“Melting the Iceberg” + “Describing Objects” + … = “Unveiling the Dark Side of Markets”?
May 8, 2010
The week’s regulatory chronicle has been punctuated, in Paris, with a thoughtful sentence pronounced by M. Jouyet, the President of the Autorité des Marchés Financiers. Addressing the Committee of European Affairs of the French Parliament last Tuesday, M. Jouyet began his speech with the following statement: “Where is the financial Europe? What is a European market? These are the main political questions faced by regulators” (the whole discourse is available here). Acknowledging so bluntly that the definition of markets may in fact be the big issue offers (at last…) a space for discussion. Although not referring explicitly to anthropology, which would certainly have made the official discourse sound like black magic to parliamentarians, the point may well validate a view differently expressed by Gillian Tett (here) and Fabian Muniesa (here): the idea that market representations and the way they are formed do count when depicting market realities. We’d like to add a consideration to this proposal and suggest that unveiling the dark side of markets (the unseen, the undefined, the underlying) might require a further displacement of the focal generally used to scrutinize these bizarre entities.
Cognitive icebergs and comprehensive descriptions
Whatever the difficulty may be, depicting financial markets remains a definitive task especially in times of crisis, as Tett (2009: 6) notes in her short focus, suggesting that the cognitive mapping of the financial system six years ago would have looked “like an ‘iceberg’ in media terms”, with “a large chunk of activity […] submerged from sight”, and ignored by lack of writing in the press or elsewhere. This icy metaphor definitely prompt us at looking under the surface of the financial landscape, in order to find ways to describe what really lies under expressions such as “liquid order books”, “transparent price disclosure mechanisms”, “best execution policies”, “market abusive practices”, etc. All indicate the devices making the financial sphere hold in itself, and contribute to the enacting of the market materiality. Melting the iceberg and describing this specific ecology (or, better said in the current state of crisis, its etiology), requires that we find a way to unfold the glossy images and concepts generated and constantly renewed by finance.
On his side, Fabian Muniesa recalls us how financial objects (and here we would think more broadly of market participants, in order to encompass humans, objects and institutions altogether) “are difficult to describe, difficult to account for or to understand, sometimes even for those involved in the financial services industry”. Ascribing a reality while describing an object, in order to articulate a discourse on finance definitely requires some kind of engagement, and perhaps even a bit more, as Charles W. Smith proposed a few years ago (here).
Contextualizing finance, working on descriptions: a precipitation process?
Both approaches somehow converge in the idea that agencies taking place within the practices of everyday finance – whether observed in a trading room, an M&A department or a retail banking agency – have not yet been thoroughly integrated in the academic discourse. But how can we achieve such an unveiling of intricate agencies, in order to understand what they produce, and how they organize? Our suggestion is that we need further works on market contexts and the related temporality regimes.
Market contexts can in fact be seen as the precipitation (in the chemical sense of the term) or actualization of entities pertaining to the market: such entities could be recognized as diverse participants answering to different ontological regimes, whether humans or non-humans, material or non-material. What do these entities participating to the market have in common? They can be described as “share-holders” of a space where they deploy and hold together during a certain period of time, in a certain place which topography helps the identification. During the precipitation process, entities attach, detach or stabilize in the given environment, the time span during which they materialize a story and crystallize a plot helping to determine when the given situation begins, and when it comes to an end. This, once accounted for, could be referred to as the market context connecting participants, meeting in the course of the same event. Trading rooms, for example, offer spaces where interactions between participants (analysts, sales traders, back-office clerks, cables and computers, norms and rules, etc.) constantly articulate and express market events. Like in the precipitation process, some elements may not attach to the main frame, while others would get stronger as time passes, during the process where an event happens and crystallizes (a client may ask for something, the sales would not know the rule to follow or have an IT issue and need to speak with his compliance officer in order to validate the considered practice; when returning back to the client, the sales would then notice that the client has left, and “the market” as well).
Working on these market contexts, which offer micro-sociological insights, provides a direct phenomenological access to the very making of finance through the confrontations that frame markets. In this respect, market contexts literally represent the market: they speak in the name of markets, and account for them. It is their succession that gives the market its own reality, its flesh and its very specific embodiment. Like in chemistry, elements (participants) order themselves as atomistic entities, build connexions (strong or weak), and sometimes generate energy (the trader shouting the order while his computer refuses to process it). In the process, some actants may take advantage and decide to act or react, and contribute to the production of a further stage in the situation. When this happens, the market context acquires its ontological thickness, requiring further layers of descriptions, overflowing the ones previously produced.
If the question really is about the description of markets (and the official position seems to encourage us in this direction), then restoring the link between participants through the hermeneutic of market contexts and the accounting of their specific temporality regimes is a task that needs to be fulfilled by social studies of finance. Working on the intricacies resulting from confronting temporalities, describing what takes place in these time spans where the market reality is literally made as a whole could probably help our understanding of such odd places. There obviously is a momentum for research here.