Eugene Linden
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In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Was...

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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Why Corporations Will Soon Embrace Kyoto


This ran in TIME.com a while back under the headline, "Who's Going to Pay for Climate Change." The essay has renewed salience as concerns about changing climate surface once again. By EUGENE LINDEN The Bush administration, so warlike in response to terrorism, has revealed a pacifist streak in its approach to the threat of climate change. At meetings on the Kyoto Treaty last fall in New Delhi, U.S. delegates argued that we ought to be thinking about adapting to changing climate. The administration's position seems to have gone from doubt about the science of climate change to suggesting it is inevitable without ever acknowledging that the nation might take steps to avert the threat. The new position is a clever one: By leaving moot the question of cause, and by implying that no one could have done anything about it, the administration also implies that no one is responsible. The administration underscored its genial "no fault" approach when it recently asked industry to voluntarily reduce emissions. Nice try, but don't be surprised if there are few takers for this line of reasoning. As the costs of climate change become more obvious in everything from lost crops to wrecked real estate, victims will begin pointing fingers and businesses will begin diving for cover. John Dutton, dean emeritus of the Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, estimates that $2.7 trillion of the $10 trillion U.S. economy is susceptible to weather-related loss of revenue, meaning that an enormous number of companies have "off balance sheet" risks related to climate. This could wound corporate America in a lot of ways, particularly as insurance companies discover this new area of risk. Most policies covering natural disasters are renewable on a yearly basis. When risks become too expensive, insurers can simply walk away. Something like this happened after the Sept. 11 attacks. Insurers suddenly realized that they had vastly underpriced the risk of terrorist attacks and stopped writing new policies. This brought many big construction projects to a standstill until President Bush signed a bill in Nov. that shifted responsibility for $100 billion of future terrorism-related losses from insurers to the taxpayers. If climate change starts inflicting losses, insurers will again head for the exits. Just such insurer flight has already caused problems in North Carolina's Outer Banks and in parts of New York's fabled Hamptons, where coastal storms are eating up homes and businesses. When insurance companies quit these high-risk places, the burden shifts to banks. But they don't have the same freedom simply to cancel mortgages and loans. What will happen to the markets if banks start demanding insurance for weather-related events that is either prohibitively expensive or completely unavailable? The climate change threat that will really get the attention of executives and boardmembers, however, is the possibility that they might be liable for damages. This could happen if insurers like financial giant SwissRe start changing the insurance policies that insulate directors and officers (called D&O insurance) from the costs of lawsuits resulting from the actions of their corporations. Businesses open themselves to lawsuits when they take a position contrary to others in their industry, and in recent cases such as asbestos litigation, courts have assessed damages proportionate to a company's contribution to a problem. Chris Walker of Swiss Re describes how this might come about with regard to climate change. He notes that energy giant Exxon/Mobil accounts for roughly 1% of global emissions, and has aggressively lobbied against any efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses. "So," says Walker, "we might then go to them and say, 'Since you don't think climate change is a problem, we're sure you won't mind if we exclude climate related lawsuits and penalties from your D&O insurance.'" Swiss Re recently set the stage for such action by sending a questionnaire to its D&O customers inquiring about their company's strategy to deal with climate change regulations. Some climate change regulation seems to be coming, whether the federal government acts or not. States such as New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York are following the lead of California, imposing their own limits on greenhouse gases and presenting businesses with the prospect of a crazy quilt of regulations. Various state attorneys general are going further, exploring ways they might sue companies for climate change-related damages. And if the Kyoto Treaty comes into force, as now seems likely this spring, countries might similarly seek trade sanctions against the U.S. for its unwillingness to abide by its terms. Faced with the prospect of class-action lawsuits, states that take a "roll your own" approach, and trade sanctions, many of those executives who are opposed to the Kyoto Treaty might begin to rethink their position, and the Bush administration might find itself abandoned by its ostensible allies. For corporate executives pondering climate change, threats to the wallet may prove far more persuasive than science. -----------------------------------------------------------------------

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Short Take

I’ve just read Black Edge, by Sheelah Kolhatkar, which is about the huge insider trading scam that characterized Steve Cohen’s SAC Capital at the height of its power. I’m going to offer the thoughts it prompted in two parts. The first will delve into the trade itself, and the second will explore the fallout from this insider trading scandal and subsequent events in the market.

