Tag Archives: financial crisis

Dead Ahead: Similar Early Warning Signals of Change in Climate, Ecosystems, Financial Markets, Human Health

What do abrupt changes in ocean circulation and Earth’s climate, shifts in wildlife populations and ecosystems, the global finance market and its system-wide crashes, and asthma attacks and epileptic seizures have in common?

According to a paper published this week in the journal Nature, all share generic early-warning signals that indicate a critical threshold of change dead ahead. Cheryl Dybas writing for NSF.gov covers a new paper on “Early Warning Signals for Critical Transitions” (Nature, 3 Sept 2009, 461: 53-59).

In the paper, Martin Scheffer of Wageningen University in The Netherlands and co-authors found that similar symptoms occur in many systems as they approach a critical state of transition.

“It’s increasingly clear that many complex systems have critical thresholds–’tipping points’–at which these systems shift abruptly from one state to another,” write the scientists in their paper.

Especially relevant, they discovered, is that “catastrophic bifurcations,” a diverging of the ways, propel a system toward a new state once a certain threshold is exceeded.

Like Robert Frost’s well-known poem about two paths diverging in a wood, a system follows a trail for so long, then often comes to a switchpoint at which it will strike out in a completely new direction.

That system may be as tiny as the alveoli in human lungs or as large as global climate.

“These are compelling insights into the transitions in human and natural systems,” says Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Environmental Biology, which supported the research along with NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

“The information comes at a critical time–a time when Earth’s and, our fragility, have been highlighted by global financial collapses, debates over health care reform, and concern about rapid change in climate and ecological systems.”

It all comes down to what scientists call “squealing,” or “variance amplification near critical points,” when a system moves back and forth between two states.

“A system may shift permanently to an altered state if an underlying slow change in conditions persists, moving it to a new situation,” says Carpenter.

Eutrophication in lakes, shifts in climate, and epileptic seizures all are preceded by squealing.

Squealing, for example, announced the impending abrupt end of Earth’s Younger Dryas cold period some 12,000 years ago, the scientists believe. The later part of this episode alternated between a cold mode and a warm mode. The Younger Dryas eventually ended in a sharp shift to the relatively warm and stable conditions of the Holocene epoch.

The increasing climate variability of recent times, state the paper’s authors, may be interpreted as a signal that the near-term future could bring a transition from glacial and interglacial oscillations to a new state–one with permanent Northern Hemisphere glaciation in Earth’s mid-latitudes.

In ecology, stable states separated by critical thresholds of change occur in ecosystems from rangelands to oceans, says Carpenter.

The way in which plants stop growing during a drought is an example. At a certain point, fields become deserts, and no amount of rain will bring vegetation back to life. Before this transition, plant life peters out, disappearing in patches until nothing but dry-as-bones land is left.

Early-warning signals are also found in exploited fish stocks. Harvesting leads to increased fluctuations in fish populations. Fish are eventually driven toward a transition to a cyclic or chaotic state.

Humans aren’t exempt from abrupt transitions. Epileptic seizures and asthma attacks are cases in point. Our lungs can show a pattern of bronchoconstriction that may be the prelude to dangerous respiratory failure, and which resembles the pattern of collapsing land vegetation during a drought.

Epileptic seizures happen when neighboring neural cells all start firing in synchrony. Minutes before a seizure, a certain variance occurs in the electrical signals recorded in an EEG.

Shifts in financial markets also have early warnings. Stock market events are heralded by increased trading volatility. Correlation among returns to stocks in a falling market and patterns in options prices may serve as early-warning indicators.

“In systems in which we can observe transitions repeatedly,” write the scientists, “such as lakes, ranges or fields, and such as human physiology, we may discover where the thresholds are.

“If we have reason to suspect the possibility of a critical transition, early-warning signals may be a significant step forward in judging whether the probability of an event is increasing.”

Co-authors of the paper are William Brock and Steve Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jordi Bascompte and Egbert van Nes of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Scientificas, Sevilla, Spain; Victor Brovkin of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany; Vasilis Dakos of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Potsdam, Germany; Max Rietkerk of Utrecht University in The Netherlands; and George Sugihara of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

The research was funded by the Institute Para Limes and the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies, as well as the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research, the European Science Foundation, and the U.S. National Science Foundation, among others.

