Friday, February 6, 2009

Gambling and Investment Banking--Redundant?

Photo by waffler

A story on the front page of today's W$J reinforced a feeling I've had for a while now. Does the nature of the people who are drawn to working as traders at investment banks explain the rise of such ultra-risky (insane?) gambles as naked (speculative) CDS, subprime CMBS, and other derivatives and the spectacular losses that they created? I think so. Yesterday, Deutsche Bank announced its first yearly loss in a half-century. The loss was attributed to the roller-coaster investment returns of one trader, Boaz Weinstein, whose losses for 2008 wiped out the gains for the two previous years and produced a $1.8 billion annual loss for DB as a whole!

The take-home line for me was the description of Weinstein: "a chess master, poker and blackjack devotee and top trader at Deutsche Bank AG." I read a paper last night about credit default swaps, and it characterized perhaps the most common usage of that "product" as little more than gambling on the fate of third-party-owned credit products. This gambling meme has come up time after time, and I think it explains so much. Perhaps this is obvious, but it seems to me to warrant explicit observation: those who are attracted to the high-intensity job of Wall Street trader are likely to be the kind of people who like to gamble . . . and gamble big. What better way to catch the ultimate gambling rush than to trade with billions of dollars of other people's money. I don't mean this as a criticism of traders. I do mean this as a reminder that when regulators let these markets loose (as they did in the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act), we should not be surprised when the stake rise sky high, and eventually the sky actually does fall.

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