Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

Enterprise without entities

In recent months, a significant amount of money has been raised using smart contracts and initial coin offerings. In May 2016, The DAO raised about $150 million with an “objective to provide a new decentralized business model for organizing both commercial and non-profit enterprises”. It did not have a formal organizational structure or legal entity and consisted only of open source computer code. A bug in this code allowed a hacker to siphon off about $50 million of this money, but this was reversed by a hard fork of the Ethereum blockchain (see here for the details). A few days ago, Bancor raised even more money than the DAO amidst criticism that its business model is seriously flawed.

These smart contracts create business enterprises without creating any legal entity. You cannot sue a piece of code, nor send it to jail, but when this piece of code creates a self enforcing contract, it becomes an enterprise. This seems to create a challenge for the legal system.

It was in this context that I read “Enterprise without Entities” by Andrew Verstein (Michigan Law Review, 2017).

This Article challenges conventional wisdom by showing that vast enterprises – with millions of customers paying trillions of dollars – often operate without any meaningful use of an entity.

This Article introduces the reciprocal exchange, a type of insurance company that operates without any meaningful use of a legal entity. Instead of obtaining their insurance from a common nexus of contract, customers directly insure one another through a web of countless bilateral agreements. While often overlooked or conflated with mutual insurance companies, reciprocal exchanges include some of America’s largest and best known insurance enterprises.

This Article explores how it is possible to run an international conglomerate with essentially no recourse to organizational law as it is normally conceived.

The whole paper is worth reading for the wealth of detail and careful legal analysis. It tells us that enterprise without entities is not some radical new innovation made possible by smart contracts, but is something that has been successfully practised since the early twentieth century.

More importantly, it also tells us that the challenge in making smart contracts work is not going to be legal. The real challenge is the more mundane and much harder task of writing software without nasty bugs.

How to bury zombie companies quickly

Earlier this week I posted about the bankruptcy literature of the 1990s that sought to rely less on judges, administrators and experts and more on contracts and markets. As promised in that post, I now explore the implications of that framework for the widespread corporate distress in India today.

While much of the discussion on the Indian situation emphasizes the problem of bad loans in the banking system, the government’s Economic Survey rightly described it as a twin balance sheet problem encompassing problems in the balance sheets of the banking system and of the corporate sector. Of the two, I would argue that the problem in the banking system is the less serious one for many reasons.

  1. The overt problem is largely confined to the public sector banks and from past experience we know that these banks can run smoothly (without any run on the banks) regardless of how little capital they have. Indian Bank in the mid 1990s is a classic example of the depositors retaining their faith in the bank even after reporting a large loss that resulted in a negative net worth. These days, there is the issue of Basel norms, but strictly speaking, they apply only to internationally active banks. If the overseas operations of the unhealthy public sector banks are shut down or transferred to healthier ones, there is no technical bar on letting them operate with low levels of capital adequacy. By placing restrictions on their fresh lending, any moral hazard problems can be alleviated.

  2. Many observers believe that bad loans are not confined to the public sector banks, and that at least some private sector banks have a large but covert problem. But this issue can probably be addressed by imposing a large preemptive recapitalization on them.

  3. India needs to move away from a bank dominated financial system, and some degree of downsizing of the banking system is acceptable if it is accompanied by an offsetting growth of the bond markets and non bank finance.

In my view, the problem of zombie companies is far more serious than the problem of zombie banks. There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that these zombie companies are a major drag on the economy. For those who are not swayed by anecdotal evidence, an IMF working paper published this month demonstrates that the decline in private investment in India is linked to over-leveraged companies being unable to start new projects or complete ongoing projects. For India to achieve high growth, it is necessary to sort out these zombie companies.

Bankruptcy is the most effective way of putting an end to the zombie companies, and recycling their assets for more efficient use. Bankruptcy breaks the vicious cycle through which past debt acts as a brake on future growth. As Heidt put it: “Bankruptcy separates the past from the future … it takes the debtor’s past assets to pay its past creditors.”

