The Uncertainty of Risk

The startup economy is an example of an antifragile system rooted in optionality. Venture capitalists power the tech scene by making investments in nascent firms. These upfront costs are relatively small and capped. VC firms cannot lose more than they put in. But since there is no upper limit to success, the investment’s upside is potentially unbounded. Of course, venture capitalists need to make smart bets, but the business model doesn’t require them to be so good at predicting winners as to pick one every time. The payoffs from their few wildly successful investments more than make up for the capital lost to failures. While each startup is individually fragile, the startup economy as a whole is highly antifragile, and predictive accuracy is less important. Since the losses are finite and the gains are practically limitless, the antifragile startup economy benefits overall from greater variability in the success of new firms.

From a book review of Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile, and James Owen Weatherall's The Physics of Wall Street at n+1.

As the financial crises of the past three decades have painfully demonstrated, the global banking system is dangerously fragile. Financial institutions are so highly leveraged and so opaquely intertwined that the contagion from a wrong prediction (e.g. that housing prices will continue to rise) can quickly foment systemic crisis as debt payments balloon and asset values shrivel. When the credit markets lock up and vaunted banks are suddenly insolvent, the authorities’ solution has been to shore up underwater balance sheets with cheap government loans. While allowing a few Too Big To Fail banks to use their “toxic assets” as collateral for taxpayer-guaranteed loans makes their individual fiscal positions more robust, all this new debt leaves the market as a whole more fragile, since the financial system is more heavily leveraged and fire-sale mergers consolidate capital and risk into even fewer institutions. These “solutions” to past crises transferred fragility from the individual banks to the overall financial system, creating the conditions for future collapse.

Too Big To Fail is an implicit taxpayer guarantee for banks that privatizes profits and socializes losses. Markets have internalized this guarantee. The judgment that Too Big To Fail banks are, perversely, less risky is reflected in the lower interest rates that creditors demand on loans and deposits. Recent studies estimate that this government protection translates into an $83 billion annual subsidy to the ten largest American banks. This moral hazard rewards irresponsible risk taking, which management will rationalize ex post facto by claiming that no model could have predicted whatever crash just happened. Being Too Big To Fail means that predictors have no “skin in the game.” In making large bets, they get to keep the upside when their models work, but taxpayer bailouts protect them from market discipline when losses balloon and their possible failure put the overall economy at risk. To promote an antifragile economic system, bankers must be liable for the complex products they produce, each financial institution must be small enough to safely fail, and the amount of debt-financed leverage in the system overall must be reduced. These are the most urgent stakes obscured by the difficult mathematics of financial risk. Markets will never spontaneously adopt these reforms; only political pressure can force them.