Part One:

A good part of Black Edge focuses on one specific instance of insider trading at SAC Capital: Mathew Martoma’s quest for advance knowledge of the results of trials on the efficacy of Elan Pharmaceutical’s experimental drug to halt Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, bapineuzumab, was designed to attack the amyloid plaques that Elan’s scientists viewed as the cause of cognitive decline. In his quest for “black edge” (illegal inside information) Martoma and his compatriots compromised the integrity of the procedures for drug trials and ruined the life and reputation of a distinguished scientist.  Even that wasn’t enough for them. SAC also had access to vast amounts of biotech expertise, both from PhDs on their payroll, and the expert networks they paid handsomely to give them access to researchers with direct access to the studies and trials.

 

In the short run, this inside information paid off for SAC as Martoma’s advance knowledge of the results allowed the hedge fund to reverse a billion dollar position and make a profit of over $180 million versus certain losses of hundreds of millions had they not gotten advance information on a disappointing field trial. In the long run, while Steve Cohen skated, the insider cases led to $1.8 billion in fines, the dissolution of SAC, and jail time for Martoma.

 

In retrospect, it was all so stupid. SAC could have come to the conclusion that Elan’s drug was not going to work without resorting to anything illegal.

 

Instead of deploying all this massive intellectual firepower on getting advance word on the results of the trials, the analysts might have started by asking how solid were the assumptions on which the therapy was based: namely, whether attacking the plaques would halt or reverse the progress of the disease.

 

Even in 2008 and 2009, there were a number of researchers at distinguished universities who questioned that basic assumption. The alternate theory was that the plaques were not the cause of the disease, but rather an analogue of scabbing, the result of the body’s attempt to protect the brain from infection.

 

 In subsequent years, this alternate view has gained some traction, with some now arguing that Alzheimer’s is akin to an autoimmune disease in the sense that as the environment in developed countries has become more antiseptic, protective devices in the brain have turned on the brain itself as the infections they evolved to fight have disappeared. In any events a drumbeat of failed trials with drugs attacking amyloids has discredited this approach. As Tara Spires-Jones, of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems put it in an interview with Britain’s Independent, “Most of the trials have been based on the assumption that amyloid is important in causing Alzherimer’s diseas, as opposed to something that happens alongside it. That assumption, I think, is probably wrong…”

 

Even in 2007, SAC’s analysts should have known that many attempts to fight Alzheimer’s by fighting the formation of plaques had failed. Given all the time the fund spent analyzing the drug and trials it must occurred to someone to ask whether Elan was barking up the wrong tree. Maybe someone there did just that, but there’s no indication that the decision makers ever questioned the assumptions upon which the drug was built.

 

Maybe that wouldn’t have mattered. SAC wanted certainty. Clearly, detailed advance knowledge of the results of a field trial is more compelling than a dissenting theory on the nature of the disease. Had SAC questioned the assumptions of the study, they never would have amassed a position in Elan, and they probably wouldn’t have had sufficient certainty to short the stock prior to the results being announced.

 

What can be drawn from this? There are implications about the pressures of the markets – SAC employees felt that had to cheat to maintain performance – but there are also implications about the culture of world of investing.  Alzheimer’s is a horrifying disease, but the book makes a strong case that neither Cohen, nor anyone else at SAC, gave a rat’s ass whether the drug worked or not; they only cared about knowing the results before anyone else and about how other traders would view the data when it came out.  The same probably applied to every other fund playing Elan.

 

It isn’t news that the markets are amoral, but this amorality has real world consequences. The punishment the market meted out to Elan (and other companies with failed trials) makes all but the largest companies risk averse about investing in therapies for difficult diseases. There is a short-term logic to this from an investor’s point of view, but, increasingly, the market sets research priorities, and the market’s priorities – controlling costs and maximizing short-term profits – may not serve the needs of society. Researchers know that breakthroughs often come from learning from failed previous attempts.  So where will breakthroughs come from as fewer and fewer companies risk failure?

