Category Archives: economics

Bling, Rings, and Blind Spots – Alan Bond and the Capacity for Human Self Deception

“They say time is the great healer. But the extent of Australian gullibility when it comes to the life and crimes of Alan Bond seemingly knows no bounds.”

Ian Verrender – ABC News business editor

If all the world is indeed a stage, then the late Alan Bond bestrode it like a personification of 1980s glitz and excess – a walking moral tale…only re-written with a post-modern ironic twist so that rather than being brought low by hubris, the hero rides off into the sunset with the money, the girl, and the applause of the good townsfolk he’s just sold the monorail to still ringing in his ears. It’s probably fair to say that Sophocles – the ancient Greek master of tragedy and comeuppance – wouldn’t approve.

Coverage of Bond’s recent death must have consumed a veritable forest of newsprint, and depending on which side of the line the writers sat (or perhaps whether they had ever invested money with him), he was held up as either a colourful larrikin who dragged plucky little Australia onto the world stage, or an inveterate shyster and self-serving hypocrite. In a way, rather than the stereotypical “somewhere in the middle”, Bond was really both – simultaneously occupying the polar extremes of description like the quantum behaviour of an obscure subatomic particle, and equally impossible to classify by the rules of normal behaviour.

The late Alan Bond - tarnished Australian treasure, visionary entrepeneur, criminal fraudster par excellence. We may not see his like again in this more worldly age. And if you do, check your wallet...and possibly count your teeth.

The late Alan Bond – tarnished Australian treasure, visionary entrepeneur, criminal fraudster par excellence. We may not see his like again in this more worldly age. And if you do, check your wallet…and possibly count your teeth.

Amongst the commentary and hyperbole filling the airwaves though, the element that most intrigued me was the widely reported ‘denial’ of a state funeral for Bond. To be fair, this was never a serious proposal instigated by political authority of any sort, so far as I could determine – but a substantial sector of the national media seemed to grab hold of the idea from somewhere and present it as if it should have been taken seriously – as if he was somehow an exemplar – a national treasure to be held up and emulated by all Australians.

To fully appreciate the Bond story, you need to think back to the heady exbuerance of the 1980s. The deregulation of the Hawke-Keating years in Australia heralded a new era in finance and banking in the formerly sleepy and somewhat conservative markets of this Great Southern Land. Foreign banks moved in like dubious relatives after a lottery win, flooding the nation with cash. Money was not so much easy as full-on sexually aggressive, with bankers knocking on the door of any two-man outfit with an ABN, begging businessmen to borrow more. And boy, was Bond happy to oblige.

In an era of little financial transparency and minimal disclosure rules, Bond and his trusted lieutenants worked the system with verve and exuberance, shaking up the Australian business world with a series of audacious mergers and takeovers…and not coincidentally paying themselves massive personal success fees every time they notched up a deal.

And therein lay the secret to Bond’s success – a fortune built around the classic swindler’s trick (or investment banking fund management strategy, depending on which side of the financial divide you fall) of creaming off massive fees from his shareholders for every deal – good or bad. They might lose their shirts or win big from his market betting, but Bond always made sure to secure his own skin, whatever the outcome.

Even that wasn’t enough for Bond though, and when the great speculative bubble inevitably burst in 1987, he was caught out shuffling, borrowing, and outright stealing millions from the companies across his empire to keep the good times rolling. Bond’s personal holding company eventually collapsed owing more than half a billion dollars, and Bond reached something of a personal nadir by declaring himself bankrupt in 1992 with debts of $600 million…although having a trusted and well-paid accountant at his disposal, this development didn’t seem to impact on his lifestyle or personal comfort to any great degree. By all accounts Bond’s personal business dealings with Switzerland involved a lot more than clocks and chocolate.

Above and beyond the usual chicanery and bastardry of high finance though, Bond was also convicted three times on serious criminal fraud charges (one of which, admittedly, was overturned on appeal) – including the capping majesty of stealing $1.2 billion from Bell Resources, really putting him in a class of his own when it comes to Australian crime. If you’ve ever tried to negotiate with someone from this wide and sunburnt land and wondered why “my word is my Bond” doesn’t cut much ice – the record of the good Alan is probably your explanation.

And that’s really where my curiosity over Australia’s continued bimodal views on Bond starts from too. Okay, in the excesses of the 80s when a whole generation of conservative middle-class culture seemed to catch up with the entrepreneurial vibe in a rush and Alan Bond was the largest and flashiest of the showmen who seemed to be standing on every street corner producing endless streams of money out of the air, the average investor could be forgiven for taking a punt on Mr Showmanship. After all, he seemed to be capturing the zeitgeist of the era – and a shed load (a boat shed, as it turned out) of money along with it.

But post the 1987 stock market crash and corruption scandals? Post the fraud convictions ($1.2 billion of other people’s money, let’s remember – that’s ‘billion’, with a B) and the sheer ludicrous front of the “sorry, I’m brain damaged and can’t remember anything” defence?

