Wall Street is a confidence game

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell notes that Wall Street is a confidence game, in the strictist sense of the term:

Since the beginning of the financial crisis, there have been two principal explanations for why so many banks made such disastrous decisions. The first is structural. Regulators did not regulate. Institutions failed to function as they should. Rules and guidelines were either inadequate or ignored. The second explanation is that Wall Street was incompetent, that the traders and investors didn’t know enough, that they made extravagant bets without understanding the consequences. But the first wave of postmortems on the crash suggests a third possibility: that the roots of Wall Street’s crisis were not structural or cognitive so much as they were psychological.
The psychologist Ellen Langer once had subjects engage in a betting game against either a self-assured, well-dressed opponent or a shy and badly dressed opponent (in Langer’s delightful phrasing, the “dapper” or the “schnook” condition), and she found that her subjects bet far more aggressively when they played against the schnook. They looked at their awkward opponent and thought, I’m better than he is. Yet the game was pure chance: all the players did was draw cards at random from a deck, and see who had the high hand. This is called the “illusion of control”: confidence spills over from areas where it may be warranted (“I’m savvier than that schnook”) to areas where it isn’t warranted at all (“and that means I’m going to draw higher cards”).
Langer didn’t say that it was only arrogant gamblers who upped their bets in the presence of the schnook. She argues that this is what competition does to all of us; because ability makes a difference in competitions of skill, we make the mistake of thinking that it must also make a difference in competitions of pure chance. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. As novices, we don’t trust our judgment. Then we have some success, and begin to feel a little surer of ourselves. Finally, we get to the top of our game and succumb to the trap of thinking that there’s nothing we can’t master. As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we’re involved with something of great personal importance.
Several years ago, a team headed by the psychologist Mark Fenton-O’Creevy created a computer program that mimicked the ups and downs of an index like the Dow, and recruited, as subjects, members of a highly paid profession. As the line moved across the screen, Fenton-O’Creevy asked his subjects to press a series of buttons, which, they were told, might or might not affect the course of the line. At the end of the session, they were asked to rate their effectiveness in moving the line upward. The buttons had no effect at all on the line. But many of the players were convinced that their manipulation of the buttons made the index go up and up. The world these people inhabited was competitive and stressful and complex. They had been given every reason to be confident in their own judgments. If they sat down next to you, with a tape recorder, it wouldn’t take much for them to believe that they had you in the palm of their hand. They were traders at an investment bank.
Investment banks are able to borrow billions of dollars and make huge trades because, at the end of the day, their counterparties believe they are capable of making good on their promises. Wall Street is a confidence game, in the strictest sense of that phrase.

This is what social scientists mean when they say that human overconfidence can be an adaptive trait. “In conflicts involving mutual assessment, an exaggerated assessment of the probability of winning increases the probability of winning,” Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, writes. “Selection therefore favors this form of overconfidence.” Winners know how to bluff. And who bluffs the best? The person who, instead of pretending to be stronger than he is, actually believes himself to be stronger than he is. According to Wrangham, self-deception reduces the chances of “behavioral leakage”; that is, of “inadvertently revealing the truth through an inappropriate behavior.” This much is in keeping with what some psychologists have been telling us for years — that it can be useful to be especially optimistic about how attractive our spouse is, or how marketable our new idea is. In the words of the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, humans have an “optimal margin of illusion.”

If you were a Wall Street C.E.O., there were two potential lessons to be drawn from the collapse of Bear Stearns. The first was that Jimmy Cayne was overconfident. The second was that Jimmy Cayne wasn’t overconfident enough. Bear Stearns did not collapse, after all, simply because it had made bad bets. Until very close to the end, the firm had a capital cushion of more than seventeen billion dollars. The problem was that when, in early 2008, Cayne and his colleagues stood up and said that Bear was a great place to be, the rest of Wall Street no longer believed them. Clients withdrew their money, and lenders withheld funding. As the run on Bear Stearns worsened, J. P. Morgan and the Fed threw the bank a lifeline — a multibillion-dollar line of credit. But confidence matters so much on Wall Street that the lifeline had the opposite of its intended effect.

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