 

Part Two:

 

Further thoughts on Black Edge by Sheelah Kolhatkar

The insider trading scandal at SAC confirmed a widely held suspicion among ordinary investors that Wall Street is a rigged game where powerful players can cheat with impunity.  Regardless of the truth of that suspicion, the widely held perception that this is the case has had its own reverberations. In a delicious irony, one of the derivative effects of the market crash and subsequent insider trading scandals has been to make more likely a future in which black edge is less useful.

 

Bear with me.

 

What happened with Elan revealed a contradiction at the heart of the markets. SAC was driven to seeking black edge by the ruthless competition of the markets. In the minds of their analysts and portfolio managers, access to publicly available information wasn’t enough because competing funds had their own PhDs pouring over the same information. Moreover, competing funds also had access to the same expert networks (which might be viewed as “grey edge”) as did SAC.

 

In such a situation, we’d expect that different analysts would take different perspectives on the prospects of the drug and the trials. I would have expected that at least some analysts would question whether the assumptions behind the drug were correct. The market says that wasn’t the case. Rather the hedge fund world was massively longs before the release of the trial results, and Elan’s subsequent 66% price drop suggests that the herd mentality applied on the way down too.

 

So market efficiency drove SAC and some others to seek black edge, while the subsequent drop exposed a herd mentality and deep inefficiency that made the market anything but a black box that continuously adjusts prices for all information.

 

The result for the markets is analogous to the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium: markets will proceed smoothly until some event produces rapid change. Because, as the crash of 2008 demonstrated, the big price-change inducing event can come from any number of directions inside or outside the economy, many investors are giving up on analysis of individual stocks and moving to passive investment funds and ETFs. The size of this shift is staggering. The amount of managed money in passive strategies has risen from an estimated 6% in 2006 to as much as 40% today (these figures vary depending on definitions of what a constitutes passive strategy).

 

That latter figure may be larger given the relationship between value investing and money moved by algorithms and quantitative strategies.

 

Quantitative types try to beat their peers by focusing on changes in pricing or volatility, and/or seeking an edge through speed and data crunching, rapidly identifying anomalies, and then trading at warp speed. Many hundreds of billions of dollars now take this route into the markets. And results have proven that this approach can work; some of these funds have done fabulously well.

 

So, stepping back, it becomes clear that the trillions of dollars invested through passive strategies and ETFs basically piggybacks on the decisions of active managers relying on traditional analysis of individual companies and sectors. Moreover, the hundreds of billions of dollars of money invested in quantitative, momentum, derivative, and volatility strategies, also piggybacks and even amplifies, the decisions made by traditional investors as those decisions become evident in price movements.

 

So the response to the pain inflicted by past booms and busts and insider trading scandals has created a situation today where the huge amounts of money moves in sync with an ever smaller base of active managers. Value investing based on analysis of individual companies has become an ever-smaller tail wagging an ever larger dog.

 

Perversely, this, in turn, has created a situation where in the next crash, Steve Cohen, the quant and momentum funds, and even the Warren Buffets will ultimately have no edge. All it will take to set the next crash in motion is for a fair number of investors to say, “gee I think I should shift more to cash.” Then the passive investment funds will be forced to sell, and they will sell regardless of the merits of any individual stock. This will cause volatility to rise and the billions of dollars of investments tied to volatility will also start selling, and as this is happening, the algorithmic traders, the momo guys and the others looking for direction to exploit will jump in juicing the sell off.  The trigger might be some external event, or something as banal as a simple change in mood, but no insider will have any better insight as to when this occurs than anyone with access to a newspaper.

 

As a coda, it’s worth noting that Steve Cohen has now been cleared to manage other people’s money. At the end of Black Edge the author quotes a savvy market player as saying that the day Cohen could do that, money would come pouring in. Well, according to the New York Times, that day is here and money is not pouring in. Maybe this is because his fees are too high, or because the insider trading scandal has made him tainted goods. Or maybe, it’s because investors doubt that he can achieve his former results without black edge.



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