The Formula That Killed Wall Street

I’d chanced upon a very interesting read about the cause of the financial crisis from Wired. The author suggests that misuse of David X. Li’s Gaussian Copula formula is to blame. I highly recommend reading the full article. Here is a short except from the article that particularly interest me.

Li’s copula function was used to price hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of CDOs filled with mortgages. And because the copula function used CDS prices to calculate correlation, it was forced to confine itself to looking at the period of time when those credit default swaps had been in existence: less than a decade, a period when house prices soared. Naturally, default correlations were very low in those years. But when the mortgage boom ended abruptly and home values started falling across the country, correlations soared.

Bankers securitizing mortgages knew that their models were highly sensitive to house-price appreciation. If it ever turned negative on a national scale, a lot of bonds that had been rated triple-A, or risk-free, by copula-powered computer models would blow up. But no one was willing to stop the creation of CDOs, and the big investment banks happily kept on building more, drawing their correlation data from a period when real estate only went up.

“Everyone was pinning their hopes on house prices continuing to rise,” says Kai Gilkes of the credit research firm CreditSights, who spent 10 years working at ratings agencies. “When they stopped rising, pretty much everyone was caught on the wrong side, because the sensitivity to house prices was huge. And there was just no getting around it. Why didn’t rating agencies build in some cushion for this sensitivity to a house-price-depreciation scenario? Because if they had, they would have never rated a single mortgage-backed CDO.”

Bankers should have noted that very small changes in their underlying assumptions could result in very large changes in the correlation number. They also should have noticed that the results they were seeing were much less volatile than they should have been—which implied that the risk was being moved elsewhere. Where had the risk gone?

They didn’t know, or didn’t ask. One reason was that the outputs came from “black box” computer models and were hard to subject to a commonsense smell test. Another was that the quants, who should have been more aware of the copula’s weaknesses, weren’t the ones making the big asset-allocation decisions. Their managers, who made the actual calls, lacked the math skills to understand what the models were doing or how they worked. They could, however, understand something as simple as a single correlation number. That was the problem.

“The relationship between two assets can never be captured by a single scalar quantity,” Wilmott says. For instance, consider the share prices of two sneaker manufacturers: When the market for sneakers is growing, both companies do well and the correlation between them is high. But when one company gets a lot of celebrity endorsements and starts stealing market share from the other, the stock prices diverge and the correlation between them turns negative. And when the nation morphs into a land of flip-flop-wearing couch potatoes, both companies decline and the correlation becomes positive again. It’s impossible to sum up such a history in one correlation number, but CDOs were invariably sold on the premise that correlation was more of a constant than a variable.

This generally support the consensus that the crisis was magnified because Wall Street was dealing with securities that they do not understand.

Also, I would like to highlight a lesson that was ingrained when I was a student in the actuarial field.  Always state your assumption. When the assumption is wrong, everything else that was formulated based on the assumption will be wrong as well. Do not be too involved in the quantitative side and forget what the numbers signified.

Here’s a quote that one of my friend put up on Facebook on life contingency. It’s funny if you get what it means.

“An actuary is someone who expects everyone to be dead on time".

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