Modelling leverage and the financial crisis

Science reports on agent based models of financial leverage -Leverage: The Root of All Financial Turmoil:

Given that in the buildup to the recent global economic meltdown hedge funds had been leveraging their deals by ratios of 30-to-1 (that is, borrowing $30 for every $1 of their own that they put in), it may seem obvious that massive leverage leads to trouble. But Stefan Thurner, an econophysicist and director of the complex systems research group at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, and colleagues say their model shows that many of the distinctive statistical properties of financial markets emerge together as rates of leverage climb. “Leverage is the driver,” Thurner says. “That wasn’t obvious.”

Financial markets behave in ways that, econophysicists say, classical economic theory cannot explain. Classical economics assumes that the fluctuations in stock prices conform to a so-called Gaussian distribution—a bell curve that gives little probability to large swings. In reality, the distribution has “fat tails” that make big changes more likely, and the shapes of those tails conform to a mathematical formula known as a power law. Classical economics assumes that the fluctuations are uncorrelated from one moment to the next, whereas big swings in prices tend to come together in the so-called clustering of volatility.

To try to explain those characteristics, over the past 5 years Thurner and colleagues have developed an “agent-based model” of a market. In such a computer model, virtual agents of various types interact according to certain rules, like robots playing a game. The researchers included hedge funds that could borrow to make their investments; banks to loan the money; “noise investors” who, like day traders, simply react to the market and have no other insight into the value of assets; and general investors who played the role of, for example, state pension funds.

The model contains more than a dozen adjustable parameters. However, Thurner and colleagues found that the maximum level of leverage exerts a curious, unifying effect. If they forbade leverage, the market behaved largely as classical economics would predict. But as they increased the maximum leverage, the characteristics of real markets emerged together. “We can explain the fat tails, the right [power law], the clustering of volatility, all this,” Thurner says. And when the leverage limit climbed to levels of 5-to-1 and beyond, the market became unstable and hedge funds went bust much more often.

“I thought it was rather brilliant,” says Christoph Jan Hamer, an econophysicist with Solvency Fabrik in Köln, Germany. Hamer says he was impressed with a detail of the model: If leverage is high, then a tiny fluctuation created by the noise traders can trigger a much bigger swing. But Christian Hirtreiter of the University of Regensburg says, “I would think that leverage itself is not the problem. I would think it is a symptom of the problem.”

Thurner, who managed a hedge fund that tanked, says that limiting leverage should help prevent crashes. He admits, however, that he would not have embraced that idea when the market was still going strong.

Managing disturbance by planned city shrinkage

Managing collapse?

Creative urban shrinkage in Flint, Michigan from the New York Times  An Effort to Save Flint, Mich., by Shrinking It

“Decline in Flint is like gravity, a fact of life,” said Dan Kildee, the Genesee County treasurer and chief spokesman for the movement to shrink Flint. “We need to control it instead of letting it control us.”

The recession in Flint, as in many old-line manufacturing cities, is quickly making a bad situation worse. Firefighters and police officers are being laid off as the city struggles with a $15 million budget deficit. Many public schools are likely to be closed.

“A lot of people remember the past, when we were a successful city that others looked to as a model, and they hope. But you can’t base government policy on hope,” said Jim Ananich, president of the Flint City Council. “We have to do something drastic.”

In searching for a way out, Flint is becoming a model for a different era.

Planned shrinkage became a workable concept in Michigan a few years ago, when the state changed its laws regarding properties foreclosed for delinquent taxes. Before, these buildings and land tended to become mired in legal limbo, contributing to blight. Now they quickly become the domain of county land banks, giving communities a powerful tool for change.

Indianapolis and Little Rock, Ark., have recently set up land banks, and other cities are in the process of doing so. “Shrinkage is moving from an idea to a fact,” said Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective Program at the University of California, Berkeley. “There’s finally the insight that some cities just don’t have a choice.”

A block adjacent to downtown has the potential for renewal; it would make sense to fill in the vacant lots there, since it is a few steps from a University of Michigan campus.

A short distance away, the scene is more problematic. Only a few houses remain on the street; the sidewalk is so tattered it barely exists. “When was the last time someone walked on that?” Mr. Kildee said. “Most rural communities don’t have sidewalks.”

But what about the people who do live here and might want their sidewalk fixed rather than removed?

“Not everyone’s going to win,” he said. “But now, everyone’s losing.”

