< The Finance Professionals' Post: December 2011

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17 posts from December 2011


Video: Myths to Energy Investing

There are various myths circulating about investing in energy and natural resources—one of them being "peak oil." As Bernard J. Picchi, CFA, a portfolio manager at Palisade Capital Management, explains in this clip from the New York Society of Security Analysts' "Future of Energy Investing" Conference, the truth about the notion of "peak oil" is there have only been 9 of the last 60 years in which oil production has declined. Each of these occurrences have been due to "artificial" interruptions, recessions, or wars—not physical production capabilities of the wells. In fact, some countries have doubled their oil production.


Harry Markowitz - Father of Modern Portfolio Theory - Still Diversified

Markowitz2Harry Markowitz’s Nobel Prize winning Modern Portfolio Theory was put to the supreme test in The Great Recession of 2008. The stock market plunged nearly 40%, stock and corporate bond markets crashed, the money markets froze up. Uncle Sam had to bail out major banks, while letting Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers fail.

It raised the big question: Does Modern Portfolio Theory hold up during once-in-a-lifetime events?

“It is sometimes said that portfolio theory fails during a financial crisis because all asset classes go down and all correlations go up,” Markowitz said in a telephone interview from his office in San Diego, CA.

Continue reading "Harry Markowitz - Father of Modern Portfolio Theory - Still Diversified" »


With the Financial Markets Growing Riskier Why Aren’t Risk Managers More in Demand?



Risk management is a lot like anger management. It’s one of those disciplines you don’t really notice until it’s no longer there and things suddenly go awry. To put it simply, risk management is tasked with assessing, mitigating, and monitoring the potential for a bad outcome. When it’s working, everything runs smoothly. When it doesn’t … well, just turn on your television to any business channel.

Continue reading "With the Financial Markets Growing Riskier Why Aren’t Risk Managers More in Demand?" »


Video: Um, Ah, Oh No: The Do's and Don'ts of Interviewing

Watch your words! Think about your last interview. How do you think you did? Did those small, two-letter words find their way into your responses? President and CEO of NYSSA, Amy Geffen, PhD, is here to help you know what to do and what not do on your next interview for our last installment of our four-part series on job search.

A few tips: You do not want to discuss salary or employment terms on your interview! Save that for the next round. You also want to watch your "filler" words, i.e., "you know," "uh," "ah," etc.

Another classic mistake - never assume your interviewer has read your resume in detail. Like we mentioned previously, most resumes are only given a 30-second onceover.  


First Wall Street Collectors Bourse at the Museum of American Finance a Success

Ribbon Cutting

The first Wall Street Collectors Bourse, held at the Museum of American Finance, on October 21 and 22, 2011, was a success with approximately 400 visitors. Twenty-three dealers participated, showing and trading their stock and bond certificates and bank notes, including US and worldwide rarities in a wide variety of subjects. In addition, there were autographs, coins, and other ephemera related to finance.

Continue reading "First Wall Street Collectors Bourse at the Museum of American Finance a Success" »


The Wisdom of Melville

"If your banker breaks, you snap." - Herman Melville, Moby Dick

One thousand miles into the journey, about a third of the way to England, we were struck by a humpback whale, destroying our rudder and leaving us floundering on the Atlantic.

Having read Synchronicity by Leon Jaworski, and seen this Jungian idea play out in my own life, I am a firm believer in the important hidden meaning of seemingly coincidental events, whch suggests there are no coincidences. Yet for 10 years now, I’ve been unable to connect the dots between my work on the imperative to transform economic and financial systems and the unlikely circumstance for me to decide to attempt an Atlantic crossing (I’m generally a small boat sailor), to pick up the daunting Moby Dick (I generally read non-fiction), and for us then to get slammed by a great whale.

I can now thank Carla Seaquist for showing me the meaning of this coincidence. In her insightful essay “Wall Street: Brush up your Melville”, she compares Jon Corzine (and implicitly all “Captains of Wall Street”) to Captain Ahab, although her treatment of them is far gentler than one might expect in the circumstances.

