Review: The Big Short

The Big Short by Michael Lewis is a very good book, thoroughly entertaining. The language is simple, but all the concepts are sufficiently explained to make sense to non-financial readers, without leaving out too much. It also cleared up some issues I have been unable to get a grip on despite reading sporadically about the crisis for years. I do recommend that you read this book. But if you do, beware of a couple of things.

It’s a story

The books reads like a story, which is what makes it so entertaining. But it is also exactly there that its danger lies. It is centred on a handful of individuals that made money from the subprime crisis, who, in essence, predicted it and took investment positions to profit from it.  It contains many personal elements of the lives of these people, explaining how they moved through life and how they decided to place their bets against the system.  Their lives are very interesting, at least Lewis manages to make them appear so.

Don’t trust a story

Storytelling, though useful, is dangerous. It makes you forget how messy life really is. Everything is put into plots and subplots, everything heads toward the ending, in this case, a financial collapse. It has the illusion of inevitability. Never believe that.  As smart as these people were, as thorough as their research was, nothing about their success was inevitable. They were lucky. I do not mean to say the odds were not in their favour – they looked at information most others ignored, they saw things others did not see. But they could (or rather, should not) have been certain. A difference in timing, a slight change in the economy, stimulus here or not there, and we could have seen a different set of winners or losers.

There is a survivorship bias in the book. (This is also a problem with stories – usually they focus on the people who succeed, sometimes on the ones who fail horribly, never the ones in-between). We hear only from the people who made it. How they happened to make their fortune. We don’t hear about the people in similar situations with similar intellects who did not. We are to presume they did not exist.

As I read and I felt the suspense of the coming crash (and voyeuristic  exhilaration at the heaps and heaps of money the protagonists would make) I too felt, perhaps I can make money too, perhaps I could also be a great investor. Of course these people were not really investors, they were speculators betting on the crash of a system (albeit, probably with the odds in their favour).  They were right, at least partly because they were lucky enough to stumble on the right information at the right time.


Perhaps, if there is anything to learn from the crisis and from the book, it is that you are far more likely to be the sucker who misunderstands everything (in this case almost all of Wall Street) than anything else. Humility is your ally.

I do not mean to say there is anything wrong with the book. It has its uses and its limitations. But perhaps it should contain a disclaimer about the danger of stories.


Knight in soiled armour

Last week the markets experienced another little jolt, similar to the flash crash in 2010. A computer glitch at Knight Capital caused its systems to send out incorrect orders, causing huge price swings in stocks and driving the company nearly to bankruptcy.


There is now talk of changing regulations (again) and everyone wonders what Knight Capital did wrong. They had a bug. I cannot be certain, but my guess is that whatever software they were using had been tested. But with sophisticated systems bugs always slip through (it’s inevitable). Unluckily for Knight their particular bug caused a lot of trouble and damaged the company’s reputation, possibly irreparably.

It’s (almost) all in the mind

What is interesting is that the company is set to survive. Knight was bailed out not by government, but by a handful of its competitors – perhaps they know this could just as easily have happened to them. They were not just being helpful, though. They saw an opportunity to buy a large stake of a good business (potentially good, in any case) very cheaply. The major obstacles to Knight’s continued survival were a lack of capital and loss of confidence. Both were addressed by the bailout. The very fact that these companies were willing to fund Knight will give the market assurance that the business was worth saving.


This bailout comes at a price to current shareholders (who are the ones who should pay – not taxpayers and not clients) whose holdings are diluted. Perhaps, slowly, clients will return. The key reason to think this may happen is the reputation of Knight’s CEO, Thomas Joyce, which seems to have been both battered and uplifted in the debacle. Unlike Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclays and other banks’ top brass, Joyce’s integrity is not in question. He has been called a hero for managing to get hold of the much needed financing. Knight also, it seems, absorbed most of the losses – shielding their clients.

What is in question is Knight’s risk management and software testing. And after an incident like this, I think this is liable to become too strict rather than too relaxed. They cannot afford another incident – that would almost certainly end them, if not through a direct loss, then due to a loss of confidence.

Operational risk 

Knight’s problems highlight, once again, that the major risk in business, any business, is operational. It is unpredictable, its costs can be little or gigantic. Even with good risk management procedures (which are a must – and there is no reason to believe Knight’s were not adequate) mistakes will be made. The regulatory reactions to this will (probably) be firstly to increase the amount of capital that companies need to hold so they can absorb operational losses, secondly to mandate more stringent risk management, and thirdly to demand more detailed reports to the regulator (in this case the SEC). All of these things have their costs.

