As a physical sciences and astrophysics buff, I was struck by the irony in some of man’s greatest and most enigmatic physical laws in contrast to some of the dumbest behavior imaginable by Wall street, politicians and main street for that matter. I couldn’t help but compare some of the most famous physical laws we’ve come to know and love to what we’ve seen transpire in recent years in the investment and banking world. You’ll surely recognize some of these venerable laws and theorems and surely the people rooted in the midst of frenzied wheeling and dealing on Wall Street and in the mortgage industry should have known that what they were doing was unsustainable, but in retrospect, there’s a tinge of irony in these laws in comparison to how things played out:
1 – The Law of Gravity
What comes up must come down
Housing Market anyone? For years, the best and brightest minds in the world (physicists and math whizzes from the likes of MIT in fact) developed complex securitization models and derivatives products which quite foolishly assumed that US home prices would continue to appreciate at 6-8% per year when over 100 years of history dictates that home prices appreciate roughly in line with inflation – currently running at 2-3% per year. Already way above the trend due to a secular bull trend with no actual change to fundamentals, these instruments of mass destruction brought the financial industry and the global economy to its knees during a reversion to the mean – during the fall back to earth.
2 – Conservation of Energy
Energy can neither be created nor destroyed
Somehow, Wall Street and the frenzied home buying public created value out of nothing. No down-payment loans and a blind eye to income verification turned home prices loose. There was real estate flip speculation whereby someone with literally no income and no assets could purchase a condo in Miami for $400K and flip it for $460K the same week. This went on for years, until the music stopped playing. You can’t continue to extract value (cash-out refis and flips) from an asset in which it doesn’t exist.
3 – The third law of thermodynamics
It is impossible to create a thermodynamic process which is perfectly efficient.
We saw a massive increase in the number of hedge fund, mutual fund and ETF offerings, many of which had complex expense ratios and tracking errors – only to see many of them fail. You can never get a perfect index match without tracking error and fees/commissions and most actively managed mutual funds can’t beat their index – but you can get pretty darn close in low-fee Vanguard mutual funds or various ETFs.
4 – Theory of Relativity
Transformation between a moving object and an observer in another frame of reference
Classical relativity involves a transformation between a moving object and an observer in another inertial frame of reference.
To main street, the Wall Street bonuses seemed outrageous, unwarranted, unsustainable and flat-out insulting. To those in the ivory tower, it was get while the gettin’s good and do what everyone else is doing. If any one firm didn’t jump on the mortgage securitization bandwagon, their earnings wouldn’t look as good as their peers, and hence, the house of cards was constructed.
5 – The Grand Unified Theory
This is the holy grail of physics, if you will – trying to reconcile and consolidate all major theories like Einstein’s theory of relativity with the fundamental forces of physics.photo credit
The Quants – The whizzes on Wall Street thought they had it all figured out – they found the coveted holy grail. They would take on massive leverage, take inordinate risks on securitized debt and then hedge it with credit default swaps. This was thought to be the perfect investment model – high alpha returns with fully hedged risk. With the potential bankruptcy of AIG (which was involved in Hundreds of Billions in credit default swaps), many of the largest investment banks and sovereign wealth funds would have realized tremendous losses – but they were spared by a US taxpayer bailout. How convenient? AIG made good on payments to the likes of Goldman Sachs which is approaching $200 per share again. Meanwhile, our generation is passing on generational debt the likes of which the world has never seen.
Do any Ironic Parallels Come to Mind After Reading?
If you enjoyed this post, you can get free updates through RSS Feed or via Email whenever a new post is published. Rest assured that you can unsubscribe at any time via the automated system and your information will not be sold, archived or utilized for any other "nefarious" purposes.