The Gulf Oil Spill, Financial Engineering and The Law of Unintended Consequences

Burning Oil in the Gulf

The financial crisis that was precipitated in 2007 by structured finance (credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations et al.) parallels the Deepwater Horizon spill in important ways. And indeed, the very first credit default swap was engineered to offset Exxon’s exposure to remediation, fines and legal costs resulting from the Valdez spill.

Experts and regulators from both industries acknowledge the lack of proven methodologies both for assessing the risks of derivatives and the risks of deepwater and ultra-deep water drilling platforms.

Both are examples of advanced engineering methods applied in advance of thorough testing and risk assessment.  The practitioners, policymakers, and stakeholders involved with deploying these systems either ignored or failed to understand the risk and potential economic impacts of these technologies on the world in which we live. As a consequence, their customers, constituents and the natural world have suffered greatly.

Both disasters are examples of the lax enforcement of existing regulations and the failure or unwillingness of regulators to keep up with the astonishing systemic complexity that emerges from 21st century technology, whether software or hardware. For example, Warren Buffet famously called CDO and CDS’s, or derivatives, “financial weapons of mass destruction” and sought recently to protect Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings of certain tranches of derivatives, from new regulations on how to value them, since they are indeed so hard to value. As we can see, like deep-water drilling, the practitioners  and owners of these sophisticated technical financial instruments find them incomprehensible as well.

Interestingly, the SEC’s indictment of Goldman Sachs over its derivatives strategy and the havoc it caused dominated headlines in the weeks preceding the tragedy at Deepwater Horizon.

Economy Cube - Can This Puzzle Be Solved?

Until the government enacts legislation without multiple loopholes, euphemistically referred to as compromises, the public will continue to suffer and subsidize the failures of  untested and unproven technologies when they fail. One hears frequently about how top tier investment banks and petrochemical conglomerates attract the best and brightest. At Fund Balance, we want to see this amazing pool of human capital utilized to developing a sustainable economic future.