Traditional bankruptcy processes may not provide an adequate solution to this problem because the number of companies involved is quite high and because India does not yet have enough trained bankruptcy professionals and judges to do bankruptcy on a massive scale. This is where I am fascinated by the idea in the bankruptcy literature of the 1990s of using markets instead of courts. This is much more scaleable in the Indian context because some Indian financial markets are reasonably deep, and the supply of funds in these markets is quite elastic because they are open to foreign investors.

My preferred solution is basically the same as the AHM procedure that I mentioned in my last blog post. In this approach, the government forces the banks to converts all their loans into equity, and also forces the banks to sell the resulting equity in the stock market within a tight time frame. The new shareholders decide whether to sell the assets or to run the business. In any case, with the debt completely removed, the company is no longer a zombie company, and even a partial or total liquidation would be a voluntary liquidation by the shareholders that does not require significant court intervention. The difficulties with this method are easy to surmount:

  1. It assumes a well functioning equity market, but I think this is more reasonable assumption to make than that banks can suddenly figure out how to restructure all this debt, or that rating agencies can be trusted to provide useful guidance on this (Partnoy’s scathing piece last month should remove all doubts on the matter) or that an omniscient central bank can tell the banks how to restructure all the debt.

  2. One “discretionary” question still appears to remain: how much of the old equity should be wiped before the conversion of the loans. In the original AMH procedure, this problem is solved using Bebchuk options: old shareholders are given the option to buy out the creditors pro rata. In most of the zombie companies, the Bebchuk options are unlikely to be exercised, and the old shareholders would be completely wiped out. Allowing the old shareholders to retain 5-10% of the expanded equity might be another possibility to make it politically more palatable.

  3. The banks would take large losses in this process that could leave them poorly capitalized. I have already discussed this above. For public sector banks, the capital does not really matter, and for the private sector banks, the problem can be solved by imposing a preemptive recapitalization. The important thing is to downsize the banking system so that we do not get into this mess again.

Bankruptcy ideas from the 1990s

During the last few weeks, I had the opportunity to read (and in some cases re-read) the large stream of literature about bankruptcy that emerged in the United States in the early 1990s. (That is one of the benefits of taking a serious vacation). There are a lot of original ideas in this literature because a serious application of the law and economics paradigm to this field probably began around this time. As Aghion, Hart and Moore wrote, prior to the 1990s, “economic analysis – which has been applied with such great success to other aspects of law in the last thirty years – has, with a few notable exceptions, not been used to shed light on optimal bankruptcy procedure”. The radical thinking in the 1990s literature can probably be attributed to the backlash against corporate abuses during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The savings and loan crisis of the 1980s in the United States somehow managed to provoke a greater outrage against financial fraud than the much bigger global financial crisis of the last decade.

Probably the best compilation of the 1990s bankruptcy literature is the proceedings of the Interdisciplinary Conference on Bankruptcy and Insolvency Theory of 1994 published in the Washington University Law Review. This features provocative articles like Adler’s “A World Without Debt” and Heidt’s article that begins with the line “The Bankruptcy Code is fifteen years old and fourteen years out of date”. Above all, there is the famous paper by Aghion-Hart-Moore describing one of the most radical bankruptcy procedures ever proposed – the AHM procedure.

In keeping with the law and economics paradigm, most proposals of that era are based on a greater reliance on contracts and markets rather than on judges, administrators and experts. The complication is that the problem of bankruptcy arises only under imperfect capital markets and there are obvious difficulties in relying too strongly on imperfect capital markets. Yet this 1990s idea underlies a number of the post crisis innovations in reorganization of distressed financial enterprises – contingent equity, contingent convertible bonds (CoCos), and hair cutting of claims against clearing corporations.

My motivation for studying this literature stems from the problem of corporate distress in India today. It is hard to see how India’s zombie companies can be efficiently and speedily resolved without relying much more on markets than on so called experts. That is the subject of a future blog post.

Are markets efficient if you are a particle physicist?

Among the thousands of pages that I read during my two month long vacation were two papers that show that many of the large number of published asset pricing anomalies (Cochrane’s “zoo”) have withered away over time. The papers are
Hou, Xue and Zhang (2017), Replicating Anomalies, NBER Working Paper 23394 and
Mclean and Pontiff (2016) Does Academic Research Destroy Stock Return Predictability?, Journal of Finance.

