Three rhetorics of risk: The good, the bad, and the smug

The story from a dove

We live in a risk society. Risk is bad. Markets and particularly futures markets allow us to manage risk, perhaps even eliminate it, through the summation of equal and opposite potentialities. Therefore (futures) markets are good. Consider the following hypothetical situations:

Situation: An institution has substantial holdings in long-term fixed income investments and is concerned that an anticipated increase in longterm interest rates will reduce the value of portfolio investments.

Strategy: Sell long-term interest rate futures. The reduction in cash market portfolio value if interest rates increase will be roughly offset by gains realized in the futures market.

Situation: An investor will receive a large cash inflow in several months, at which time he plans to place the funds in long-term fixed income investments. He is concerned that by then lower interest rates will have increased the price of the investments to be purchased.

Strategy: Buy long-term interest rate futures. The futures positions will have the effect of locking in the investor’s target yield.

Conveniently, two investors with differing desires—indeed “equal and opposite” desires—can be matched by the magic of the market’s current colonization of future trade. For these “investors,” at least, the risk and uncertainty have been made manageable and the rewards of the avoidance of recklessness made reckonable. This reflexive sense (Beck, 1992; but perhaps more expressively Giddens, 1991) of the risks of financial endeavor serves as the sine qua non of responsible stewardship of a financial vessel doomed to sail in contemporary seas of uncertainty. Risk appears here as an external variable that may change in form over time but must always be minimized by the prudent pecuniarist. This sense of risk thus serves to buttress and prolong a notion of management that is perhaps more consonant with a golden age in which organized commerce tamed an unruly natural world and turned it, with the aid of suitable representational innovations, into a tabletop ruled by the human hand and eye (Fisher, 1978).

Stewardship, the key managerial subjectivity under a system of feudalism in which production of goods takes center stage, is here cunningly smuggled forward, right up to the present. Initially limited to the space of the manor, the notion of stewardship subtly transforms itself, becoming mobile in the process, as its charge changes from place to portfolio of produce, with the advent of mercantilism and its emerging commodity fixation. This may be seen as a direct consequence of a shift in attention away from the production of goods and towards their sale in the market. Here, as Marx reminds us, the move from use value to exchange value is enabled by a severing of links with the site of production. In this idealized dystopia, merchants don’t care how and why a particular commodity is produced; their interest is restricted to the realization of its maximal monetary value. Surplus, previously accumulated by each manorial lord as something of a by-product of differential “need” satisfaction and always motile, becomes the raison d’être of a new system as a consequence of the increased realization of this potential mobility. This mobile surplus that results from trade we may term capital. Hence the importance of seventeenth-century Amsterdam and other such centers of trade.

With the introduction of machinofacture and its “real” capitalism with “real subordination” of labor, we witness a new shift in focus, this time away from goods and towards the organization of labor that is now seen as the source of the value of those goods. In effect, the connections of places that constitute the space of the market—a set of connections that enabled the mercantilist deletion of a previously immutable link between place and production (see Kallinikos, 1995)—itself produces a new demand for the salience of space in production. And consequently, a revised notion of stewardship emerges that centers around space rather than place, the space of the manufactory. Here, stewardship thus regains something of its lost leadership role in the direction of commercial collectivities.

But there are crucial differences from the prior situation. The space of the factory is not an isolated, self-contained and local place in the manner of the manor. Rather, it is connected not only to markets in goods, as was the case of the manor in mercantilism, but also to markets in labor and capital (Coase, 1937). As a result, the spaces filled by factories are idealized points whose locations are determined by the demands of the market system. They are nexi of labor and technology assembled by an accumulation of capital. Rather than being primarily a pre-given source of capital accumulation, sites of production become the result of a deliberate application of previously concentrated capital. Rather than the market acting as a corrective to deficiencies in the distribution of goods, it begins to function as an indication of where and what goods should be produced. The market, previously a “technological” response to spatial mismatches in production and demand, instead becomes that to which the organization of production must respond. It does this by providing a space in which geographically dispersed supply and demand can symbolically collide, and in so doing eliminate each other.

As a consequence of the inevitable distance between signs and things in the mode of representation in which we reside here, spatial mismatches become highlighted and their costs calculable, allowing comparison with all other costs of production. A suitably anthropomorphized market (more of this later!) then seeks to reorder production taking this new information into account. In short, the direction of causality has been reversed. Problems of the dispersal of production are no longer removed by the market; rather, production moves to meet market demand.

