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The way we shouldn't have been

Published in Automated Trader Magazine Issue 10 Q3 2008

Editor’s note: Peek Ahead is our venue for blue-sky thinking, challenging conventional wisdom and out-and-out disagreeing over key industry issues.
If you would like to comment, or disagree, or send in some of your own blue-sky thinking, write to editor@automatedtrader.net. Where appropriate, contributions will be published on this page and/or on the website.

the way we shoudnt have been

When you start a car, you check the rear-view mirror before you floor the accelerator*. So while Peek Ahead's turbo-charged engines are warming up, we're going to spend a couple of paragraphs looking back at the road behind us.

There, sitting on the kerb, looking dazed, are the various remuneration experts who first incentivised lending. It was a good idea once. Grab market share by incentivising indiscriminate lending. And there, in that huddle of people next to the overturned limousine, are the risk manager, the structured products whizzkid and the compliance person who first got together to package up and sell on sub-prime risk.

But who's that guy lying flat on his back on the tarmac with the tyre tracks running straight across his expensive shirt?** Could it be … yes, it is, it's the CEO! The man himself. The head honcho. Star of a thousand Wall Street profiles, this is the brains behind the failure to notice that his bank had gone from taking in money, working it prudently to secure a steady return, to handing out money on nil security to anybody capable of making a pencil mark in the margin next to a paragraph on risk factors.

Okay, light touch on the accelerator. We used to have this weird old guy sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the corner of the editorial office. We'd light the incense sticks, and he'd come up with ideas like: "Why don't you guys set up a massive global operation with dozens of local and regional HQs, lots of dotted lines on the organisational Powerpoints, hundreds of desks and legacy systems, and a lattice-work of lines of communication? You could pay youngsters with MBAs to invest your customers' money, and you could hire sane scientists to devise ever-more complex ways of placing a bet. Then you can all have much longer job titles with commas in them."

One of our man's big ideas was that you should embrace and manage complexity, rather than look for any core simplicity. So, in keeping with the ethos*** of the magazine, we replaced him with a machine. And now we just press a button and get back, depending on the time of day, either: a double espresso; a press release generated by the machine itself about its low-latency response to button-pushers; a ticket showing that it's spent the morning unloading another of our holdings in a big, over-complex multi-national; or a fortune cookie saying either "Risk management is not risk reduction" or, "If you're spending time on controlling, inhibiting or stopping people who are doing what you're paying them to do, you've got a bigger problem with your organisation."

We like the coffee. As we get on with the simple task of running www.automatedtrader.net and putting out the newsletters and this magazine, we do sometimes discuss ways of getting the machine to run the news pages. But mostly, we just sit around congratulating ourselves on being a small, tightly run operation where everybody knows everybody else and the money is safe under the carpet. The old guy's gone - boy, was his cushion heavy when he dragged it out for the last time - but the machine hums along nicely and there are no arrows on the organisational chart nor strangers spending our editorial budget on inappropriate features about banking and car crashes.