Hou, Xue and Zhang show that out of the 447 anomalies that they study as many as 286 (64%) are insignificant at the conventional 5% level. Increasing the cutoff t-value to 3.0 raises the
number of insignificance to 380 (85%). Clearly, there are a lot of Type M errors in the anomalies literature and a few Type S errors as well.

I started wondering what would happen if we imposed an even higher standard of statistical significance. This is where particle physics comes in. While the social sciences are quite happy with significance levels of 5% and 1% (implying cutoffs of around 2 or 3 standard deviations), the significance level required for the discovery of a new particle in physics is 0.0001% or one in a million (implying a cutoff of around 5 standard deviations). For example, when the Higgs particle was discovered in July 2012, the official press release from CERN stated: “Today, both the ATLAS and CMS experiments are beyond the level of around one per million that’s required to claim a discovery.” For more discussion on the 5 sigma standard, see here, here and here.

Asset prices exhibit significantly fatter tails than the Gaussian distribution and that would require raising the cutoff even higher. The statistical quality control world uses a shift of 1.5 standard deviations so that 6 standard deviations (six sigma) are required to achieve quality standards that would otherwise require only 4.5 standard deviations.

I pored over Table 4 of Hou, Xue and Zhang that lists the t-values for all the anomalies that are significant at the 5% level. Not one of these is above 6.0 and only two (Abr1 and dRoe1) are above 5.0. Adjusted for fat tails, there is no anomaly that meets a one in a million standard of significance. By this standard, therefore, markets can be assumed to be efficient. More prosaically, finance is still at the Tycho_Brahe stage of assembling enough high quality data to discriminate between competing theories.

Why do economists ignore risk?

Cochrane writes on his Grumpy Economist blog:

Here’s how covered interest parity works. Think of two ways to invest money, risklessly, for a year. Option 1: buy a one-year CD (conceptually. If you are a bank, or large corporation you do this by a repurchase agreement). Option 2: Buy euros, buy a one-year European CD, and enter a forward contract by which you get dollars back for your euros one year from now, at a predetermined rate. Both are entirely risk free.

It is only an economist who today thinks of this trade as risk free. Before the global financial crisis many finance people would have thought so too, but not today. After the crisis, any serious finance professional would immediately think of the multiple risks in these trades:

  1. The US bank could default

  2. The European bank could default

  3. The forward contract counterparty could default

  4. There is euro redenomination risk. In that terrifying state of the world, depending on the nationality of the bank and the forward contract counterparty, one or both of these could be redenominated into some other currency – new francs, marks, liras or drachmas . Theoretically, you could end up being long new French francs (on the euro CD) and short new German marks (on the forward contract).

During the last decade, finance has moved on from simplistic notions of risk. I like to believe that in many top banks today, those who espouse Cochrane’s view of risk would be at risk of losing their job. Or at least they would be asked to enrol in a course on two curve (or multi curve) discounting. In today’s finance, there is return free risk, but no risk free return. Covered interest parity is today only an approximation that you may use for a back of the envelope calculation, but not for actually quoting a price. I wrote about this in a wonky blog post last year, and I have discussed two curve discounting in another wonky post half a dozen years ago.

The wonderful thing about finance is that it provides an opportunity to get rid of bad ideas by marking them to market. The problem comes when we distrust the market and start thinking of model errors as market inefficiencies. Cochrane writes about the violations of covered interest parity:

… this makes no sense at all. Banks are leaving pure arbitrage opportunities on the table, for years at a time. … But this is arbitrage! It’s an infinite Sharpe ratio!

Rather than accept that the covered interest parity model is wrong in a two curve world, Cochrane thinks that post crisis regulations are preventing the banks from doing this “arbitrage” and bringing the markets back to the old world. It is true that a Too Big to Fail (TBTF) can still do covered interest “arbitrage”. But what that tells us is that a TBTF bank can pocket the gains from the covered interest trade and palm off the risks to the tax payer. A TBTF bank can do the trade, because it is closer to being risk neutral (anybody can be risk neutral with other people’s money). Yes, the covered interest trade has a positive Sharpe ratio but not an infinite one, and perhaps not even a very large one. We need less TBTF banks doing low Sharpe ratio trades, keeping the gains and shoving the losses to the taxpayers.

