Posts Tagged ‘financial engineering’

Goldman and Greece

February 23, 2010

… and I ain’t talkin’ about the musical.

There was an interesting article by the BBC’s Robert Peston on what financial services Goldman offered the Greek government. The services themselves are pretty dubious, giving the Greek government little real benefit aside from reducing its on-book debt. Even Goldman do not seem to pretend that it was anything other than, ahem, financial engineering.

Peston’s question was: is it ethical.

The answer is: probably not. But ethics are troublesome, and I don’t mean troublesome in that “oh dear that stops us making lots of money” way, but in that “oh dear ethics is inherently based upon a point of view and therefore is difficult to capture in an abstract sense which can be applied equally to all parties and all cases” way. Typically, clients’ transactions are judged in terms of “but would their or our government think this a bit dodgy” kind of way (a test the Greek trades would have failed). But when there is no government it becomes a bit of a tougher test to apply.

“Efficiency” is a key selling point of any financial product; typically that means the product is easier to manage, has lower risk, has lower transaction costs and, sometimes, less tax. In a Daily Mail sort of way this must  seem unethical – but this is no different to a retail bank saying “you can have an ISA (which is tax free) or a savings account (which isn’t)”. Is it wrong for that bank to help its customers minimise their tax bill?

Goldman, presumably, felt the emphasis was on the Greek government. Interestingly, their ethics don’t seem to be under debate.

Longevity forever

February 23, 2010

» Long live longevity

Back in the heady days of 2006, some experts were predicting that London would become the centre of a huge new global market in trading the “longevity risk” faced by pension funds. It could eventually outstrip the huge credit derivatives market, they said.

Investment banks got very excited about it. But nothing much happened. In recent months, however, there have been a number of big longevity insurance deals that could change things.

Yesterday, BMW’s UK arm revealed it had bought insurance from Deutsche Bank’s Abbey Life that will protect it against the risk that the 60,000 members of its pension scheme live longer than expected.

Hmmmmm, I foresee a financial product called a longevity swap.

This is how financial engineering starts: a specific requirement which gets resold and resold and resold. What is more depressing is that most people will think of these securities as “complex financial engineering”, an almost wilful misunderstanding of them. Yet just today I was watching a very nice advertisement hosted by that very nice Michael Parkinson about some very nice life assurance product (I was ill, if anyone was wondering what I was doing) where people paid a very nice regular amount per month and, after two years of paying, were assured a very nice life assurance payment on their death.

Insurance is all about risk, and so are the financial markets – measuring it, controlling it, charging for it. And generally, for a purpose (admittedly a purpose which can later by absorbed by the larger world of speculation). Financial products such as derivatives and swaps did not come into life for no apparent reason. It’s a point I always feel is underplayed: these fancy financial products are useful to someone.