What we are saying is that the link to a “material” basis for monetary value—however merely conventional—is rendered as so removed from the practices that currently “underpin and create the circulation of money-signs” that it no longer retains relevance. And the consequences of this divorce are profound. Money, as a sign without even the pretence of reference outside itself, becomes something of a xenophobe, happiest when dealing with its own kind.

In the absence therefore of an anterior “real” value to function as an origin for a system of valuation, the signs of value—money—via a process of self-reflexion are able to proliferate, untrammeled by any pre-given maximum. This process is set firmly in train by the semiotic move that enables the production of paper money.

There are two sorts of Money, Real and Imaginary. Real Money is a Piece of Metal coin’d by the Authority of the State, and is therefore a real Species, current at a certain Price, by vertue of the said Authority, and of its own intrinsick Value; such as Guinea, a Crown, a Shilling, a Farthing, etc.

Imaginary Money is a denomination used to express a Sum of Money, of which there is no real Species: As a Pound in England, and a Livre in France, because there is no Species current, in this or that Kingdom, precisely of the Value of either of those Sums. (Hewitt, 1740)

Bank money linked an ideal gold with the devalued gold of coinage via a ratio, a ratio that effectively “leveraged” coinage to its ideal value, preempting the reduction in material associated with circulation. Bank money therefore produced written credit that could be exchanged. However, exchange could only occur via a rewriting of credit, via a transfer of debt from one specific situation and individual (or group) to another. There was no generalized bearer assumed by these notes. Bank money did nevertheless provide the ability to value money and in so doing destabilized a prior identity. With the advent of paper money and its generalized bearer, the promissory note was able to circulate freely, becoming itself not a value of money but money itself. While a direct link to specie remained, the system so created was only able to reflect supposedly anterior value in a more convenient form for the rigors of exchange. However, once the link becomes nominal a profound shift occurs.

For money signs the illusion of anteriority collapses at exactly the point when the printed bank note is recognized as an instrument for creating money.

[Paper money] soon involved the artificial manufacture of money, of ersatz money, or if you like a manipulated and “manipulable” money. All those English bank promoters and finally the Scot John Law gradually realised “the economic possibilities of this discovery, whereby money—and capital in the monetary sense of the word—were capable of being manufactured or created a will (Braudel, 1974: 363). (Rotman, 1987: 49)

For the steward—whose world is one that seeks to maintain stability, a world that implicitly relies on a direct link between value and (purchasing) power—this instability must be rendered as other, as an external force to be assayed and managed, not as a consequence of the very act of managing through such a system. For the speculator the financial system is a spectacle, and the predictability of the behavior of those whose activities partially constitute such a spectacle is precisely that which allows speculation for its own sake. The steward is driven to the market by a desire to minimize the potential disruption resulting from the market’s movements. The speculator chooses to go there and to go only there, relying on the naïveté of those who visit such a space to meet some of their needs, but are unwilling to make their homes there. Those indigenous to the speculative market make their living through better understanding their home than visitors. They also settle new locations, turning these sites into spaces where the rules of speculation are sovereign.

A hawk’s eye view

… [U]se the banks to figure out what not to do with your money. … Big banks are almost legendary in their ability to make bad decisions. Out of hundreds of different places to put their money, bankers are able to find the few that are on the brink of disaster: loans to the Third World in the 70s … oil loans in the early 80s … shares just before the 87 crash … property right up to the collapse of property prices in 88. (Campbell and Bonner, 1994: 3-4)

So says the “stunning analysis” offered by Campbell and Bonner on Media, Mania and the Markets. This “book” is perhaps better described as a bloated advertisement for The Fleet Street Letter, an organ that seeks to guide their élite and discerning readership through the morass of the media-market nexus. For these street-smarts, big banks are the epitome of an outdated and unnecessary notion of stewardship that does nothing better than supply ample cannon fodder for the masters of the future(s). Readers of the letter are enjoined to live out a philosophy of “contrarianism.” For according to the letter, “All the great investors, from John Maynard Keynes to Sir John Templeton, have been contrarians of some sort or another.” In a chapter entitled “The Madness of Crowds,” they inform us that we must adopt the place of Hardy’s protagonist, if we are to stand any chance of speculative success. To put it bluntly:

The crowd is always wrong … When a market becomes “one-way”, when virtually everyone believes that prices will rise or fall, it is dangerous. Dangerous, that is, for the crowd. For anyone with the courage to bet the other way, it presents a major opportunity. (p. 5)

This behavioral observation is, they inform us, entirely ahistorical, an immutable fact of nature. “Human nature never changes, and nor does the psychology of investment” (p. 9).

