Today was another reminder that India still does not have a national stock market. The Indian stock markets are closed because Mumbai goes to the poll today. The country as a whole goes to the polls on ten different days spread over more than a month. Either the stock market should be closed on ten days or on none.

It is high time that the regulators required that the exchanges should operate out of their disaster recovery location when Mumbai has a holiday and most of the country is working. That would also be a wonderful way of testing whether all those business continuity plans work as nicely on the ground as they do on paper. But something tells me that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon

Two decades ago, we abolished the physical trading floor in Mumbai. But the trading floor in Mumbai lives on in the minds of key decision makers, and it will take long to liberate ourselves from the oppression of this imaginary trading floor.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has an interesting judgement (h/t June Rhee) upholding the human rights of those guilty of insider trading (The judgement itself is available only in French but the Press Release is available in English).

Though the fines and penalties imposed by the Italian Companies and Stock Exchange Commission (Consob) were formally defined as administrative in nature under Italian law, the ECHR ruled that “the severity of the fines imposed on the applicants meant that they were criminal in nature.”. As such, the ECHR found fault with the procedures followed by Consob. For example, the accused had not had an opportunity to question any individuals who could have been interviewed by Consob. Moreover, the functions of investigation and judgement were within the same institution reporting to the same president. The only thing that helped Consob was that the accused could and did challenge the Consob ruling in the Italian courts.

The ECHR ruling that the Consob fines were a criminal penalty brought into play the important principle that a person cannot be tried for the same offence twice. Under Italian law (based on the EC Market Abuse Directive), a criminal prosecution had taken place in addition to the Consob fines. ECHR ruled that this violated the human rights of the accused.

It is important to recognize that the ECHR is not objecting to the substance of the insider trading statutes and the need to penalize the alleged offences. The Court clearly states that the regulations are “intended to guarantee the integrity of the financial markets and to maintain public confidence in the security of transactions, which undeniably amounted to an aim that was in the public interest. … Accordingly, the fines imposed on the applicants, while severe, did not appear disproportionate in view of the conduct with which they had been charged.” Rather, the Court’s concerns are about due process of law and the protection of the rights to fair trial.

I think the principles of human rights are broadly similar across the free world – US, Europe and India. The judgement therefore raises important issues that go far beyond Italy.

Heartbleed is perhaps the most catastrophic computer security disaster ever (For those not technically inclined, this xkcd comic is perhaps the most readable explanation of the bug). Bruce Schneier says that “On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11.” Since the bug has been around for a few years and the exploit leaves no trace on the server, the assumption has to be that passwords and private keys have been stolen from every server that was ever vulnerable. If you have the private key, you can read everything that is being sent to or received from the server until the private key (SSL Certificate) is changed even if the vulnerability itself has been fixed.

Many popular email, social media and other popular sites are affected and we need to change our passwords everywhere. Over the next few weeks, I intend to change every single password that I am using on the web – more than a hundred of them.

Thankfully, only a few banking sites globally seem to be affected. When I check now, none of the Indian banking sites that I use regularly are being reported as vulnerable. However, the banks have not said anything officially and I am not sure whether they were never vulnerable or whether they fixed the vulnerability over the last few days after the bug was revealed. Even the RBI has been silent on this; if all Indian banks were safe, they should publicly say so, and if some were affected and have been fixed, they should say so too. Incidentally, many Indian banking sites do not seem to implement Perfect Forward Security and that is not good at all.

More importantly, I think it is only a matter of time before large financial institutions around the world suffer a catastrophic security breach. Even if the mathematics of cryptography is robust (P ≠ NP), all the mathematics is implemented in code that often goes through only flimsy code reviews. I think it is necessary to have offline repositories of critical financial data so that one disastrous hack does not destroy the entire financial system. For example, I think every large depository, bank, mutual fund and insurance company should create a monthly backup of the entire database in a secure air-gapped location. Just connect a huge storage rack to the server (or perhaps the disaster recovery backup server), dump everything (encrypted) on the rack, disconnect and remove the rack, and store the air-gapped rack in a secure facility. A few thousands of dollars or even a few tens of thousands of dollars a month is a price that each of these institutions should be willing to pay for partial protection against the tail risk of an irrecoverable security breach.

While much has been written about the 2013 Economics Nobel Prizes, almost everybody has focused on the disagreements between Fama and Shiller, with Hansen mentioned (if at all) as an afterthought (Asness and Lieuw is a good example). By contrast, John Campbell has a paper (h/t Justin Fox) on the 2013 Nobels for the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, in which Hansen appears as the chief protagonist, while Fama and Shiller play supporting roles. The very title of the paper (“Empirical Asset Pricing”) indicates the difference in emphasis – market efficiency and irrational exuberance play second fiddle to Hansen’s GMM methodology.