People will, of course, be very interested in knowing what exactly caused the software malfunction and how. And what Knight will be doing to prevent it from happening again. But what the error was hardly matters – it was random. Next time it will be something else. Hopefully responses will focus less on the specific nature of the problem that arose and more on the general nature of operational risk, which has a tendency to pop up in unexpected places.

  • Kisling, W., & Mehta, N. (2012). Joyce Puts Knight Survival Over Shares in Rescue Deal. Bloomberg. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-06/joyce-puts-knight-survival-over-shares-forging-400-million-deal.html
  • Pratley, N. (2012). Knight Capital’s computer “glitch” shows dangers of desire for faster trading. The Guardian. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/nils-pratley-on-finance/2012/aug/06/knight-capital-computer-glitch-trading?newsfeed=true
  • Reuters. (2012). Knight Capital handed $400m lifeline after trading debacle. The Guardian. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/aug/06/knight-capital-400m-lifeline
  • Sapa-AP. (2012). Knight Capital’s $440m computer glitch. Times Live. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://www.timeslive.co.za/scitech/2012/08/03/knight-capital-s-440m-computer-glitch
  • The Economist. (2012). Desperate times. The Economist. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2012/08/knight-capital?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bl/desperatetimes
  • Touryalai, H. (2012). Knight Capital: The Ideal Way To Screw Up On Wall Street. Forbes. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/halahtouryalai/2012/08/06/knight-capital-the-ideal-way-to-screw-up-on-wall-street/


When to give back the Bacon

My last two posts both were both very critical of ethics in the markets. Today I would like to give some praise. Louis Bacon, manager of a very large fund ($8Bn) of assets has decided to give back a quarter to investors. It is, in essence, admitting defeat. And that is something investment professionals seem to be very loathe to do.

Hedge funds do not like to give back money to investors, even when the investors themselves request it. More assets under management (AUM) means reduced management fees and less prestige. Giving back money also immediately says that you are unable to make money, that you are stumped, that the money is better invested elsewhere. Mr Bacon is giving up about $60m a year (but don’t praise him too much; he is worth over a billion. He is not giving up anything he cannot do without).

Mr Bacon, after recent poor returns, does admit that he just can’t make money in the current environment, not with such a large pool of assets. His fund seems to focus on macro-economic strategies, meaning it makes bets on macro-economic factors affecting countries as whole. Most notably, in this environment, that includes everything affecting the sovereign debt crisis. With all the government intervention and decisions by Ms Merkel (prime minister of Germany) and Mr Draghi (head of the European Central Bank) sending markets up and down, but with no decisive actions being taken, Mr Bacon feels he cannot make a bet on the market movements. He needs to bet something big will happen. And it just won’t happen. Probably Mr Bacon feels he cannot figure out what’s going to happen next, but he hasn’t gone quite as far as admitting that.

A large fund is not as agile as a smaller fund. With a smaller fund Mr Bacon will be able to take smaller positions that have a larger impact on the overall performance of the fund and be able to move in and out of positions more quickly. Hedge funds normally charge a performance fee – if the increase in performance is high enough it may offset the loss of the management fee mentioned earlier.

 Mr Bacon cares for his image. That is why he’d rather try to make a decent return on a smaller fund than poor returns on a larger fund. However, admitting his inability to profit from current market conditions is quite laudable for a man who made his fortune placing bets on other international events equally as murky. He also seems to take his responsibility as a custodian of other people’s money seriously. He cannot give the performance expected and so he has his investors put their money elsewhere. Unfortunately, for many, admitting the limits of their abilities does not seem to come as easily.


  • Chung, J. (2012). Louis Bacon to Return $2 Billion to Investors. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from http://blogs.wsj.com/deals/2012/08/01/louis-bacon-to-return-2-billion-to-investors/ Herbst-Bayliss, S. (2012).
  • Big hedge funds seen unlikely to diet after Bacon slims down. Reuters. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/02/us-hedgefunds-idUSBRE8711VN20120802 Thomas Jr., L. (2012).
  • Too Big to Profit, a Hedge Fund Plans to Get Smaller. Dealbook. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/08/01/hedge-fund-titan-plans-to-return-2-billion-to-investors/