When it pays to be crazy

In the irrational, out-of-control world of the financial markets, acting rationally loses money rath

As recent events indicate, financial markets seem incapable of self-regulation, and instead swing headily from irrational excesses to violent crashes. But it’s unlikely that governments could do a much better job of avoiding financial crises, as the job of creating wise and effective regulation may just be too difficult to perform. Nevertheless, when banks crash, it is the public purse that has to bail them out. The solution to this problem? Governments need to make sure that, during times of plenty, they make enough out of the financial sector to prepare for the bad times – for, as we’ve seen, days of plenty are always numbered.

The events of the past two weeks are instructive. Bear Stearns was a venerable Wall Street bank that kept on trading all the way through the Great Depression. In 2007, it was voted Fortune magazine’s “Most Admired” securities firm. Now, after the self-destructive excesses of the sub-prime mortgage bubble that has burst, it lies in ruins: sold over to JPMorgan Chase, via a government bail-out, at a mere $10 per share – a pale comparison to its market capitalization at $170 per share as recently as January 2007. The bigger problem is that no-one knows which venerable old institution will be next to implode.

The US Federal Reserve has had to stump up a massive $30 billion in order to smooth the sale of Bear Stearns, and who knows what kinds of additional largesse will be demanded of the world’s treasuries and central banks before the losses can be stemmed (if they can be). The financial system relies on trust; and once it is lost, trust – like innocence – is difficult to regain. Things could get much, much messier before they start to get better.

The origins of the current crisis lie in the short-sightedness, greed and poor regulation of the world’s markets in securitized credit instruments – the ever more exotic march of acronyms of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), MBS’s (mortgage backed securities) and the like.

The world’s commercial banks have spent five years borrowing cheap money, lending it to (often poor) people for near-to-zero margins, and then marking their books with a repayment probability of 100 percent. Credit spreads narrowed to absurd levels, long term rates fell below short term rates (you actually got lower interest rates if you locked your cash up for longer) and the weakest, most brittle CDOs and MBSs could get an AAA rating from supine, eager-to-please rating agencies.

It was the fantasy world of “mark to market” accounting practices that destroyed Enron, and in consequence their file-shredding accountants Arthur Andersen, when the last bubble burst, but memories seem to be short when there’s money to be made.

It was obvious that the liquidity bubble was going to burst sooner or later. So, one might ask, why didn’t the grotesquely well-paid analysts at Bear Stearns and elsewhere urge caution instead of the full-steam-ahead lemming sprint to the cliff’s edge? The answer is a disturbing one – in an irrational market, rational behaviour loses money rather than making it. The first bank to have pulled in the reins in the credit markets would have lost out as everyone else made a quick killing from the irrationally-rising market.

When a price bubble is inflating, there is massive money to be made from buying high, but selling higher. There is a classic co-ordination problem here. It is rational to act ‘irrationally’ as long as the crazy folk around you keep driving the market up; it becomes rational to act ‘rationally’ only when your rationality is contagious, or when everyone can see that the cliff edge is now in sight.

Anyone who thinks that financial markets can be successfully self-regulating hasn’t understood the way that acting crazy can be the way to make massive profits, as long as you’re not the only crazy one. Added to this, of course, is the problem of the time horizons of the people who actually work for investment banks. They’re so well paid that they don’t need to care about their position in 7 or 10 years’ time. If this year’s bonus can buy a townhouse, then there’s no need to sacrifice current margins to vague concerns for future stability.

The truth is that the players in the world’s financial markets find themselves in a classic Prisoners’ Dilemma. It’s rational for any fund manager to join in with the latest unsustainable get-rich-quick scheme, because he’ll make more money than if he shows restraint. But if everyone joins in, then you create an unsustainable bubble, and everyone loses out in the end. It’s collectively rational for the financial market to show restraint, but individually rational for each of the players in that market to (within limits) throw caution to the wind (especially while everyone else is doing so and the bubble is inflating). But there’s just no way of getting from individual commercial decisions to the collectively rational and restrained equilibrium.

So, the financial markets are structurally incapable of self-regulation. The obvious alternative is state regulation. But there are two massive problems here. The first problem is one of technical know-how. The world’s investment banks spend billions on wages to get highly technically gifted people to devise ever more complex financial instruments and strategies. Crashes and bubbles can happen in unpredictable ways, and it would take even greater resources and expertise to design the surgical regulation needed to head-off every possible disaster. States lack the capacity to stay one step ahead of these out-of-control financial behemoths.

The other problem, of course, is that states face a Prisoner’s Dilemma of their own. Tighter regulation or higher taxes in London drives the banks to Geneva, and it’s better for the state to get inadequate scraps than nothing at all. It would be collectively rational for states to co-ordinate their tax and regulatory activities but, yet again, individually rational for each individual state to defect and undercut the competition.

Both these problems have solutions, though. If ‘surgical’ regulation is too difficult, then perhaps governments need to treat the periodic expansions and contractions of the financial sector as an unavoidable evil, and simply make sure that they extract enough in the way of taxes when times are good. (Although there’s no doubt that some forms of regulation that would have headed-off the current crisis are shockingly simple – for example, imposing a maximum income-multiple on new mortgages, with tighter standards for income certification.)

Moreover, governments are much better situated for co-operation than are private players in the financial system. If tax flight is a problem, then governments need to get their heads together, and do more to impose uniform tax treatments of financial institutions and their employees. Co-operation at the European level is especially urgent, and realizable. Some of these forms of co-operation could be politically popular throughout the continent. The EU would be much more popular if it was seen taking a stand against the cynical and leaching Swiss treatment of hedge funds, or Monaco’s scandalous position on tax exiles. It’s high time that the hard working people of the continent stopped being exploited by tax havens.

At the moment, we have a horrible imbalance of power. When things are going well, the bankers take the spoils. When they fail, the state – and its taxpayers – pick up the tab. If we can’t control the irrational oscillations of world finance, we should at least make sure that its benefits are distributed more justly.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).