Leveraged Finance + Follow-the-Leader = A Dangerous Brew
October 11, 2010
Reading through the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, I was struck by a glaring omission. While the public has been mesmerized by currency wars and mortgage moratoriums, along with the usual sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, financial service reform has been largely forgotten. Although a few observers continue to follow the fate of the toothless financial reforms passed a few months ago, Wall Street has returned to business as usual.
Unfortunately, business as usual remains extremely dangerous. The financial system today relies upon a volatile mixture of leveraged finance and socially-driven irrationalities.
Leveraged finance is scary enough, illustrated by a recent conversation I had with a salesperson working for a major prime broker. For those of you who haven’t heard the term before, a prime broker lends securities and money to hedge funds, allowing some to invest more than $30 for every $1 they actually possess. Where does this money actually come from? Despite working at the epicenter of leverage finance, the salesperson seemed to have little idea.
What institutional investors do with borrowed money is even scarier. Simon, Millo, Kellard and Ofer (2010) find that hedge fund managers experienced groupthink in one spectacular financial episode, VW-Porsche. Being over-embedded with one another, one powerful group of managers talked each other into a “consensus trade”. Later, they collectively refused to heed warnings that the trade was becoming dangerous. When this trade inevitably exploded, the hedge fund managers stampeded out with their billions of dollars, briefly creating a spectacular bubble. This episode is consistent with my own research, which shows a follow-the-leader pattern amongst hedge fund managers. Not only are institutional investors gossipy and panicky, but they also imitate the most prestigious investors (e.g. the Tiger Cubs) using their social ties. Statistical analyses suggest that such imitation may occur despite imitators systematically harming themselves.
These cases illustrate why the social studies of finance (SSF) are so important. When socially-mediated irrationalities affect people who control hundreds of billions of leveraged dollars, they could very easily create financial bubbles and crashes impacting the real economy. Understanding these socialized irrationalities remains our best defense against future bubbles and collapses, an eventuality as long as “business as usual” continues.