Continue reading "The Wisdom of Melville" »


Reflections on the FMA Annual Meeting

Myron Scholes
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In October, I attended the annual meeting of the Financial Management Association International in Denver. After listening to the keynote address by Nobel Laureate Myron Scholes (of Black-Scholes fame), I left the conference hall along with the crowd to attend the reception. While waiting for the elevator, I noticed a situation that was pertinent to Scholes’ presentation. Because there was no stairway leading from the conference level to the concourse, people had no choice but to take the elevators, and a small jam formed. I was sure that there would be a stairway, if only for fire-safety reasons. I searched the floor and found only a door leading to the basement. I considered how dangerous this would be in a fire emergency. Fires in the modern hotels are relatively infrequent occurrences and a hotel can stay past its useful life without any. In that case, the cost of adding an extra stairway would be entirely sunk.

Continue reading "Reflections on the FMA Annual Meeting" »


Book Review: A Contest for Supremacy


The announcement that the United States will base 2,500 troops in Australia is a public recognition of the contest between China and the US for power in the Pacific, where the US has long been dominant. For China, the troop deployment increases fears of encirclement. For the US, it reflects fears of being pushed out or neutralized in this key geography. For an in-depth analysis of what will be an increasing contest, Aaron L. Friedberg's new book is a superb resource. Friedberg, a former fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Norwegian Nobel Institute, and Harvard University’s Center for International, took part in a “review of China's economic performance, political stability, strategic intensions, and military power" during the Clinton administration. This review was the start of the research that produced A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia.

Continue reading "Book Review: A Contest for Supremacy" »


How Psychological Pitfalls Generated the Global Financial Crisis


The root cause of the financial crisis that erupted in 2008 is psychological. In the events which led up to the crisis, heuristics, biases, and framing effects strongly influenced the judgments and decisions of financial firms, rating agencies, elected officials, government regulators, and institutional investors. Examples involving UBS, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Standard & Poor’s, the SEC, and end investors illustrate this point. Among the many lessons to be learned from the crisis is the importance of focusing on the behavioral aspects of organizational process.

Acknowledgments: I thank Mark Lawrence for his insightful comments about UBS; Marc Heerkens from UBS; participants at seminars I gave at the University of Lugano and at the University of California, Los Angeles; and participants in the Executive Master of Science in Risk Management program at the Amsterdam Institute of Finance, a program cosponsored with New York University. I also express my appreciation to Rodney Sullivan and Larry Siegel for their comments on previous drafts.

Continue reading "How Psychological Pitfalls Generated the Global Financial Crisis" »


How Bond Plays Work in a Market of Global Systemic Uncertainty

We recently spoke with Glenn Reynolds, CEO of CreditSights, who offered us some straight talk on how global credit market risk is impacting the broad capital markets. Reynolds will be a speaker at the upcoming NYSSA conference, Market Forecast: Turbulent Times, to be held on January 5.

Here he explains why he recommends a blended strategy of investing in high-yield corporate bonds as an equity surrogate and investment grade bonds as a defensive play to navigate what is likely to be continuing systemic market uncertainties.

Continue reading "How Bond Plays Work in a Market of Global Systemic Uncertainty" »


‘Tis Always the Season for CPAs


For finance professionals with a CPA and an auditing or consulting background, it couldn’t be a better time to look for a new post, says Drew Reina, managing director for Accounting Principals, an accounting and finance recruitment and staffing firm.

Whether it’s a role in compliance, corporate finance, risk or internal audit, CPAs with a Big Four pedigree appear to be layoff proof. According to Reina, internal auditors are certainly in great need, and many of his clients are looking for people with three to seven years of experience.

“There’s a lot of growth in that area, and there’s a consistent response from my clients," he tells eFinancialCareers.

