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Friday, March 2, 2018

The Downfall of MF Global: Implications for Banks Too Big To Fail

Here is an alphabet-soup of regulatory agencies that let MF Global, a financial services company that specialized in futures-trading, engage in much, too much, risk: SEC, CME, CFTC and FINRA. On one level, regulators will never be able to stop practitioners from making risky or simply bad decisions; a business system populated only by firms above average is by definition impossible. As long as their managers have any freedom of movement at all, some firms, including some in the financial sector, will inevitably fail. The question I want to pose is whether this means that firms too big to fail (TBTF) should be allowed to exist at all. In short, although MF Global itself was not TBTF, the risk Corzine (who had been chairman of Goldman Sachs) permitted suggests that human nature might be insufficiently disposed to support mammoth concentrations of private capital whose fall could mean the collapse of the financial system itself. Ultimately, I suppose, human nature can only go so far, organizationally speaking.

The full essay is at "The Downfall of MF Global."

Having It Both Ways: American Culture or Merely Congress?

Under the terms of the debt-ceiling budget agreement enacted during the summer in 2011, members of a joint Congressional committee, evenly divided between the parties as well as between the two chambers, had until Nov. 23 of that year to recommend ways to reduce budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Both houses had to vote on the package by Dec. 23, 2011. If no legislation is enacted, the government would automatically cut almost $500 billion from military spending, with an equal amount from nonmilitary programs, between 2013 and 2021.

The full essay is at "Congress Reflecting American Society."

11/11/11

In Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate on 11/11/11 in 2011, costumes were the norm in the evening as revelers celebrated the numeric convergence. I suspect that unlike the Chinese, the Europeans were struck by the convergence itself, rather by any good luck attached to the numerology. I myself was struck by the convergence alone. Both at 11:11am and 11:11pm, I was surprised that other Americans around me seemed to be either ignorant of the alignment or utterly indifferent to it. It occurred to me that just as a given time-date system is artificial, so too are human cultures—which include political and economic values that are stitched together by leaders who peddle meaning to the masses. Both our systems and our ideologies are all too limiting, yet we can find meaning in them. Perhaps this is ultimately why we have them and the leaders that trumpet them or suggest new ones. I contend that 11/11/11 too plays into the human instinct for sense-making, especially in terms of visual and cognitive symmetries.

The full essay is at "11/11/11"

Contagion Beyond the Headlines in the E.U.

The E.U. states of Greece and Italy were grabbing headlines during the first two weeks of November 2011, given the dramatic resignations of Papandreou and Berlusconi. The only other state to get some attention was France. The Wall Street Journal noted on November 12th that concerns had been quietly building about France. According to the paper,“French bond yields rose to four-month highs, one day after Standard & Poor's Ratings Services erroneously issued a message saying it had cut France's triple-A credit rating. The yield on France's benchmark 10-year bond climbed 0.02 percentage point to 3.46%. That was 1.66 percentage points over yields on comparable German government bonds. France now has the highest government bond yields among its triple-A-rated peers in the region.” However, it seems overly dramatic to say that a .02 percent increase evinces a climb. Moreover, 3.46% is well under 7 percent, which is the level that was presumed at the time to signify the need for a bailout. Relative to the changes in the Italian yield, those of the French bonds could be viewed as relatively moderate, The French yield was still closer to that of Germany. Although not a red herring, the concern over France masked some real sleepers that were poised to take a hit in 2012. 


The full essay is at "Debt Contagion in the E.U."

For more on this topic, see Essays on the E.U. Political Economy

On the Allure of Popular Suffrage

In the European singing contest/show in which Susan Boyle competed, she lost the top spot to a teenage rap group. The method of selection made all the difference. Rather than having a three-judge panel of experts on singing determine the winner, the general public could “text” via cell phone or other device to vote. That one of the judges explicitly advocated for Boyle after her final performance (just before the voting) was no never mind to the general public that submitted a majority of the votes. To be sure, there were certainly non-music reasons to vote against her. Most notably, the suggestive comments she made on stage just before her first performance, including, “I’m 48, and that’s not my other half” (as she was swinging her hips as if she were sexy), were downright emetic, if not utterly bizarre. So it is possible that the voters put her personality defect above her excellent singing. It is also possible that the “texters” responsible for a majority of the votes simply preferred rap music. I do not like rap “songs” that include shouting and swearing; I do not even regard such “songs” as music. Otherwise, I could sing a song simply by yelling at you. From what I saw, the rap group in the competition was not swearing, but the “singing” did sound at times like shouting to me. Moreover, the group members seemed more oriented to dancing than singing. It is possible that the votes for that group went for any of the fads being represented rather than to singing per se.

The full essay is at "Popular Suffrage in Democracy."

Monday, February 26, 2018

Liturgical Vestments as Doorways into the Divine: On the Importance of Transcendence

In the Book of Genesis, God makes garments of skin for Adam and Eve and clothes them. Gianfranco Ravasi, a Roman Catholic Cardinal and de facto cultural minister of the Vatican, reflected on the meaning of liturgical vestments while he was in New York with prominent designers to preview the upcoming exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That fashion could point to the transcendent would seem to go against the ostensibly fundamental  dichotomy between the superficial and the significant.  The religious quest can be understood in such terms as transcending the image to the underlying ineffable mystery that must characterize the transcendent.


The full essay is at "Liturgical Vestments as Doorways."

The University of Arizona: A Case of Sordid Sports Reflecting Dysfunctional Administration

Ethically dysfunctional organizational cultures can be found in not only for-profit corporations, but also universities—especially in those whose managements are business-oriented rather than academic. The University of Arizona is a case in point. That managerial incompetence and sheer bad judgment could exist even at the “highest” levels points to how dysfunctional organization can perpetuate itself, and be extremely hard to correct.

The full essay is at "The University of Arizona."

For more on unethical business, see Cases of Unethical Business