“If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” he said. “Create the new Flint forest — something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure.”

Watching suspiciously from next door is Charlotte Kelly. Her house breaks the pattern: it is immaculate, all polished wood and fresh paint. When Ms. Kelly, a city worker, moved to the street in 2002, all the houses were occupied and the neighborhood seemed viable.

These days, crime is brazen: two men recently stripped the siding off Mr. Kildee’s old house, “laughing like they were going to a picnic,” Ms. Kelly said. Down the street are many more abandoned houses, as well as a huge hand-painted sign that proclaims, “No prostitution zone.”

Mr. Kildee makes his pitch. Would she be interested in moving if the city offered her an equivalent or better house in a more stable and safer neighborhood?

Despite her pride in her home, the calculation takes Ms. Kelly about a second. “Yes,” she said, “I would be willing.”

The financial crisis as a failure of management

Henry Mintzberg, professor of management studies at McGill University, writing on America’s monumental failure of management in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

What we have is a government that palliates: It provides geriatric medicine to its oldest, sickest enterprises in a country that requires pediatric and obstetric medicine for its young and vibrant enterprises, the ones that create the jobs, not eliminate them.

We hear now about “too big to fail.” “Too big to succeed” is more like it. General Motors has been going slowly and painfully bankrupt for decades, managerially as well as financially. The new money will only put off its demise. Americans will have to face this reality sooner or later.

From where I sit, management education appears to be a significant part of this problem. For years, the business schools have been promoting an excessively analytical, detached style of management that has been dragging down organizations.

Every decade, American business schools have been graduating more than a million MBAs, most of whom believe that, because they sat still for a couple of years, they are ready to manage anything. In fact, they have been prepared to manage nothing.

Management is a practice, learned in context. No manager, let alone leader, has ever been created in a classroom. Programs that claim to do so promote hubris instead. And that has been carried from the business schools into corporate America on a massive scale.

Harvard Business School, according to its MBA website, is “focused on one purpose – developing leaders.” At Harvard, you become such a leader by reading hundreds of brief case studies, each the day before you or your colleagues are called on to pronounce on what that company should do. Yesterday, you knew nothing about Acme Inc.; today, you’re pretending to decide its future. What kind of leader does that create?

Harvard prides itself on how many of its graduates make it to the executive suites. Learning how to present arguments in a classroom certainly helps. But how do these people perform once they get to those suites? Harvard does not ask. So we took a look.

Joseph Lampel and I found a list of Harvard Business School superstars, published in a 1990 book by a long-term insider. We tracked the performance of the 19 corporate chief executives on that list, many of them famous, across more than a decade. Ten were outright failures (the company went bankrupt, the CEO was fired, a major merger backfired etc.); another four had questionable records at best. Five out of the 19 seemed to do fine. These figures, limited as they were, sounded pretty damning. (When we published our results, there was nary a peep. No one really cared.)

How much discussion has there been at Harvard about the role it might have played in forming the management styles of graduates who, over the past eight years, have been running America and what used to be its largest company? The school is now reviewing its MBA program, but the dean has made it clear that questioning the case-study method will not be on the agenda.

In this, we have America’s problem in a nutshell: the utter absence of collective introspection, whether it be the current crisis, the relationship between the Vietnam and Iraq debacles, even what might have contributed to 9/11, as well as the way it has been compensating and educating its corporate “leaders.” The country seems incapable of learning from its own mistakes.

Put differently, the U.S. appears to be in social gridlock. Thanks to vested interests and their powerful lobbyists, as well as an economic, individualistic dogma that has been embraced so thoughtlessly, it is business as usual in America. And beyond: Our planet is becoming as sick as many of these corporations, yet we are being implored to get back to consumption. Fix the problem now; continue to forget about the future. Except this time, we may be consuming ourselves.

No country in the world has been more admired for its capacity to change, to learn with the times. This remains true of technological change; but, on the social front, America seems incapable of changing.

Scenario: Resilience Economics

Futurist Jamais Cascio presents a scenario set twenty years in the future where the world post-capitalism is based on resilience economics. He writes from the point of view of someone living in that future on his blog Open the Future:

The trigger was a phrase we’d all become sick of: “Too Big to Fail.” The phrase had moved quickly from sarcasm to cliché, but ended up as the pole star for what to avoid. Any economy that enabled the creation of institutions that were too big to fail — that is, whose failure would threaten to collapse the system — could never be thought of as resilient. And, as the early 21st century rolled along, resilience is what mattered, in our environment, in our societies, and increasingly in our economics.

Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.

Resilience economics continues to uphold the elements of previous economic models that offer continued value: freedom and openness from capitalism at its best; equality and a safety net from socialism’s intent. But it’s not just another form of “mixed economy” or “social democracy.” The focus is on something entirely new: decentralized diversity as a way of managing the unexpected.

Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the “polyculture” model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty — backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

It generates less wealth than traditional capitalism would, at least when it was working well, but is far less prone to wild swings, and has an inherent safety net (what designers call “graceful failure”) to cushion downturns.

Completely transactional transparency also helps, giving us a better chance to avoid surprises and to spot problems before they get too big. The open-source folks called this the “many eyes” effect, and they were definitely on to something. It’s much harder to game the system when everyone can see what you’re doing.

Flexibility and collaboration have long been recognized as fundamental to resilient systems, and that’s certainly true here. One headline on a news site referred to it as the “LEGO economy,” and that was pretty spot-on. Lots of little pieces able to combine and recombine; not everything fits together perfectly, but surprising combinations often have the most creative result.

Lastly, the resilience economy has adopted a much more active approach to looking ahead. Not predicting, not even planning — no “five year plans” here. It’s usually referred to as “scanning,” and the focus is less on visions of the future than on early identification of emerging uncertainties. Resilience economists are today’s foresight specialists.

What does this all look like for everyday people? For most of us, it’s actually not far off from how we lived a generation ago. We still shop for goods, although the brands are more numerous and there are far fewer “big players” — and those that emerge tend not to last long. People still go to work, although more and more of us engage in micro-production of goods and intellectual content. And people still lose their jobs and suffer personal economic problems… but, again, there’s far less risk of economic catastrophe, and some societies are even starting to experiment with a “guaranteed basic income” system.

Is it perfect? By no means. We’re still finding ways in which resilience economics isn’t working out as well as past approaches, and situations where a polyculture model doesn’t provide the kinds of results that the old oligarchic/monopoly capitalist model could. But those of us who remember the dark days of the econopalypse know where non-resilient models can lead, and would rather fix what we’ve made than go back to the past.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t as complete a picture as we’d like, but the core idea — that resilience becomes the driver of new economics — strikes me as very plausible. It’s a pretty technologically conservative scenario; no AI-managed “just-in-time socialism” here, nor any nano-cornucopian visions. But it’s very much the kind of model we could create in the aftermath of a disastrous economic crisis, in a world where the importance of resilience is becoming increasingly evident.

More on Iceland and the Financial Crisis

Michael Lewis writes vividly about Iceland, fishing, and its financial crisis in his Vanity Fair article Wall Street on the Tundra:

Iceland’s de facto bankruptcy—its currency (the krona) is kaput, its debt is 850 percent of G.D.P., its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance—resulted from a stunning collective madness. What led a tiny fishing nation, population 300,000, to decide, around 2003, to re-invent itself as a global financial power? In Reykjavík, where men are men, and the women seem to have completely given up on them, the author follows the peculiarly Icelandic logic behind the meltdown.

Fishermen, in other words, are a lot like American investment bankers. Their overconfidence leads them to impoverish not just themselves but also their fishing grounds. Simply limiting the number of fish caught won’t solve the problem; it will just heighten the competition for the fish and drive down profits. The goal isn’t to get fishermen to overspend on more nets or bigger boats. The goal is to catch the maximum number of fish with minimum effort. To attain it, you need government intervention.

This insight is what led Iceland to go from being one of the poorest countries in Europe circa 1900 to being one of the richest circa 2000. Iceland’s big change began in the early 1970s, after a couple of years when the fish catch was terrible. The best fishermen returned for a second year in a row without their usual haul of cod and haddock, so the Icelandic government took radical action: they privatized the fish. Each fisherman was assigned a quota, based roughly on his historical catches. If you were a big-time Icelandic fisherman you got this piece of paper that entitled you to, say, 1 percent of the total catch allowed to be pulled from Iceland’s waters that season. Before each season the scientists at the Marine Research Institute would determine the total number of cod or haddock that could be caught without damaging the long-term health of the fish population; from year to year, the numbers of fish you could catch changed. But your percentage of the annual haul was fixed, and this piece of paper entitled you to it in perpetuity.Even better, if you didn’t want to fish you could sell your quota to someone who did. The quotas thus drifted into the hands of the people to whom they were of the greatest value, the best fishermen, who could extract the fish from the sea with maximum efficiency. You could also take your quota to the bank and borrow against it, and the bank had no trouble assigning a dollar value to your share of the cod pulled, without competition, from the richest cod-fishing grounds on earth. The fish had not only been privatized, they had been securitized.

