Dec

14

Esteem. What are the reasons that business people act as they do? One reason is the desire for profits. The second most studied reason is the sanction and guide of regulation and the law. A third reason, which is not considered enough, is the desire for esteem and the avoidance of disesteem. This topic is covered very well in The Economics of Esteem by Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit. They consider how esteem is allocated and how it can be improved in the economy. Chapters include why we want esteem, the demand and supply of esteem, the economics of equilibrium of esteem, publicity, the intangible hand, and voluntary associations. It's mainly a diagrammatic and psychological framework within which the principles and non-mathematical tools of economics are applied. It should have great application to the endeavor of finding good companies and good managers.

VIX. With VIX at 9.7, its lowest level in 12 years, the jury is out. Will the new year, or the new expirations to be traded, lead to a change in regime? Usually decision-makers are not apt to change horses near the holiday season, especially in view of the bonuses gravitating down to the middle classes.

Torts. It's hard to do anything these days without thinking that fear of litigation is a driver of the customs and procedures. In hospitals, people in critical care are subjected to an endless barrage of red tape while in shock so that doctors can protect themselves from subsequent claims, including giving X-rays while life hangs by a thread. And of course autopsies are a thing of the past because they often are not paid for, and because of what they might reveal.

Happiness. The happiness that people forego to protect themselves from liability is often not accounted for in the cost benefit-analysis of third party payment schemes. For example, in squash, certainly the rule that one must wear goggles causes more accidents than it saves. And people can't remember the time when you could actually enjoy a game of squash and see the whole court. And many people have not taken the game up because of the wearing of goggles. Of course, the invisible hand explanation for such rules is the fees associations get from the manufacturers. More importantly, many have had their happiness quotient decreased. The same is true of car seat laws for babies. How much wasted time, how many cancelled trips? There are hundreds of other examples.

Antipodes. I spoke at Yale yesterday, a week after Professor Taleb had been there. And we have both adopted George Zachar's device of "your own man says it's so" to discuss the merits of what the other does, even though it is more than 99% likely that on any given trade in the pit we are on opposite sides.

Anthropology. The customs of various trading pits, and the movement from simple to complex rules, a subject anthropologists study, would also be good for speculators to consider. I am reading the Encyclopedia of Anthropological Theory and find in every chapter insights into the way people perform tasks in different cultures and times, and the way that markets work. The anthropology of markets should be studied in detail and not just in terms of the customs and norms that develop on the floor and how they affect the public.

George Zachar replies:

One of the peculiarities of the big dealer shops I frequented was their intensely tribal nature. The sales/trader types loathed the slick investment bankers, who in turn treated "the floor" with contempt. The bond guys thought the stock guys were idiots, and the stock guys thought the bond guys were dweebs. The salesmen thought the traders were calculating lying thieves, and the traders thought the salesmen were glib lying thieves.

Many of the failures I observed at these firms could be traced directly to these tensions, and management's inability to get all the horses to pull the twin carts of customer satisfaction and firm profitability.

I've always assumed the key to 85 Broad Street's stupendous success lay in creating and sustaining a culture/management/incentive structure that solved the tribalism problem.

Vance Falco adds:

I'll reinforce George's observations. In the late 1990s I ran a research desk on the trading floor of a small boutique investment bank. Our primary responsibility was to very quickly make assessments about news flow regarding the companies under the firm's coverage, synergize that with the industry analysts' existing research stance and get the perspective out to block traders and the institutional salesforce. It was very amusing to see the quickly shifting manner in which we were treated. When queried about the meaning of something, we were treated (generally) respectfully. The moment we weren't on stage providing the value added insight (we hoped), we slid back to being treated as simply consumers of others' potential compensation upside and our part in the larger process was lost. To the traders, we weren't rough and tumble enough. To the salesforce, we knew the research well but weren't glam enough to put out the firm's sales call. Second class citizens from every angle.

Yishen Kuik comments:

I just wanted to add that I've long shared the same observations.

My experience is that some institutions can be very balkanized and surprisingly ineffective at coordinating efforts. Additionally, not especially well organized to move talent within the organization, allowing it to find its best fit.

Having said that, the Grand Sichuan Bank does seem to have created a good structure/culture to deal with these issues.

Vincent Andres contributes:

This reminds me of a very very good book called The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris.

Considering we're just apes with costumes has often helped me to put things into perspective. I believe it's also useful to understand crowd behavior, because most new types of behavior emerge at common denominator points, and thus many such behaviors are of a very primitive sort.

Andrew Godwin extends:

Having played squash for over 25 years, I give the thumbs up to Victor's analysis of goggles. Rather than point out profitable liability management portfolio ideas to the public, shouldn't you instead go long the athletic cup manufacturers? The sport authorities don't make you wear those yet. The loss of family jewels in a squash match would count much more significant than injury to goggle-protected portions to males without children. Indeed, parents and grandparents would support such an initiative. Only current spouses or kids in divorce situations would object. The descriptive terminology of "family jewels" makes the point to savvy marketers. Self-evident points need expression in your form, apparently.


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