crash of a powered airplane.

Fatal crash of Wright Flyer at Fort Myer, Virginia

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 17, 2015 at 1:01 am

“This world’s a bubble”*…

 

From “The Bay Area to Standard English Translator.”

[A similarly silly-but-serious bonus: “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar.”]

* alternately attributed to St. Augustine and to Francis Bacon

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As we send birthday greetings to the father of the field of sociology and the discipline of Positivism, August Comte, we might recall that it was on this date in 1929 that bearish economist Roger Babson gave a speech in which he warned, “sooner or later, a crash is coming, and it may be terrific.” He had been delivering this message for two years, but for the first time, investors listened. The stock market took a severe dip (now known in economic history as “the Babson Break”).  The next day, prices stabilized, but the equity collapse that we know as a trigger event for the Great Depression had begun.

Roger Babson

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 5, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go”*…

 

Researchers often look at the number of hours worked, but rarely do they ask the question of when. Fortunately, the government conducts an annual study called the American Time Use Survey that tracks how people spend their days…

The interactive graph pictured above (and available live here) shows the share of workers who say they’re working in a given hour, grouped by occupation. The tabs at the top allow one to focus on different job categories to see how their average workdays differ from one another.  For example, servers and cooks have a schedule that’s essentially the opposite of all other occupations; their hours peak during lunch and hold steady well into the evening.

Explore more at “Who’s In The Office? The American Workday In One Graph.”

* Disney’s Seven Dwarfs

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As we breathe a sigh of relief that these studies don’t extend to what one does at work, we might recall it was on this date in 1929 that panicked sellers traded nearly 16 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange (four times the normal volume at the time), and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 12%. Remembered as “Black Tuesday,” this was the conclusive event in the Crash of 1929, and is often cited as the start of the Great Depression.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 29, 2014 at 1:01 am

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