Continue reading "‘Tis Always the Season for CPAs" »


Recent Research: Highlights from December 2011

A Comment on “Better Beta Explained: Demystifying Alternative Equity Index Strategies”
The Journal of Index Investing (Winter 2011)
Noël Amenc

Cap-weighted indices have been subjected to increasing criticism. Empirical evidence suggests that cap-weighted indices deliver poor risk-adjusted performance. It has also been questioned whether market cap is a reliable proxy for the size and economic influence of a company. The fact that cap-weighted indices have been found to be neither representative nor efficient has led to the development of various alternative weighting schemes. However, how to best replace cap-weighted indices remains an open question. In an article from the Summer 2011 issue of The Journal of Index Investing, Robert Arnott discusses an empirical analysis of several alternative indexing methodologies that he broadly classifies as relying on heuristics or on portfolio optimization. Although an analysis of competing non-capweighted indices should, in principle, provide useful insights, the results reported by Arnott suffer from a flawed methodology and may confuse readers about the issues with different non-cap-weighted indices in practice.

Continue reading "Recent Research: Highlights from December 2011" »


Mathematical Role Models

Whether you are an aspiring risk manager, quantitative analyst, or a trader, your first order of business is to manage risk. Fundamental analysis can tell you what a company is worth or whether a sector is undervalued theoretically, but market prices and volatility have their say also. You come to find that entries and exits are important, but ultimately risk management comes down to position sizing.

From there you can purchase expensive backtesting/simulation software and a subscription to the data that you need to run through it, but unless you have been trained in what all the boxes you've checked before you click "Run" mean, you will likely have data mined and over optimized your way to hypothetical success.

At various times of my career I have used such simulation software. Admittedly, it is very helpful and still is in some ways. It is very fast in its calculations and can also run Monte Carlo simulations for you, for example. However, nothing will replace the knowledge you will get from having to learn to do it from the ground up. I have done that too. My first model was created by hand on spreadsheets: first Lotus 123 cum Excel.

Constructing a portfolio that will provide you and your clients with the best risk-adjusted returns, while suitably diversifying your holdings, is done by teams these days. Teams that have a great deal of resources and intellectual capital. You need to learn how to construct such a model in order to compete in the global marketplace that is seeming to become more and more uncertain each day, perhaps by yourself at the beginning. It may appear to be easy in theory, but it is much harder in practice. One of the best things you can do to get started in an affordable manner is to become very proficient in Excel.

Quantitative hedge funds (Quant funds), such as AQR and Renaissance, spend enormous amounts of time, money, and effort to make sure they sift through oceans of data to find the most profitable opportunities. They also invest in the best personnel...many of whom have PhD's in Quantitative Finance or hold designations such as the CQF (Certification in Quantitative Finance). The competition is brutal, and this is before you have to fight off the high frequency traders...

Successful risk managers know the limitations of VaR, the Kelly formula, and CAPM. As Aaron Brown, Risk Manager of AQR wrote in his new book, Red Blooded Risk, "Successful risk taking is not about winning a big bet or even a long series of bets. Success comes from winning a sufficient fraction of a series of bets, where your gains and losses are multiplicative.

In order to get to the place where you can affect such trades, you need to test the data. I believe that this is best accomplished these days in an affordable manner using Excel. Thankfully, Excel has dozens of built-in mathematical functions that which can utilize advanced techniques that can give you the answers you need with the statistical significance to boot.

Without these answers, you will not have the emotional nor statistical confidence to manage the risk, nor will you have the answers to the questions that are frequently being asked in today's environment: "What happens if....?"


–Michael Martin

Michael Martin has been a successful trader for over 20 years. He is the creator of "Martin Kronicle," author of The Inner Voice of Trading, and instructor of the NYSSA Certificate in Commodity Trading & Trend Following.


Book Review: Exorbitant Privilege


The phrase "exorbitant privilege" was created in the 1960s by French Prime Minister Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to express his annoyance at what the U.S. dollar’s strength and role allowed the U.S. to do, owing to its then role as the dominator of international currency. As described by author, Barry Eichengreen, exorbitant privilege gave America "the ability to purchase foreign goods and companies using resources conjured out of air." The dollar’s status allowed the U.S. to "import goods and services amounting to $1 trillion in excess of what we export." As this pattern developed, periodic fears that the dollar would end its role as the international reserve currency emerged. To address this fear, Barry Eichengreen presents Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System, a timely book on monetary economics and currencies that is clear and easy to read, with elements of drama and excitement.