And both economists and policy makers need to take risk more seriously than they do today.

Indian financial history

My blog post a couple of months ago on financial history books led to a lively discussion in the comments on a similar list for Indian financial history. There was so much useful material in these comments that I thought it useful to hoist it from the comments to a blog post in its own right. As you can see, very little of this post is my contribution. Most of the material is from my colleague at IIM Ahmedabad, Prof. Chinmay Tumbe who is deeply interested in business, economic and demographic history. All that I have done is to add hyperlinks wherever possible, and must in fact confess that I have not yet read most of the material listed here.

Amol Agrawal January 27, 2017 at 5:44 pm

I was also wondering whether you could recommend some books on India’s financial history as well. I guess you might say there are hardly any. But I guess history of RBI (Volume I), History of SBI, Indigenous Banking by LC Jain etc could be a part of the list. But these are just on banking, We have very little ideas on equity markets, insurance, funds etc. Could you please help me with a few titles?

Jayanth Varma January 27, 2017 at 9:07 pm

There are some excellent books on Indian economic history. The Cambridge Economic History of India is absolutely invaluable. There are some books and other material on the history of the East India Company and the Dutch VOC which are also relevant. Adam Smith’s [discussion](http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN20.html#B.V, Ch.1, Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth) of the English East India Company in the Wealth of Nations is also worth reading. Angus Maddison’s Asia in the World Economy 1500–2030 AD is also useful.

But there is too little of financial history in all this. I would like to know more about the financial transactions of Jagat Seth for example though there is some material here.

Indian monetary history in the nineteenth century is absolutely fascinating: I think at one time or the other, India had every kind of exchange rate regime known at the time. Oscar Wilde famously advised a student to omit this chapter because it is too sensational. If you have access to JSTOR, I recommend: Laughlin, J. Laurence. “Indian Monetary History.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 1, no. 4, 1893, pp. 593–596.

Way back in 2010, SEBI set up an Advisory Panel on History of Indian Securities Market of which I was a member and some material was collected and made available on the SEBI web site. I do not think that much progress has taken place after that.

Amol Agrawal January 28, 2017 at 8:58 am

I fully agree we have nothing much in financial history which is a puzzle. I have read the Lodewijk Petram work on World’s oldest Stock exchange. We need similar accounts for BSE and other Regional SEs which were important earlier. I have seen SEBI’s links but most are unreadable. Like RBI and SBI have commissioned their history, we need SEBI/IRDA etc to do the same for other markets. From these, students like me can pick up and build.

Likewise Sylla and Homer’s History of Interest Rates could be developed into History of interest rates in India using several RBI publications. There is some data which has to be all put together.

Having said this, I think following books do give some perspective on history of finance in India:
1) Industrial Organisation (1934) by PS Lokanathan
2) Organisation and Finance of Industries in India (1937) by D R Samant and M A Mulky
3) Financial Chapter in History of Bombay (1910) by DE Wacha

There are some others which are mainly on banking. I can add them but I think if one reads History of RBI and History of SBI (by Prof AK Bagchi), banking is pretty much covered.

We clearly need to expand this list and have more works on India’s financial history. I will try and add as and when I find more readings.

Jayanth Varma February 13, 2017 at 9:28 pm

Another useful book is
Raymond W. Goldsmith The financial development of India, Japan, and the United States : a trilateral institutional, statistical and analytic comparison, Yale University Press 1983.

Prof. Chinmay Tumbe March 1, 2017 5:10 pm

Adding a few that have not been covered above:

  1. Goldsmith has one book just on India called Financial Development of India, 1860-1977, which is a truly monumental work.

  2. A 2017 book by a friend of mine attempts to synthesise monetary history in India

  3. I have a paper in the Indian Economic and Social History Review on the history of the Post Office as a financial institution; not too many associate that with finance though it is the largest financial institution of India in terms of network and personal deposits.

