A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Meltdown

November 3, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
“The financial system nearly collapsed,” he said, “because smart guys had started working on Wall Street.”
Calvin Trillin in an op-ed in the Times a couple of weeks ago, supposedly quoting some guy he meets in a bar. But Trillin was writing as a humorist, not a reporter (he does both very well), and I strongly suspect that his informant in the midtown bar was just something he made up for laughs, from the 1950s Brooks Brothers clothes to the theory about the financial debacle.

The theory goes like this: Wall Street used to be run by guys who got into decent schools because of family; they finished in the lower third of the class. Nice guys, not especially bright, and, by current standards, not especially greedy. (A certain ex-president comes to mind.) But when Wall Street started offering insanely high payoffs, the really smart guys got in – the math majors from MIT, physics Ph.D.s from CalTech.
“Did you ever hear the word ‘derivatives’?” he said. “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”
And how did that lead to calamity?
“Why do I get the feeling that there’s one more step in this scenario?” I said.

“Because there is,” he said. “When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of enoughness.”
Funny, right? It interrelates some stylized facts that aren’t really related – math geniuses replacing pleasant college grads; the spread of greed; Wall Street collapsing. That’s what humor writing often does – stretches the plausible till it becomes unrealistic. And besides, the theory fits only one instance – the current one.

Generally speaking, you don’t turn to NBER* papers for a good chuckle or for confirmation of humorous speculation. I doubt that Calvin Trillin has a stack of these papers on his nightstand. I certainly don’t. But via a link at Brad DeLong’s blog) I found this abstract of one published last December:
We use detailed information about wages, education and occupations to shed light on the evolution of the U.S. financial sector over the past century. We uncover a set of new, interrelated stylized facts: financial jobs were relatively skill intensive, complex, and highly paid until the 1930s and after the 1980s, but not in the interim period. We investigate the determinants of this evolution and find that financial deregulation and corporate activities linked to IPOs and credit risk increase the demand for skills in financial jobs. Computers and information technology play a more limited role. Our analysis also shows that wages in finance were excessively high around 1930 and from the mid 1990s until 2006. [emphasis added] --Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef, “Wages and Human Capital

The same thing was going on in the 1920s too. Wall Street jobs were skill intensive, complex, and highly paid. And look what happened in 1929.  ’Taint funny McGee.

*National Bureau of Economic Research

1 comment:

mike3550 said...

You are correct that Trillin was wearing his humorist hat, not his reporter one.