It was horribly unfair: a public resource—all the fish in the Icelandic sea—was simply turned over to a handful of lucky Icelanders. Overnight, Iceland had its first billionaires, and they were all fishermen. But as social policy it was ingenious: in a single stroke the fish became a source of real, sustainable wealth rather than shaky sustenance. Fewer people were spending less effort catching more or less precisely the right number of fish to maximize the long-term value of Iceland’s fishing grounds. The new wealth transformed Iceland—and turned it from the backwater it had been for 1,100 years to the place that spawned Björk. If Iceland has become famous for its musicians it’s because Icelanders now have time to play music, and much else. Iceland’s youth are paid to study abroad, for instance, and encouraged to cultivate themselves in all sorts of interesting ways. Since its fishing policy transformed Iceland, the place has become, in effect, a machine for turning cod into Ph.D.’s.

Thanks to Arijit Guha for the pointer.

After Iceland’s crisis – social reorganization?

From the Guardian After the crash, Iceland’s women lead the rescue

Icelandic women are … more likely to be thinking about how to put right the mess their men have made of the banking system than about cooking them comfort food. The tiny nation, with a population of just over 300,000 people, has been overwhelmed by an economic disaster that is threatening its very survival. But for a generation of fortysomething women, the havoc is translating into an opportunity to step into the positions vacated by the men blamed for the crisis, and to play a leading role in creating a more balanced economy, which, they argue, should incorporate overtly feminine values.

The ruling male elite is scarcely in a position to argue. The krona has collapsed; interest rates and inflation have soared; companies and households which have borrowed in foreign currency are overwhelmed by their debts and unemployment is at record levels. An exodus of young people is feared from the capital only recently held up as a centre of cutting-edge cool. Walking along Laugavegur, touted until a year or so ago as the Bond Street of Reykjavik, the gloom is palpable.

The idea that Reykjavik, an attractive, low-rise provincial place, could be a financial nerve centre on a par with the gleaming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and Wall Street now seems utterly absurd. Over the past 10 years, however, little Iceland became a test-bed for the new economic order. Led by businessmen such as Baugur boss Jón Asgeir Jóhannesson, a nation previously best known for cod and hot springs reinvented itself as an Atlantic tiger. The Icelanders bought stakes in huge tracts of the British high street, including House of Fraser, Whistles and Karen Millen. Their banks were equally buccaneering, adopting free market reforms with gusto and moving with relish into financial engineering. The upshot: they now owe at least six times the country’s income for 2008 and have been taken into state hands.

Unlike in the UK, Iceland’s women are at the forefront of the clean-up. The crisis led to the downfall of the government and the prime minister’s residence – which resembles a slightly over-sized white dormer bungalow – is now occupied by Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, an elegant 66-year-old lesbian who is the world’s first openly gay premier. When she lost a bid to lead her party in the 1990s, she lifted her fist and declared: “My time will come.” Her hour has now arrived – and the same is true for a cadre of highly accomplished businesswomen.

Prominent among them are Halla Tómasdóttir and Kristin Petursdóttir, the founders of Audur Capital, who have teamed up with the singer Björk to set up an investment fund to boost the ravaged economy by investing in green technology. Petursdóttir, a former senior banking executive, and Tómasdóttir, the former managing director of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce, decided just before the crunch to set up a firm bringing female values into the mainly male spheres of private equity, wealth management and corporate advice.

Shared pre-analytical vision, and groupthink and economics

On the Economix Blog, economist Uwe Reinhardt writes An Economist’s Mea Culpa that argues that economists have become locked into a too narrow pre-analytical vison of how the world works:

Fewer than a dozen prominent economists saw this economic train wreck coming — and the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, an economist famous for his academic research on the Great Depression, was notably not among them. Alas, for the real world, the few who did warn us about the train wreck got no more respect from the rest of their colleagues or from decision-makers in business and government than prophets usually do.