  4. Tirthankar Roy has a recent paper on seasonality of interest rates in the money market of colonial India.

  5. Dwijendra Tripathi of IIMA wrote the biography of Bank of Baroda in the 1980s and updated that in the late 2000s.

  6. Amiya Bagchi’s edited volume on Money and Credit in Indian History in 2002 has wide ranging contributions to it

  7. P R Brahmananda’s Money, Income, Prices in 19th century India: A Historical, Quantitative and Theoretical Study.

  8. On the 1860-65 Bombay episode, see Wacha’s Financial Chapter; or any
    biography of Premchand Roychand as in Lakshmi Subramanian’s Three Merchants
    of Bombay

  9. Some Books:

    Of course, several other banking histories can be added to this list.

The Financial History Review does not have a single piece on India, which
goes to show the huge scope for research in this field. Amol’s thesis on
south Indian banking history will add to our knowledge.

Towards bank cartelization in India?

I have begun to wonder whether Indian banks have stopped competing aggressively with each other and have started forming an implicit cartel. Rising non performing assets have reduced the appetite for bank lending to a level even lower than the severely depressed demand for bank credit. Obviously, banks do not need to raise much deposits if they are not lending much. It is easier (at least in the short run) to try and charge higher fees from a smaller depositor base than to spend time and money acquiring and retaining customers. And that is what we are seeing. More ominously, some of the attempts to raise fees and user charges seem to a casual observer to be coordinated across banks. If that is the case, then of course these are serious issues for the Competition Commission.

I think demonetization has played some role in this for multiple reasons. First, it boosted the liquidity of the banks virtually overnight and accelerated trends that had been building up slowly over several months. Second, demonetization turned banks into an extended arm of the state: bank officers became quasi government officials with substantial powers. Long after that stage passed, many banks have not gone back to being service organizations again. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this transformation from customer service to bureaucratic conduct has happened in the private sector banks to the same if not a greater extent.

In the long run, this change in the behaviour of the management and employees of the banks would be disastrous for the banking system. On the deposit side, payment banks and mutual funds might find a once in a lifetime opportunity to disrupt banking. On the advances side, non bank finance companies have gained valuable customers turned away by the banks. In the long run, the bond markets could also take business away from the banks.

The first 25 years of economic reforms saw the banking system grow to dominate the financial system previously dominated by the development financial institutions. Shortsighted management and staff could erode this dominance very quickly.

Uberization or not of finance

Two years ago, Mike Carney (Chairman of the Financial Stability Board apart from being Governor of the Bank of England) warned financial regulators that they should:

not be in this position where we’re filling in with prudential regulation after the fact. In other words, facing an Uber-type situation in financial services, which many jurisdictions are struggling with.

(This discussion can be found around 59 minutes into the video from the World Economic Forum Annual Summit at Davos in 2015).

The Uberization of finance does appear to be a probable outcome, and many fintech startups are predicated on this possibility. But then I read the paper by Pollman and Barry on Regulatory Entrepreneurship which they define as:

pursuing a line of business in which changing the law is a significant part of the business plan

Uber and Airbnb are among the prominent examples of regulatory entrepreneurship that they discuss in their paper. Pollman and Barry enumerate several business-related factors, law-related factors and startup-related factors that facilitate regulatory entrepreneurship. Among these are two that appear to pour cold water on the Uberization of finance:

One important factor is the penalty that the law imposes on violators. For example, if the only penalty is a civil fine imposed on the corporation, pushing the boundaries of the law may be an attractive prospect. … On the other hand, if a law provides for the incarceration of the executives of a company that violates it, that may deter the guerrilla growth strategies that some modern regulatory entrepreneurs employ.

Relatedly, another key element is whether the law in question is determined at the local, state, or national level. Change at the state and local level is often possible more quickly than at the national level.

The authors refer to the shutting down of Napster to highlight the difficulties of regulatory entrepreneurship in the face of national level laws that carry significant criminal penalties. This lesson is clearly quite relevant to much of finance.

Another aspect that Pollman and Barry do not mention is that much of regulatory entrepreneurship has succeeded against incumbents who are not very technology savvy. The finance industry on the other hand is technologically quite sophisticated, and is quite capable of adopting and co-opting any successful innovations that the regulatory entrepreneurs may come up with. Examples of such behaviour include:

  • Large investments that the big banks have made in blockchain technology in response to Bitcoin which was a highly anarchist innovation to begin with.