It seems to us, however, that there are two derivatives trading on this rhetoric of individual accomplishment. The first is that of the mediated trader, the Fleet-Streeter, even when his (sic.) espoused target is the media itself. Being in the business of selling narratives, these pseudo traders claim to possess the sharpness of vision required to cut through the surface spectacle. They see the real forces that the epiphenomena of events merely mask. In this respect, their notion of the anteriority of “things” to “signs” is reminiscent of the iconic literalism of the Ancient Greeks (Rotman, 1987). It is this belief in the priority of things that allows them to spin their own (his)tories of events. Contrary histories, to be sure, at least at the successful margins, but histories nonetheless.

When mediated traders feed off the foolishness of stewards, they claim to do so on the basis of the depth of their insight. “Real” traders, however, whose published accounts are that much rarer, do not seem wedded to a discourse of deep underlying structures. That is not to say that they do not use such attachments on the part of others in order to further their pecuniary interests. For “real” traders, “reality” is as it appears—there is no cause of reality above and beyond the reality of signs, except perhaps that of individualized independence. Their contrarianism comes not from the divination of the real beneath the surface. Rather, it comes in two sub-species of its own. The first is in some ways similar to the structuralist accounts of the media, but it differs in one crucial respect. Those mathematical wizards who make their money out of models of the future(s) do so on the basis of relationships between signs and signs alone. They care not about any underlying reality, for since it is signs in which they trade, signs constitute the totality of reality.

For the other subspecies of “real” traders, the eschewment of descriptive narrative, and thus of any presupposed anteriority of things to signs, is much more explicit. For our mediated traders it is the fact that others believe in false narratives that gives us, with our better narratives, the opportunity to “make a killing.” For our second subspecies of “real” traders, however, this belief in a better narrative is itself too much of a hostage to fortune, carrying as it does vestiges of an outdated belief in what one is told. Indeed, for these realest of real traders, who relish the open outcry of the pit and the chance it offers one to become a “big swinging dick,” evidence of the persistence of such sentimental attachments to referential stories are the object of much contemptuous merriment and the key source of market potential. Even the predictability of those other traders who read the signs within the signs as patterns and nothing more is potentially amenable to commercial exploitation.

Actually, there was one good reason for using the charts: everyone else did. If you believed that large sums of money were about to invested on the basis of a chart, then, as dumb as it made you feel, it made sense to look at that chart; perhaps it would enable you to place your bet first and get in front of the coming wave. (Lewis, 1989: 192)

The following account of a conversation between two of Salomon Brothers’ London staff in the late 1980s makes clear the depth of contempt felt for those with even residual belief in the explanatory power of those still more foolish narratives that looked for reason outside of the signs of exchange:

I told Alexander that several Arabs had sold massive holdings of gold, for which they received dollars. They were selling those dollars for marks, and thereby driving the dollar lower.

I spent much of my working life inventing logical lies like this. Most of the time when markets move, no-one has any idea why. A man who can tell a good story can make a good living as a broker. It was the job of people like me to make up reasons, to spin a plausible yarn. And it’s amazing what people will believe. Heavy selling out of the Middle East was an old standby. Since no-one ever had any clue what the Arabs were doing with their money or why, no story involving Arabs could ever be refuted. So if you didn’t know why the dollar was falling, you shouted out something about Arabs. Alexander, of course, had a keen sense of the value of my commentary. He just laughed. (Lewis, 1989: 220)

What is similar about our two subspecies of “real” traders and our mediated traders is their sense of individual detachment from the existential comforts of crowding, their proclaimed asociality. These individuals are not lacking in the confidence of their conviction, and their conviction is that:

In any market, as in any poker game, there is a fool. The astute investor, Warren Buffett, is fond of saying that any player unaware of the fool in the market probably is the fool in the market. (Lewis, 1989: 38)

“The fool” is not to be read here in the singular. For the fool is potentially, and indeed probably, all other players, certainly all of those who find themselves running with company. The moniker “big swinging dick” is thus not to be seen as accidental in its metaphorical mapping. Lewis’s traders speak endlessly of the importance of “balls,” the source it seems of the lead required in the big swinging pencil. The singularity of the swinging member, as well as the way it derides those who grub along beneath its disciplinary arc, is deeply symbolic. As in the work of Brett Easton Ellis—whose traders incidentally seem to be obsessed by all manner of depthless, dislocated and consequently self-referential codes— BSDs have no friends, only contacts and customers. It is precisely the insulation of their individuality that gives them their edge, engendering a freedom of action that perfectly mirrors the freedom of circulation that characterizes financial capitalism and its break with the limits of a grounding representational economy in which things are anterior to signs.

