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Are we all rogue traders now?

Last week authorities apprehended a trader for UBS, the huge, international Swiss bank, on suspicion that he lost $2 billion of the bank's money in unauthorized trades. It's not the first time something on this scale has happened. In 2008 a trader at Société Générale, the giant French bank now so much in the news, lost $6.7 billion of that bank's money in supposedly unauthorized trades before he was caught.

My question is quite simple. If these traders had made billions for their institutions instead of losing them, would they have been labeled "rogue" and handed over to the authorities? I ask this question because it seems to me that what is being punished is not excessive risk-taking, but rather excessive risk-taking that loses money. Almost nobody labels risk-taking "excessive" if it results in a win. Then it is called "brilliant" or "gutsy" or "a stroke of genius." And, people who take such risks get large bonuses and are promoted.

In 2008 when nearly everything went sour for traders in the world's largest banks, the losses were explained (by the banks and their strategists) as the product of an unbelievably rare confluence of events. When one trader loses a large amount of money, he or she can be labeled "rogue" or, at least, suffer a quick dismissal. But when nearly all traders at a bank have their heads handed to them at the same time, it's not called excessive risk-taking, but rather a fluke.

What is not apparent in all of this is that banks and their risk analysts refuse to acknowledge that they face hidden risks which they cannot quantify because they cannot know about them. Risk models are one thing; the real world another. To my mind that makes all but the most conservative bankers "rogue" traders.

What motivates the non-conservative ones is the certain knowledge that the government will backstop them. As it turns out, the banking system historically has never made money and, in fact, lost money in the long run. The one thing it has done quite well is provide bonuses for its traders and managers--which they don't have to give back when their institutions go bust from their bad trades and loans even as the government bails them out. (To hear Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, explain this, see his congressional testimony: Part 1 and Part 2.)

The current maelstrom in the financial world, however, is not a discrete event. Our attitude in general about risk, especially low-probability, hidden risk, is similar to that of the man who sleeps on the railroad tracks but does not know about the existence of trains. Much of the time he can sleep there undisturbed. But he need only be wrong once in his timing to suffer catastrophe.

We have become a society reliant on expert forecasts. In the field of energy, many forecasters make fancy livings pretending to know the future supply and price of various energy sources, especially fossil fuels, projecting sometimes decades into the future. Not wanting to rely on outsiders, governments routinely hire their own experts to make energy forecasts for them. And, policymakers and managers everywhere in society make fateful decisions based on those forecasts without knowing how uncertain they are.

Given how central energy is to the functioning of society, nearly all of us have become in some ways like rogue traders, basing our lives and plans on comforting models that contain hidden risks and may have little resemblance to the future we will live in. In that sense, UBS's rogue trader and, in fact, the entire world of financial traders, may be a mirror for society in general, one that we would do well to examine. We might see that energy and so many other systems rely on forecasts with hidden risks for which we have built in little or no margin of safety. Unfortunately, there will be no central bank of energy or any other essential resource to bail us out as those risks make themselves evident.

Editorial Notes: Kurt Cobb has just been named to the ASPO-USA board of directors. Congratulations, Kurt! -BA

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