  • Integration of peer lending institutions into mainstream finance – extensive use of securitization, reintermediation by hedge funds and other financiers, collaboration with large banks and so on.

A counterpoint to this is that historically some of the truly radical innovations in finance have come from criminal enterprises. Three centuries ago, central banking was created largely by criminals. Johan Palmstruch, the founder of the world’s oldest central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank of Sweden, was sentenced to death before a royal pardon reduced the death sentence to imprisonment. Another great pioneer of central banking was John Law, who escaped from the English prison where he was held on charges of murder, and went on to preside over the French experiment with central banking in the early eighteenth century. John Law was probably the greatest central banker of his generation, but he spent most of his life roaming across Europe as a fugitive from the law. The founder of the Bank of England, William Paterson was an exception in this regard (he was certainly of high integrity), but he was a reckless adventurer who would probably not be acceptable to any modern central bank. A lot of modern finance is actually re-purposed criminality – negotiable instruments (bills of exchange) were originally created to evade usury laws, fractional reserve banking is alleged to have evolved out of goldsmiths fraudulently lending out customer gold which was not theirs to lend (though this has been disputed), and so on. If there is money to be made in fintech, even the threat of a death penalty will not deter would-be entrepreneurs, and it is at this edge of criminality, that we must look for future radical innovations in finance.

Making India less dependent on banks

In the quarter century since economic reforms, India has created a reasonably well functioning equity market, but has failed to create a well functioning banking system. We began the reforms process with a broken banking system, and have come full circle to a broken banking system once again. And no, the mess is not confined to just the public sector banks.

I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s apocryphal remark that insanity consists in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That leads to the question: what can we do differently. I can think of several things:

  1. We can reduce dependence on debt and rely more on equity. An easy way to do that would be to abolish the tax deduction of interest and reduce the tax rate. A lower tax rate calculated on PBIT (Profit before Interest and Taxes) would raise the same revenue as a much higher tax rate applied to PBT (Profit before Taxes). This would incentivize firms to issue more equity than debt allowing the economy to benefit from the relatively better developed equity market. This would have the added benefit of reducing systemic risk in the economy. The banking system can be downsized by winding up the most inefficient banks. Incidentally, the tax reforms being formulated in the United States today do contemplate abolishing tax deduction for interest expense.

  2. We can try to forcibly create a bond market by either (a) starving the banking system of capital, or (b) imposing a differential tax on bank borrowing. If bank borrowing is rationed or taxed, companies will be forced to borrow from the bond markets. It is not often realized that one reason for the lack of a bond market is that the banking system is subsidized by repeated bailouts and Too Big to Fail (TBTF) subsidies. An unsubsidized bond market cannot compete against a subsidized banking system. The way to level the playing field and enable a vibrant bond market is to neutralize the banking subsidy through an offsetting tax or to limit the subsidy by rationing.

  3. We can leverage the equity market to improve the functioning of the bond market. More than a decade ago, I wrote:

    “Let me end with a provocative question. Having invented banks first, humanity found it necessary to invent CDOs because they are far more efficient and transparent ways of bundling and trading credit risk. Had we invented CDOs first, would we have ever found it necessary to invent banks?”

    For a short time in 2007, when the CDOs had started failing, but the bank failures had not yet begun, I did experience some degree of doubt about this statement. But now I am convinced that banks are simply badly designed CDOs. The global banking regulators seem to agree – much of the post crisis banking reforms (for example, contingent capital, total loss absorbing capital and funeral plans) are simply adapting the best design features of CDOs to banks. The question is why should we make banks more like CDOs when we can simply have real CDOs. In India, the lower tranches of the CDO could trade in our well functioning equity markets, because they offer equity like returns for equity like risks. The senior most tranche would be very much like bank deposits except that they would be backed by much more capital (supporting tranches).