Continue reading "Book Review: Exorbitant Privilege" »


The State of China’s Economy and US-Listed Chinese Companies

Ten years ago, when you read The Wall Street Journal, you barely noticed articles about Chinese public companies. Today, when you click your iPad app, WSJ.Com, China-related news generates daily headlines. On Oct 24 2011, the New York Society of Security Analysts (NYSSA) joined with China Council for International Investment Promotion (CCIIP) to host “2011 Chinese Companies Listed on US Market Development Forum”, which provided an opportunity for US investors to have an open dialogue with several Chinese companies. Not surprisingly, this forum drew a lot of attention from an audience that including both private and institutional investors. When analyzing the complex interdependent relationship between the fast-growing Chinese economy and the globally dominant US economy, one must understand three key points.

Continue reading "The State of China’s Economy and US-Listed Chinese Companies " »


Video: Effective Networking

Hold on to that business card! About 70% of jobs are found through networking, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the third installment of a four-part series on effective job search, New York Society of Security Analysts (NYSSA) President and CEO Amy Geffen discusses the effects of (and proper) networking with regards to your job search.


European Safe Bonds (ESBies)

The euro-nomics groupi,*

Markus Brunnermeier, Luis Garicano, Philip R. Lane, Marco Pagano, Ricardo Reis, Tano Santos, Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh, and Dimitri Vayanos

26th of September 2011


The European Union today faces one of the greatest challenges in its existence. The euro-zone, which just at the start of this century was lauded as Europe's great unifying achievement, has given way to states on the verge of default, financial systems that seem as solid as a deck of cards, and a great deal of disappointment with the European institutions. There are many reasons for this state of affairs, most of which fall within the realm of economics. One factor, that is crucial but under-appreciated is that Europe's problems are a consequence of a much wider, world, problem: the lack of safe assets. As a long-term trend, the impressive growth in the developing world during the last two decades has increased the demand for safe assets, as those countries' economic development outpaces their financial development yet they already need to build up reserves to smooth future shocks. As a short-term phenomenon, but one that is here to stay, the financial crisis of 2007–08 showed that financial markets can go through periods of tremendous volatility that have investors plunging towards an asset that is deemed safe.ii.

Modern financial systems rely heavily on safe assets. At the foundation of even the most complex financial securities there is usually a requirement to post as collateral some asset that is deemed safe by the parties involved. Prudent bank regulation, following Basel in its many rounds, requires banks to manage the risk in their assets in proportion to their capital. As a result, a substantial part of any bank's balance sheet must be in safe assets, as defined by the financial regulators. Pension funds are another example of a large class of investors that must hold a significant amount of safe assets, and even the least risk-averse of investors needs, even if only temporarily, to park investments in a safe vehicle. Finally, in conducting conventional monetary policy, the central bank should exchange money for safe bonds.

A safe asset for all of these purposes is one tha is liquid, that has minimal risk of default, and that is denominated in a currency with a stable purchasing power. To meet the large demand we just described, there is very little supply of assets satisfying these three characteristics. As a result, the most used of them, the U.S. Treasury bills and bonds, earn a large "safe haven" premium of as much as 0.7% per year.iii Europe, in spite of the size of its economy and its developed financial markets, and in spite of being home to one of the worlds' reserve currencies, does not supply a safe asset that rivals U.S. Treasuries. This has been noted before. What is less appreciated is that this deficiency is at the heart of the current European crisis.

In the absence of a European safe asset, bank regulators, policymakers, and investors have treated the bonds of all of the sovereign states in the euro-area as safe for the last 12 years. Bank regulators following the Basel criteria give sovereign bonds held by national banks a riskless assessment in calculating capital requirements, even as insuring against the default of some sovereign bonds using credit default swaps costs more than 5% today. The stress tests of European banks rule out, by assumption, the likely default in some of the sovereign assets held by the banks, making it difficult for investors to trust them. European policymakers have treated Greek and Dutch bonds as identically safe, even though they have traded at widely different prices in the market. The ECB accepts sovereign bonds of all its member states in its discounting operations, and while it applies different haircuts to them, they have been generous towards the riskier sovereigns. In turn, national policymakers have persuaded national banks to hold larger amounts of local national debt than prudent diversification would suggest. Finally, investors have been fervently speculating on whether sovereign states will be bailed out or not by their European partners, alternating between seeing the bonds as all equally safe, or seeing some of them as hopelessly doomed.

