Recipe for Disaster

Felix Salmon in Wired 17.03: Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street:

For five years, Li’s formula, known as a Gaussian copula function, looked like an unambiguously positive breakthrough, a piece of financial technology that allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before. With his brilliant spark of mathematical legerdemain, Li made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels.

His method was adopted by everybody from bond investors and Wall Street banks to ratings agencies and regulators. And it became so deeply entrenched—and was making people so much money—that warnings about its limitations were largely ignored.

Then the model fell apart. Cracks started appearing early on, when financial markets began behaving in ways that users of Li’s formula hadn’t expected. The cracks became full-fledged canyons in 2008—when ruptures in the financial system’s foundation swallowed up trillions of dollars and put the survival of the global banking system in serious peril.

The damage was foreseeable and, in fact, foreseen. In 1998, before Li had even invented his copula function, Paul Wilmott wrote that “the correlations between financial quantities are notoriously unstable.” Wilmott, a quantitative-finance consultant and lecturer, argued that no theory should be built on such unpredictable parameters. And he wasn’t alone. During the boom years, everybody could reel off reasons why the Gaussian copula function wasn’t perfect. Li’s approach made no allowance for unpredictability: It assumed that correlation was a constant rather than something mercurial. Investment banks would regularly phone Stanford’s Duffie and ask him to come in and talk to them about exactly what Li’s copula was. Every time, he would warn them that it was not suitable for use in risk management or valuation.

…In finance, you can never reduce risk outright; you can only try to set up a market in which people who don’t want risk sell it to those who do. But in the CDO market, people used the Gaussian copula model to convince themselves they didn’t have any risk at all, when in fact they just didn’t have any risk 99 percent of the time. The other 1 percent of the time they blew up. Those explosions may have been rare, but they could destroy all previous gains, and then some.

In the world of finance, too many quants see only the numbers before them and forget about the concrete reality the figures are supposed to represent. They think they can model just a few years’ worth of data and come up with probabilities for things that may happen only once every 10,000 years. Then people invest on the basis of those probabilities, without stopping to wonder whether the numbers make any sense at all.

As Li himself said of his own model: “The most dangerous part is when people believe everything coming out of it.”

One learning: always read the fine print, folks.