Is Excel the most dangerous piece of software in the world?

Microsoft's calculator is partially to blame for JPMorgan losing $9bn, and a lot more besides.

Is Excel the most dangerous piece of software in the world? Baseline Scenario's James Kwak reports on a little-mentioned aspect of the notorious "London Whale" debacle at JPMorgan, where Bruno Iksil headed a proprietary trading team which made losses of up to $9bn.

It turns out, Kwak writes, that Excel was partly to blame:

To summarize: JPMorgan’s Chief Investment Office needed a new value-at-risk (VaR) model for the synthetic credit portfolio (the one that blew up)… The new model “operated through a series of Excel spreadsheets, which had to be completed manually, by a process of copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another”… After the London Whale trade blew up, the Model Review Group discovered that the model had not been automated and found several other errors. Most spectacularly,

“After subtracting the old rate from the new rate, the spreadsheet divided by their sum instead of their average, as the modeler had intended. This error likely had the effect of muting volatility by a factor of two and of lowering the VaR…”

Kwak wonders if the very ease of use that Excel offers — allowing people with no programming experience to knock together what are, in effect, relatively advanced applets — also makes it dangerous to use in most sensitive situations. There's no debug, no audit trail, and no way to test why a spreadsheet returns the value it does. Similarly, training for Excel, where it exists, tends to ignore the importance of elegant and well-designed code, leading to legacy spreadsheets being used with internal workings which are opaque to all but their original creator, who may have left the company 20 years earlier.

The problem is, though, that Excel is the worst way to run a company's software other than all the other ways. The fact that it's capable of being programmed by the people who will end up using it means that it might enable hacked-together code, but it also prevents exactly the sort of corporate bloat which leads to people circumventing their company's software in the first place.

Bill Gates threatens the world with Microsoft Office in 2003. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Sir Ivan Rogers: UK may wait until mid 2020s for an EU trade deal

The former ambassador to the EU had previously warned his colleagues about Brexit negotiatiors' "muddled thinking". 

Brits may have to wait until the mid 2020s for a free trade deal with the EU, UK's former ambassador to Brussels has warned.

Sir Ivan Rogers, who quit abruptly in January after warning of "muddled thinking", gave evidence to the Brexit select committee. 

He told MPs that his Brussels counterparts estimated a free-trade agreement might be negotiated by late 2020, and then it would take two more years to ratify it.

He said: "It may take until the mid 2020s until there is a ratified deep and fully comprehensive free-trade agreement."

The negotiations could be disrupted by the "rogue" European Parliament, he cautioned, as well as individual member states.

"Canada [the EU-Canada trade deal] not only nearly fell apart on Wallonia, it nearly fell apart on Romania and Bulgaria and visas," he said. 

Member states were calculating what the loss of the UK will mean to their budgets, he added - although many were celebrating the end of Britain's much-resented budget rebate. 

He also thought it unlikely the EU member states would agree to sectoral deals, such as one for financial services, if it meant jeopardising the unity of the EU negotiating position. 

In his resignation letter, which was leaked to the press, Rogers told his staff that "contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities"and that he hoped they would continue "to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking".

Rogers said the comment was about "a generic argument on muddled thinking", which applied to "the system". He described how the small organisation he initially headed had been swamped by new arrivals from the newly-created Department for Exiting the EU.

The new recruits were enthusiastic, he said, but "they don't know an awful lot about the other end".

The UK needed to understand "we're up against a class act with the European Commission on negotiating", he warned. 

He said that if the UK reverted to World Trade Organisation rules - the option if it cannot agree a trade deal - it would enter a "legal void".

"No other major player trades with the EU on pure WTO terms," he said. "It's not true that the Americans do, or the Australians, or the Israelis or the Swiss."

The US has struck agreements "all the time" with the EU, he explained: "A very significant proportion of EU-US trade is actually governed by technical agreements."

Once the UK leaves the EU, it will be treated as a "third country", he added. This meant that the UK would need to get on a list to be allowed to export into the EU. Then individual firms would have to be listed, and their products scrutinised.

Rogers revealed he had debated "endlessly" with colleagues about the UK's relationship with the EU. "The core of the problem is not day one," he said. "The problem is day two, or day two thousand. What have you just captured your sovereignty and autonomy for?" Simply getting access to the single market would not mean a level playing field with EU companies, he explained.

He said: "The European Union is not a common sense agreement. It's a legal order."

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.