But a nagging question remains. Why, given the availability of innumerable texts that seek to educate the ignorant in the infallibility of contrarianism, do stewards continue to serve themselves up on a plate? Such a query misses the point, for it is caught in a false chain of causality in which stewards create markets to trade away their exposures before professional wolves rush in to these very same markets with the sole intention of fleecing their founders.

The smug

A functionalist account of the development of financial futures would clearly and logically start with a description of the “need” that is being met by such market technologies. One could perhaps continue our earlier story of a focus on production giving way to a focus on commodities which, after a rather convoluted journey, finally gives way to a focus on money as commodity and the consequent risks to the “real” value of assets. Indeed, there is some information that may be said to support such a view.

Exchange traded futures have their origins in the markets for agricultural products, and existed in some form already in the seventeenth century in Amsterdam and Osaka.

The modern form of futures exchange, with a clearing house to settle contracts, is however a development of the American commodities exchanges of the nineteenth century, and the leading centres worldwide are still Chicago and New York. Financial, as opposed to commodity, futures were innovated in currencies by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) in 1972 and in bonds by the Chicago Board of Trade (CBoT) in 1976. (Leslie and Wyatt, 1992: 88)

The emergence here of futures market is seen to follow the unfixing of exchange rates. Such unfixing is then seen to expose the holder of any particular capital to a risk of devaluation (ironic, considering that exchange rates were “unfixed” by devaluation), a risk that may be offset by holding an equal and opposite future position to that held in cash. In this rather neat story, an anethical “technology” emerges to meet a preexisting demand, a demand not apparent before because no change in circumstances had brought it into being.

This draws attention to a curious facet of (financial) markets. Given the openness about what such a market might look like, there seems to be considerable scope for the supposed intermediaries of transacting to produce “products” that well serve this middle position. For futures markets, like other markets, do not emerge “naturally.” Rather, their products and rules of exchange must be socially contracted. This is more than merely “packaging,” for in the act of packaging the product itself is defined. To misappropriate McLuhan, the product is the package.

For a functionalist, technical considerations are sole requirements for the development of a market, given that both supply and demand exist exogenously. However, we are not foolish enough to believe that a functionalist account will take us very far. For, as Lewis points out:

[A] trader [was] … also needed … to make markets in the bonds that [had been] … created, and that was a bigger problem. The trader was absolutely crucial. The trader bought and sold the bonds. A big name trader inspired confidence in investors, and his presence alone could make a market grow. (Lewis, 1989: 104)

Well, not quite. For as Lewis’s account also makes clear, there was little initial enthusiasm for the bonds on the part of investors. The trader had to go out to investors and sell the market, and sell it hard. But he could only do that once products had been constructed that could be sold. Markets are often, if not always, the results of intensive design and marketing on the part of those who act as intermediaries in the technologies so created. The point may be trite, but it is nothing like as trite as the insights offered by a functionalist account in which markets emerge out of nowhere as mediations between unstoppable, exogenous forces.

You couldn’t always put your finger on losers, but you knew talent when you saw it. Howie Rubin had it. Of all the traders, Rubin displayed raw trading instinct. Lewie Ranieri calls Rubin “the most innately talented young trader I have ever seen”. The other traders say he was the trader most like Lewie Ranieri. One trader remembers that “Lewie would say he thought the market was going up, and buy a hundred million dollars-worth of bonds. The market would start to go down. So Lewie would buy two billion more bonds, and of course the market would then go up. After he had driven the market up, Lewie would turn to me and say, ‘See I told you it was going to go up.’ Howie had a little of that in him too.” (ibid.: 147).

As one of the traders now says, “You didn’t necessarily have a good reason for every position. Sometimes you bought bonds just to find out what was going on in the street. You didn’t want someone hanging around asking why you did such and such.” (ibid.: 164)

The eschewment of a reality lurking beyond the signs of the market and its players is complete in these views from the floor. Traders, particularly the best traders, were at their happiest and “most productive” when they adopted such a place in which to carry out their business. This immersion in signs is not, however, to be mistaken for an immersion in the social fabric surrounding the market and its ramifications. Rather, balls of steel enable the big swinging dick to immerse himself (sic.) in the spectacle of the market, in some senses becoming the movement of that market, both cause and consequence of market fluctuations.

Nothing in the jungle got in the way of a Big Swinging Dick. (ibid.: 52)

This is the epiphany of the trader as portrayed in populist accounts of this dynamic regime. Traders thus enter the market not necessarily to engage in a particular transaction, but seek to garner for themselves the position of central agency in the market by virtue of their superior detachment from the external, “real world” sources that supposedly drove the activities of “investors.” They may or may not use this position to engage in particular transactions, but that is something of a by-product, not that which defines the essence of the trading place.