  4. We could encourage the growth of non bank finance companies. Prior to the Global Financial Crisis, GE Capital was perhaps the sixth largest US financial institution by total assets. Even during the crisis, GE Capital perhaps fared better than the banks – it had only a liquidity problem and not a solvency problem. India too could try and create large non deposit taking non bank finance companies (NBFC) with large equity capital. Again NBFCs find it hard to compete against banks with their TBTF bailout subsidies. Neutralizing or rationing these subsidies is one way to let NBFCs grow larger.

I think the time has come to seriously think out of the box to make India less dependent on its non performing banks.

Predicting human behaviour is legal, predicting machines is not?

I read this Wired story about some hackers being sent to jail for “hacking” slot machines in US casinos. “Hacking” is probably the wrong word to use for this: they made money by predicting what the slot machine would do by observing it carefully, and using their knowledge of the insecure random number generator used in the software of the slot machines. It appears therefore that it is illegal to predict what a machine would do by figuring out its vulnerabilities and observing its behaviour.

The irony of the matter is that the entire business model of the casinos is built on figuring out the vulnerabilities of the human customers, predicting how they would bet under different situations and designing every minute detail of the casino to exploit these vulnerabilities. The New Yorker had a story five years ago about how a casino was redesigned completely when the customer profile changed from predominantly older male customers to more women:

So Thomas redesigned the room. He created a wall of windows to flood the slot machines with natural light. He threw out the old furniture, replacing it with a palette that he called “garden conservatory” … There are Italian marbles … Bowls of floating orchids are set on tables; stone mosaics frame the walkway; the ceiling is a quilt of gold mirrors. Thomas even bought a collection of antique lotus-flower sculptures

Casinos “monitor the earnings of the gaming machines and tables. If a space isn’t bringing in the expected revenue, then Thomas is often put to work.” The design is optimized using a massive amount of research which can justifiably be called “hacking” the human brain. If you look at the Google Scholar search results for the papers of just one top academic (Karen Finlay) in the field of casino design, you will see that she has studied every conceivable design element to determine what can cause people to bet more:

  • A comparison of ambient casino sound and music: Effects on dissociation and on perceptions of elapsed time while playing slot machines
  • Casino decor effects on gambling emotions and intentions
  • Assessing the contribution of gambling venue design elements to problem gambling behaviour
  • The Influence of Casino Architecture and Structure on Problem Gambling Behaviour
  • Measuring the Effects of Pictorial and Text Messages on Memory and Gambling Intentions Within a Casino Environment
  • The Effect of Visual Stimuli in Casinos on Emotional Responses and Problem Gambling Behavior
  • The Effect of Match and Mismatch Between Trait and State Emotion on At-Risk Gambling
  • Effects of slot machine characteristics on problem gambling behaviour

The more recent studies on human behaviour are done using a panoscope which:

features networked immersive displays where individuals are absorbed in an environment (12 feet in diameter) that surrounds them on a 360-degree basis. … Use of these panels creates a totally immersive life-like experience and facilitates the delivery of these manipulations. (Finlay-Gough, Karen, et al. “The Influence of Casino Architecture and Structure on Problem Gambling Behaviour: An Examination Using Virtual Reality Technology.” ECRM2015-Proceedings of the 14th European Conference on Research Methods 2015: ECRM 2015. Academic Conferences Limited, 2015.)

I do not see how this kind of attempt to fathom the workings of the human mind is much different from the hackers buying scrapped slot machines and figuring out how they work.

The better way to think about what is going on is to view it as a bad case of regulatory capture. The Wired story says that “Government regulators, such as the Missouri Gaming Commission, vet the integrity of each algorithm before casinos can deploy it.” The sensible thing to do is for the regulators to decertify these algorithms because the random number generators are not secure and force the casinos to use cryptographically secure random number generators. The casinos do not want to spend the money to change these slot machines and the captured regulators let them run these machines, while taxpayer money is expended chasing the hackers.

Perhaps, we should be less worried about what the hackers have done than about what the casinos are doing. Unlike the vulnerabilities in the slot machines, the vulnerabilities in the human brain cannot be fixed by a software update. Yet hacking the human brain is apparently completely legal, and it is not only the casinos which are doing this. Probably half of the finance industry is based on the same principles.