How could the economics profession have slept so soundly right into the middle of the economic mayhem all around us? Robert J. Shiller of Yale University, one of the sage prophets, addressed that question an earlier commentary in this paper. Professor Shiller finds an explanation in groupthink, a term popularized by the social psychologist Irving L. Janis. In his book “Groupthink” (1972), the latter had theorized that most people, even professionals whose careers ostensibly thrive on originality, hesitate to deviate too much from the conventional wisdom, lest they be marginalized or even ostracized.

If groupthink is the cause, it most likely is anchored in what my former Yale economics professor Richard Nelson (now at Columbia University) has called a ”vested interest in an analytic structure,” the prism through which economists behold the world.

This analytic structure, formally called “neoclassical economics,” depends crucially on certain unquestioned axioms and basic assumptions about the behavior of markets and the human decisions that drive them. After years of arduous study to master the paradigm, these axioms and assumptions simply become part of a professional credo. Indeed, a good part of the scholarly work of modern economists reminds one of the medieval scholastics who followed St. Anselm’s dictum “credo ut intellegam”: “I believe, in order that I may understand.”

Stephen Pyne compares California Fires and the Financial Crisis

Fire historian Stephen Pyne writes in the Tyee A Wildfire Expert Views the Money Meltdown:

There are no absolute assurances that wildfire will not from time to time spill over into settlements, any more than markets won’t fizz and bubble; but we know how to keep such outbreaks from happening routinely. It’s messy, irritating to fundamentalists (both those of the wilderness and of the market), and not cheap. So far, we continue to drop money and fire retardant on the flames. That may not quench the fire but it makes good political theater.

At some point, however, the money will run out completely and it will no longer be possible to pretend that we can rebuild; everything will simply burn to ash. We will have to deal with the landscape itself. The power of fire resides in its power to propagate: you control that power by controlling fire’s environment. So too the power of fiscal contagion requires control over the entire scene.

For the present we’re caught between two nasty fires. It’s time we put some distance between ourselves and both of them. We can’t control the winds, we only know they will blow again.

Willful ignorance and the financial crisis – part 2

Gretchen Morgenson writes on the roots of the collapse of Merrill Lynch in How the Thundering Herd Faltered and Fell as part of a New York Times series on the financial crisis:

“In 1997 and 1998, when we invented super senior risk, we spent a lot of time examining how much is too much to have on our books,” said Blythe Masters, who was on the small team that invented the synthetic C.D.O. and is now head of commodities at JPMorgan Chase. “We would warehouse risk for a period of time, but we were always focused on developing a market for whatever we did. The idea was we were financial intermediaries. We weren’t in the investment business.”

For years, the product that Ms. Masters and her colleagues invented remained just a mechanism for offloading risk in high-grade corporate lending. But as often occurs with Wall Street alchemy, a good idea started to be misused — and a product initially devised to insulate against risk soon morphed into a device that actually concentrated dangers.

… By 2005, with the home lending mania in full swing, the amount of C.D.O.’s holding opaque and risky mortgage assets far exceeded C.D.O.’s composed of blue-chip corporate loans. And inside even more abstract synthetic C.D.O.’s, the risk was harder to parse and much easier to overlook.

Similarly, in the same series on the financial crisis, Eric Dash and Julie Creswell write on the collapse of Citibank in Citigroup Saw No Red Flags Even as It Made Bolder Bets:

… many Citigroup insiders say the bank’s risk managers never investigated deeply enough. Because of longstanding ties that clouded their judgment, the very people charged with overseeing deal makers eager to increase short-term earnings — and executives’ multimillion-dollar bonuses — failed to rein them in, these insiders say.

…While much of the damage inflicted on Citigroup and the broader economy was caused by errant, high-octane trading and lax oversight, critics say, blame also reaches into the highest levels at the bank. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve took the bank to task for poor oversight and risk controls in a report it sent to Citigroup.

… regulators have criticized the banking industry as a whole for relying on outsiders — in particular the ratings agencies — to help them gauge the risk of their investments.

“There is really no excuse for institutions that specialize in credit risk assessment, like large commercial banks, to rely solely on credit ratings in assessing credit risk,” John C. Dugan, the head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the chief federal bank regulator, said in a speech earlier this year.