Monday, February 02, 2009

Finansial Atyachar

I twisted my ankle the other day and went to buy Relispray.

"How much," I asked.

"Rs 100", said the chemist.

My daughter butted in,"Is se chhota size nahin hai?"

The guy returned with a smaller version and we paid sixty bucks.
"See,"she beamed."We saved forty rupees."

Her logic was that I don't need twist my ankle everyday, so the smaller can should be fine.

The next day she stepped out of the bath and declared,"I used soap today and it is nice."

Not that I don't know the benefits of soap but over the last couple of years we've switched to shower gels. Bas yun hi. Now my nine year old declares that the good old sabun ki batti is cheaper - and lasts longer!

What surprised me was how sensitive she's become about the need to 'save money'. Almost like she is reacting to the current economic scenario.

Now technically Nivedita does not read business newspapers or track the stock market. Neither have I overtly communicated the idea to her. But something in the air is telling her.. times are tough.

Sadly, the folks at Wall Street who've created this giant, gaseous global MESS don't get it. That is clear from two recent pieces of news:

* Despite the current crisis, Wall Street paid itself bonuses worth $ 18.4 billion in 2008. Yahoo finance reports:

That pool is down 44% from the prior year but still represents the sixth-largest bonus haul on record, according to the NY State comptroller's office.

No wonder Obama went ballistic!

* Nero was playing his fiddle while Rome was burning. John Thain, CEO of Merrill Lynch was busy remodelling his office and deliberating on the colour of his $ 87,000 rug.

Thain was ousted last week by Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis after Merrill Lynch posted an 'unexpectedly' large loss in the fourth quarter. Well we certainly expect no less from these frou frou financial whizkids!

I am no expert on the current crisis at Wall Street but last week I happened to attend a talk by Prof Marti Subrahmanyam, Charles E. Merrill Professor of Finance and Economics in the Stern School of Business at New York University.

Of the many wise and wonderful insights he shared one comment stuck with me. The good professor remarked that in recent times financial instruments had become so complex that most of the people trading these products (such as CDOs) had no idea what they were buying and selling.

"They may as well have been trading onions or potatos," he stated.

I have taken the liberty of applying that analogy to the crisis as whole and this is how ridiculous it looks...

I am a trader in the Azadpur sabzi mandi. I deal in potatos but I don't really know what potatos look like. Neither do I know what they smell like or taste like.

But someone has told me these are potatos and I trust that guy. Actually even he does not know what potatos look like but someone told him these are good quality potatos...

And so it goes. What kills me is that these were supposedly the smartest people, the 'best talent money could buy'. The people who are trained in the whole art and science of harvesting money on the financial farms of Wall Street.

And none of them had a clue. What's more, they are now happy to hide behind a convenient scarecrow.

Daniel Gross of Newseek, reporting from Davos, has a telling piece on why the world's economic leaders blame the catastrophe on the system instead of themselves.

For centuries, historians have debated whether history is propelled by Great Men (and Women), human forces of nature who bend events and systems to their will, or by vast impersonal forces (communism, capitalism, globalization) that render even the most powerful of us a mere reed basket floating in a massive river.

There's no session on the subject at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But at least with regard to finance and business, the consensus seems to be clear: Success is the work of Great Men and Great Women, while failure can be pinned on the system.

People make mistakes, sure. But as Nicholas Taleb, author of 'The Black Swan' noted recently, we can't have a system where profits are privatised and losses socialised.

If the industry is to get a massive bailout they better learn to tell their onions from their potatos. And good potatos from bad ones.

And meanwhile, all ye farmers, tauba tera bonus, tauba teri car...
Methinks you deserve some finansial atyachaar!


  1. I guess you are over-reacting to your kids comment and associating it with current economic situation. if she was 9 yrs old in 2005-2006, she very well could have made those comments in at that time as well. its just that she is growing up.

  2. ermm...sorry to focus on this, but it's potatoEs.

  3. By the way, I think John Thain is a pretty smart guy. First, he saved his firm from certain bankruptcy and dumped all the losses of Merril to BoFA. After Merrill having posted a pretty heavy loss ( i think $40 Bn), he got all his staff their bonuses from the BoFA pool, while BoFA staff still remain to be paid their bonuses. Then he refurburished his office. And now, he's managed himself a pretty fat exit package as well. He is one guy you don't want to play poker with. I only wish such people would use their brains for the good of everyone, instead of just themselves.

  4. Do you ever entertain the thought that *some* folks in the system do know and *dont* care ?

  5. I mean why do u have to make everything a masala movie with some weird logic.
    As Kaho pyare clearly pointed out connecting kids comment with economic situation is Bollywood types masala
    Expected better stuff from you.
    No offense meant

  6. you over-reacted on ur child's observation but created a damn nice write-up out of it ;)

    and i agree with you when you say profits are by individuals and losses are by societies (a general unsaid rule)!!

    Keep Blogging

  7. Dear rashmi,
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  8. The write-up is kinda like a medley of Yahoo Finance, NYTimes, ideas of Prof. Marti, Newsweek and so on! :) It's a perfectly written piece though, with those concepts focussed in a coherent direction - something which is an art in itself and is perfected by few.

    But may be, saying - "Something in the air is telling her.. times are tough." is a tad bit too much! ;) :) I remember doing it for the last 10-12 years or simply since I gained my senses!

  9. Don't get offended... I think she is realising her Marwari roots..Nothing wong though..

  10. Despite the general mistrust sorrounding structured products, I tend to think that mere complexity of an instrument, though not desirable, doesnt necessarily mean it is harmful. It is over-leveraging/lack of equity in asset ownership and poor regulatory oversight which caused the current mess. Also, mandatory disclosure of assumptions used to value complex instruments and their potential value in the event of worst-case scenario may be a useful step.

  11. kids nowadays are really smart, they sense these things so fast...

    BPO work from home

  12. Your daughter is smart ;-)

  13. Finansal Attyachaar - Brass Band Version
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