This situation led to two severe problems. First it created a diabolic loop, illustrated in Figure 1. Encouraged by the absence of any regulatory discrimination among bonds, European banks hold too much of their national debts, which, far from being safe, instead feeds never-ending speculation on the solvency of the banks. Sovereigns, in turn, face a constant risk of having to rescue their banks, which, combined with the uncertainty on what fiscal support they will receive from their European partners, increases the riskiness of their bonds. Finally, European policymakers lack the institutions and own resources to intervene in all of the troubled sovereign debt markets. The ECB ends up holding the riskiest of the sovereign bonds as the ECB becomes the sole source of financing for the troubled banks.

Figure 1: Diabolic Loop between Sovereign Debt Risk and Banking Debt Risk.

 Stern fig 1

Breaking this loop, and giving the euro-zone a chance to survive in the long run, requires creating a European safe asset that banks can hold without being exposed to sovereign risk. However, contrary to what is widely believed, this does not require creating Eurobonds, backed in solidarity by all the European states and their taxing power. Many Europeans are not willing to accept the fiscal integration required by Eurobonds. Moreover, without essential control mechanisms on national public accounts, hastily introduced Eurobonds may lead to a much larger debt crisis in a few years, from which there is no way back. We offer an alternative that creates a safe asset, while eliminating these problems with Eurobonds.

The second severe problem is that, in the absence of a European safe bond, the bonds of some sovereigns at Europe’s center have satisfied the demand for safe assets. In times of crisis, capital flows from the periphery to the center; in boom phases, capital flows from the center to the periphery. These alternating capital flows between searching for “yield” and searching for “safe haven”, generate large capital account imbalances in the Euro area, with associated changes in relative prices and potential disruptions in asset markets.iv

Our proposal is to create European Safe Bonds (ESB), which we will refer to as ESBies for short.v They are European, issued by a European Debt Agency in accord with existing European Treaties, and do not require more fiscal integration than the one we already have. They are Safe, by virtue of being designed to minimize the risk of default, being issued in euros and benefitting from the ECB's anti-inflation commitment, and being liquid as they are issued in large volumes and serve as safe haven for investors seeking a negative correlation with other yields. They are Bonds, freely traded in markets, and held by banks, investors and central banks to satisfy the demand that we described.

Combined with appropriate regulation that gives the correct risk weights to sovereign bonds, ESBies could solve the two problems that we just described. Banks would have an alternative to sovereign bonds, allowing them to become better diversified and less dependent on their country’ public finances. Moreover, the flight of capital to a “safe haven” would no longer be across borders, but across different financial instruments issued at the European level.

This document lays down the details of how ESBies work. The next section explains the proposal. Section 3 lists the main benefits that ESBies would bring. Section 4 to 6 go deeper into the nuts and bolts of ESBies explaining, in turn, how their composition is determined, how their safety is ensured, and how they would be issued. Section 7 compares our proposal with alternatives, the leading one being Eurobonds. Section 8 briefly concludes.


In one sentence, ESBies are securities issued by a European Debt Agency (EDA) composed of the senior tranche on a portfolio of sovereign bonds issued by European states, held by that agency and potentially further guaranteed through a credit enhancement.

In more detail, our proposal is for the EDA to buy the sovereign bonds of member nations according to some fixed weights. The weights would be set by a strict rule, to represent the relative size of the different member States. There would be no room to change the weights by discretion to respond to any crises, perceived or real. Therefore, the EDA cannot bail out a nation having difficulties placing its sovereign debt. It would typically run a boring business that does not make the headlines: It would simply passively hold sovereign bonds as assets in its balance sheet, and use them as collateral to issue two securities.