To be successful, a futures contract must have a liquid market with low transactions costs associated with trading in the contract. One of the salient features about this process is a phenomenon that might be described as endogenous economies of scale: more business is attracted to contracts with low bid-ask spreads (i.e. high liquidity), and that attracts more market makers and more arbitrage and speculative activity on the exchange, and this increased competition drives down bid-ask spreads and so on in a virtuous circle. As a consequence, an exchange that establishes a highly liquid contract can drive away competitors and create a monopoly position for itself. Leslie and Wyatt (1992: 88)

What is true of exchanges is also true of those firms that pioneer and hence monopolize the use of particular instruments. These instruments may be considered as specific parceling of the risk associated with holding assets:

The essential point is that the buying and selling of derivative assets is a process by which risk bearing is transferred between individuals. (ibid.: 86)

From the personal perspective of the individual steward, the position is even clearer. Futures markets provide a site in which risk can be traded away. But such an answer misses completely the source of the risk that they are seeking to manage. In using futures markets these individuals are attempting to remove the uncertainties that have tainted their previously “real” assets.

However, in the absence of an anterior relation of things to signs, an absence we saw as emerging with money following the removal of the obligation to provide a fixed amount of specie in exchange for paper, the signs of money and its extrapolations cannot seek their value in the past. Rather, the only place in which the signs of money can retain meaning is the future.

Conclusion

These criticisms—and the rather poor jokes they give rise to—are surrounded and trapped by the system they misapprehend, their unenviable condition being a direct result of that misapprehension. The bodies behind the criticisms are wedded to a world in which money’s reality is affirmed. But as we have already noted, there was never anything “real” about money. Even specie itself represents an institutionalization of value that is in no way “intrinsick” to the bearer of that value, despite Hewitt’s (1740) claims to the contrary. Such nihilism is just the understanding embodied by our big swinging dicks in their relations to the market of signs. They “know” that money comes from “nothing” and thus so do its derivatives. They also know that despite there being “nothing” at the root of money, money may well be “real” in its effects. And its effects, the future “values” that it comes to hold, are those brought about the whipping and herding of signs whose versatility, whose potential for whipping and herding, is provided precisely by their recognition as mere signs.

And while we may envy the benefits that such a thoroughly postmodern relation to signs and things provides, we must also recognize that these benefits are not without costs. Costs, to be sure, that mean nothing to such subjects, but costs that we, as more grounded pedestrians, can certainly see. Depersonalized things, the signs of the system, are moved by an agent. But that agent, in the absence of things that personalize, can only produce agency through an evacuation of self and a subsequent consumption of signs alone. This agency is perhaps best captured by Easton Ellis (1991: 282) in his grotesquely banal rendering of the American Psycho:

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

Operating, indeed existentializing, within such an environment may certainly provide one with access to the sorts of material resources that enable one to be whatever one wants and lives of endless variety can undoubtedly be lived in these circumstances. However, the artefacts that one may assemble to flesh out the less ordinary lives that are promised by wealth must remain forever, recognizably, nothing but “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” Great lives, to be sure, but as Shakespeare’s account of Lear’s degeneration reminds us, lives that exhibit a frightening reversible imminence (Baudrillard, 1983) to the “nothingness” from which they derive. Such fears cannot be overcome, regardless of the “amount of evidence to the contrary” (Blaug, 1999: 40) that those longed-for others who are more materially grounded can provide, as Shakespeare’s Lear again reminds us. A flight from the real is a one-way ticket, the only being to leave the world of signs, either through disastrous disgrace (Nick Leeson) or voluntarily—with the latter option only available to those who somehow managed to stand outside of their simulational environment throughout their engagement. As our main source informs us:

When you sit, as I did, at the centre of what has been possibly the most absurd money game ever, and benefit out of all proportion to your value to society (as much as I’d like to think I got only what I deserved, I don’t); when hundreds of equally undeserving people around you are all raking it in faster than they can count it; what happens to the money belief? Well, that depends. For some, good fortune simply reinforces the belief. They take the funny money seriously, as evidence that they are worthy citizens of the republic. It becomes their guiding assumption—for it couldn’t possibly be clearly thought out—that a talent for making money come out of a telephone is a reflection of merit on a grander scale. It is tempting to believe that people who think this way eventually suffer their comeuppance. They don’t. They just get richer. I’m sure most of them die fat and happy.

For me, however, the belief in the meaning of making dollars crumbled: the proposition that the more money you earn, the better the life you are leading was refuted by too much hard evidence to the contrary. And without that belief, I lost the need to make huge sums of money. (Lewis, 1989)