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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The top 10 reasons Brexit isn't working, according to Brexiteers

We'd have got away with it, if it weren't for that pesky Mark Carney. 

Over the next few years, it is likely that the economy will shrink, that the entire government will be consumed by trade negotiations at the expense of every other priority, and that EU leaders will use their considerable negotiation advantages to theatrically screw us. As this unpretty story unfolds, those who argued confidently for Brexit, in parliament and in the press, will feel compelled to maintain that they were right, and that if it hadn’t been for some other impossible-to-foresee factor everything would be going splendidly. What follows is an attempt to anticipate the most predictable post-rationalisations; I’m sure there will be more creative efforts.

1. WHITEHALL SABOTAGE. If we’re making no progress in trade negotiations, that’s because the civil service is doing its best to scupper a successful Brexit. That power-crazed madman Jeremy Heywood will stop at nothing to ensure he is bossed by Brussels, and the snooty bastards at the Treasury are working to subvert the national will out of spite. Even as our finest ministers strive manfully to cut Britannia free of its enslaving chains, all they hear from functionaries is “It’s a bit more complicated than that”. It’s only complicated because they want it to be.
 

2. REMAINERS TALKING DOWN THE COUNTRY. God knows we tried to reach out to them, with our gently teasing admonitions for being elitist snobs who just needed to get over it. But did they concede that a glorious future is at hand, if only we all wish for it? No, my friends, they did not. Instead, they sulkily point out how the things they predicted would happen are in fact happening, as if this somehow proves they were right. And since, inexplicably, the world agrees them, the whiners’ prophecy is being fulfilled.
 

3. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY. It appears the UK economy has sunk into a recession. Now, the whiners will tell you that this has got something to do with the vast uncertainty created by taking a fundamental decision about the nation’s future without a clue about how to implement it. In reality, of course, the recession has been caused by the same global economic headwinds that had absolutely nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis, which was all Gordon Brown's fault.
 

4. ECONOMISTS. Since they nearly all said that Britain would be worse off if it voted Out, they now feel compelled to tell us that things are indeed worse. OK, maybe they are worse. But think about it: if we hadn’t voted Out, the economy might be even more calamitously buggered than it is now. This is logically unassailable. But do economists ever point it out? Do they Brussels. Yet sadly, global businesses, investors, consumers, and lots of other people who frankly lack gumption or vision, take these so-called experts seriously.
 

5. MARK CARNEY. Let’s get this straight: the Canadian governor of the Bank of England doesn’t want Britain to succeed, because then we’d be a direct competitor to his motherland. But with his honeyed voice and perpendicular jaw and incessant references to “data”, this man has gone a long way to convincing much of the public that he is some kind of disinterested authority on Britain’s economy. In reality, of course, he is out to destroy it, and seems to be making a pretty good fist of doing so.
 

6. EU BUREAUCRATS. You know those people we spent years attacking for being interfering, self-enriching, incompetent fools? Turns out they are now keen to make our lives as difficult as possible. The way to deal with this, of course, is to mount a national campaign of vilification. Another one. Before long they will be begging for mercy.
 

7. THERESA MAY. Look, we all wanted her to succeed. We knew she wasn’t one of us, but she wasn’t exactly one of them either, so we gave her a chance. Yet perhaps it is time to admit the possibility that the Prime Minister isn’t making this work because, when it comes down to it, she just doesn’t share our blood-pumping, sap-extruding belief in Britain unbound. In short, she’s just too damn reasonable. It’s time to embrace the unreasonable man. What’s Boris doing these days?
 

8. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (i). Not only can we not get the Remainers to present a united front to Brussels, it seems that we can’t even rely on our fellow Brexiteers. Most of us are on the same page: take back control of our borders, blue passports, compulsory blazers, onwards and upwards to the sunlit uplands. But there are some among our own ranks who frankly don’t get it. These latte-sipping media types simper on endlessly about the importance of retaining access to the single market and seem awfully keen on Norway. Why don’t they just go and join Remain?
 

9. THOSE OTHER BREXITEERS (ii). Hey guys, the problem is this: Brexit got hijacked by the roast beef and two veg brigade, OK? For us it was always about unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit, shaking off the dead hand of Eurocrat regulation, being more human, that kind of thing. We had to go along with all that anti-immigration stuff but believe me we were biting our tongues and crossing our fingers. Some of our best friends are Turkish.
 

10. NONSENSE, IT IS WORKING.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.