The first security, ESBies, would grant the right to a senior claim to the payments from the bonds held in the portfolio. If the tranching cut-off is X%, then the first X% lost in the pool of bonds because of potential European sovereign defaults would have no effect on the payment of the ESBies. The remaining 1-X% of revenues from holding the bonds would go to the holders of the ESBies. The number X% is relatively large, so that even in a worst-case scenario (e.g. a partial default by Greece, Portugal and Ireland and a haircut on Italian and Spanish debt), the payment on the ESBies would not be jeopardized. On top of it, the EDA, using some initial capital paid in by the member states, would offer a further guarantee on the payment of Y% of the ESBies, so that it would take losses of more than Y+X% before the ESBies did not offer a perfectly safe payment in euros to its holders. As long as this sum was picked adequately, the ESBies would be effectively safe. European banks, pension funds and the ECB would be a natural starting clientele for the ESBies, but as their reputation grows, they could be as widely used as US Treasuries are used today all over the world. They could also be used as reserve currency assets by countries such as China, Brazil, the OPEC, etc.

The second security, composed of the junior tranche on the portfolio of bonds, would be sold to willing investors in the market. In contrast with the ESBies, this is a risky security, akin to an equity claim on the EDA (but obviously without control rights). Any risk that a sovereign state may fail to honor in full its debts would be reflected in the expected return on this security. Any realized losses would be absorbed by the holders of this junior security, and not by the EDA nor the European Union nor its member States. Investors that want to hedge (or even speculate) on the ability of European member states to repay their debt would be willing to hold and trade this security.

Beyond being correctly designed and issued, the success of the ESBies depends on two regulatory changes. First, the ECB would grant strict preferential treatment to ESBies, accepting them as its main form of collateral in repo and discounting operations. In effect, the ECB would still be holding sovereign bonds as assets, but now indirectly via the ESBies; and, importantly, it would only hold the safest component of these sovereign bonds. Because of the fixed weights in the ESBies, this would be consistent with conventional monetary policy, where open market operations trade money for safe ESBies without creating credit risk for the ECB and ensuring it has a safe balance sheet. Second, banking regulators, including Basel, would give a zero risk weight to ESBies, but not automatically to other sovereign bonds. The new risk weights for European sovereign bonds will reflect their default risk just as risk weights reflect the risk on banks’ holdings of other assets such as corporate bonds or corporate loans.

Figure 2 summarizes the details in this description. There are three parts of the proposal that require further explanation: how to set the weights in the portfolio of sovereign bonds? How to choose the size of the ESBies relative to the junior tranche and the credit enhancement? And how would the EDA operate day-to-day? These are explained in more detail in sections 4 to 6. But, before discussing the details in more depth, we summarize the virtues of the proposal.

Figure 2: Graphical Representation of Tranching with Possible Credit Enhancement.


Stern fig 2

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | APPENDIX |Next Page


*Euro-nomics is a group of concerned European economists, unaffiliated with any of their respective national governments. Their objective is to provide concrete, carefully considered, and politically feasible ideas to address the serious problems currently faced by the Eurozone. Their affiliations can be found at the end of the present document and on www.euro-nomics.com

i. This is an extract from a chapter of a book being produced as a larger project, Project Europe, by the euro-nomics group: www.euro-nomics.com. That project proposes a new institutional framework for the European financial system to overcome the current crisis. European Safe Bonds are one of the legs of that proposal, and are explained in this document. We are not sponsored by any organization or institution and are independent from any country or policy institution.

ii. Farhi, Gourinchas and Rey (2011) go in detail over the many reasons why the demand for safe assets far outstrips supply today.

iii. Krishnamurthy and Vissing-Jorgensen (2010) estimate this premium.

iv.Some empirical evidence for the “flight to safety premium” for German bunds is that their yield sank to an almost record low in August and September, while at the same time the CDS spread for German bunds increased, indicating that even Germany’s default risk was increasing.

v.ESBies has the merit of capturing the sound of two possible initials for the securities, ESB for European Safe Bonds, and ESBBS for European Sovereign Bond-backed Securities.


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