To finance people like me, this comes as a shock; Fama and Shiller are people in “our field” while Hansen is an “outsider” (a mere economist, not even a financial economist). Yet on deeper reflection, it is hard to disagree with Campbell’s unstated but barely concealed assessment: while Fama and Shiller are story tellers par excellence, Hansen stands on a different pedestal when it comes to rigour and mathematical elegance.

And even if you have no interest in personalities, I would still strongly recommend Campbell’s paper – it is by far, the best 30 page introduction to Empirical Asset Pricing that I have seen.

When I first read about the fascinating ‘Star Wars’ deal between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, my reaction was that this was a simple diversification story. But then I realized that it is more complex than that; the obstacles in the form of skewness preference, adverse selection and moral hazard are strong enough to make deals like this probably quite rare.

The story itself is very simple and Business Insider tells it well. Back in 1977, George Lucas was making his ‘Star Wars’ film, and Steven Spielberg was making ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Lucas was worried that his ‘Star Wars’ film might bomb and thought that ‘Close Encounters’ would be great hit. So he made an offer to his friend Spielberg:

All right, I’ll tell you what. I’ll trade some points with you. You want to trade some points? I’ll give you 2.5% of ‘Star Wars’ if you give me 2.5% of ‘Close Encounters’.

Spielberg’s response was:

Sure, I’ll gamble with that. Great.

Both films ended up as great classics, but ‘Star Wars’ was by far the greater commercial success and Lucas ended up paying millions of dollars to Spielberg.

At the time when neither knew whether either of the films would succeed, the exchange was a simple diversification trade that made both better off. So why are such trades not routine? One reason could be that many films are made by large companies that are already well diversified.

A more important factor is information asymmetry: normally, each director would know very little of the other’s film and then trades become impossible. The Lucas-Spielberg trade was possible because they were friends. It is telling that the trade was made after Lucas had spent a few days watching Spielberg make his film. It takes a lot of due diligence to overcome the information asymmetry.

The other problem is skewness preference. Nobody buys a large number of lottery tickets to “diversify the risk”, because that diversification would also remove the skewness that makes lottery tickets worthwhile. Probably both Lucas and Spielberg thought their films had risk adjusted returns that made them attractive even without the skewness characteristic.

It is also possible that Lucas simply did an irrational trade. Lucas is described as “a nervous wreck … [who] felt he had just made this little kids’ movie”. Perhaps, Spielberg was simply at the right time at the right place to do a one-sided trade with an emotional disturbed counterparty. Maybe, we should all be looking out for friends who are sufficiently depressed to offer us a Lucas type trade.

Over the last few months, the risks of such a currency war between China and Japan have increased substantially as pressing domestic economic problems in both countries could tempt them down this path.

In Japan, Abe came to power with a promise to revive the economy through drastic means. Though Abenomics has three “arrows”, the only arrow that is at all effective now is the monetary arrow that has worked by depreciating the yen. The risk is that Japan would seek to rely more and more on this arrow and try to push the yen down to 110 or even 120 against the US dollar. It is even possible that such a strategy might finally revive the Japanese economy.

China also faces a similar temptation. House of Debt has a fantastic blog post showing that since 2008, China has been forced to rely more and more on debt to keep its economy growing because its earlier strategy of export led growth is not working any more. The second graph in their blog post drives this point home very forcefully. Unfortunately, the debt led model is increasingly unsustainable. This month, China witnessed the first onshore corporate bond default. Earlier, a default on a popular wealth management product was avoided only by a bailout.

China’s leaders must now be sorely tempted to depreciate the currency to maintain economic growth without further exacerbating the country’s internal debt problem. Many observers believe that after many years of high inflation and gradual appreciation, the Chinese Renminbi is overvalued today. That would be another reason to attempt a weakening of the currency.

The high degree of intra-Asian economic integration means that a depreciation by either Asian giant would drive down many other Asian currencies (for example, the Korean Won) and make it difficult for the other Asian giant to refrain from depreciating its currency. A vicious cycle of competitive devaluations could rapidly become a currency war. And the already strained political relations between the two countries would clearly not help.

The yen and the yuan are in some ways like the yin and yang of Asian currency markets. A “beggar thy neighbour” currency war between Japan and China would of course have a dramatic impact on the whole of Asia.

Richard Gendal Brown has a very valuable blog post about bank payment systems that ends with a brief discussion about Bitcoin. His conclusion is very interesting:

My take is that the Bitcoin network most closely resembles a Real-­Time Gross Settlement system. There is no netting, there are (clearly) no correspondent banking relationships and we have settlement, gross, with finality.

I agree with this characterization, but would only add that Bitcoin is an RTGS (Real­Time Gross Settlement) without a central bank. To computer scientists, the core of Bitcoin is an elegant solution to the Byzantine Generals problem. To finance people, perhaps, the core of Bitcoin is an RTGS that (a) is open to all (and not just the privileged banks) and (b) functions without a central bank.

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