Yes, unbelievably in my book, when Bond came out of prison and re-launched himself on the world looking to wring a fortune out of the now-booming minerals sector (presumably his opening patter was along the lines “Brain damage is much better thanks – now let me tell you about these diamond mines in Africa” ) there were people willing to invest money with him again. I mean…what?

It seemed a selective amnesia surrounded Bond like a fog – people could remember he had made himself incredibly wealthy, but somehow forgotten that he did it by making ludicrously risky bets in the business world with lots of other people’s money – salting away the windfall and stiffing his investors with a shiny toad-like grin when the market turned. This has all the intellectual merit of asking the Pied Piper of Hamlin to babysit because you remember something about him being good with kids.

Basically, Alan Bond succeeded and thrived – and cemented himself a place in the Australian psyche – because we want to believe. We simply want to believe. Especially at our most vulnerable, when we need a miracle to appear, we are desperate to believe. Our own internal narrator says it should – it’s the most classic of plot lines, after all. In act two it all goes wrong for the hero – the battle seems lost, your true love’s plane is missing, your puppy has cancer. Then act three dawns – boom – the cavalry arrives, everything turns out for the best, and you ride off into the sunset.

We all get ludicrous phishing spam clogging our email in trays – and I know your first thought as you hit delete is probably “Why do they bother with this? Surely everybody must be able to see straight through this transparent drivel?”

And yet, according to a recent report from Ultrascan AGI (admittedly not a disinterested source, given they are in the business of Open Source Criminal Network disruption), losses from Nigerian 419 Advance Fee Fraud (prosaically named for section 419 of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud) totaled $12.7 billion worldwide in 2013. That’s a figure to draw a blush from even the Cheshire Cat-like visage of our Mr Bond.

What makes outwardly sensible and often well educated people part with their money to these seemingly obvious scams? Well, while I can’t exactly say I’ve been in that position myself, I have been close enough to peek through the door and see the magic kingdom on the other side. In the weeks after being told I had become a luxury my current employer couldn’t afford, while working through the accompanying grieving process of anger and frustration – wondering how the mortgage was going to get paid and where my next loaf of bread was coming from (okay, I was still planning on it being artisanal hand made bread – but a guy’s got to have standards, right?), those emails actually started to look pretty good on some levels.

I was still a couple of weeks of serious sleep deprivation, serotonin imbalance and (I’d like to think) a lobotomy away from “yippee, it came true – here’s my bank account and IBAN code” – but those mystery benefactors, previously unknown deceased relatives, and Iraqi generals burdened with over-full bank accounts they wanted help with gave me a momentary frisson of hope when they arrived – not belief as such, but a tiny spark of ‘wouldn’t that solve everything?’ that had me looking forward to them.

There are a lot of people out there at any point in time in desperate, desperate trouble. There’s presumably a subset of those people so emotionally or physically drained that they’re unhinged enough to believe, maybe just for a second, in the salvation narrative. And that’s all the spammer needs – the lucky happenstance of having that 10,000th email hit the inbox of someone ready to believe in miracles.

It’s not just criminal fraud that relies on these principles. People don’t buy lotto tickets because they support opera, or sports gear for kids, or any of the myriad of borderline welfare programmes funded by the state lottery organization.

Nor, I would venture, do most people buy them with any serious expectation they will win. We buy them for the story we sell ourselves – the moment of “mmmm…but wouldn’t it be nice” fantasy. At the risk of outing myself as an irretrievable nerd (or more worryingly, as lacking imagination) by using a Star Trek metaphor for the second post in a row – charismatic risk-taking Captain James T. Kirk would buy a ticket without a second thought (indeed, Chris Pine’s devil-may-care Kirk from the rebooted film series would probably expect to win). Spock would calculate the odds, realize that, statistically speaking, the expected return on investment was so low as to be indistinguishable from zero, and raise a quizzical half-alien eyebrow over these strange human foibles. I get that. Most of the time I pass on the lotto ticket myself and buy lunch instead…but if the jackpot is over $10 million, the fantasy is big and bold enough for me and I’ll happily put my money down.

To quote the late Terry Pratchett, our species should be labelled not as Homo sapiens – thinking man – but rather Pan narrans – the storytelling ape. Man is not, after all, the only animal to think (any owner of a cat can tell you the little deviants are continually plotting evil deeds of varying magnitude) – but we are unique in our ability to tell stories – to imagine life could be different than the way it is.

This truth – this brilliant point of difference at the root of our success as a species – also lies at the heart of every fraud ever committed. The secret of the successful grifter, after all, is not to fool a mark – but rather to give them the opportunity to fool themselves.

That back door vulnerability in the mental fortress of the human psyche has been exploited throughout history – Alan Bond is far from the first inveterate rogue to achieve popular fame and love from a public who should really know better.

The framing character in Peter Carey’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” (yes, I know this is a work of historical fiction – but it’s a great yarn, and if you’ve got this far I assume you can appreciate that I’m a sucker for powerful narrative drive) is school teacher Thomas Curnow. Curnow brings about the fabled bandit’s ultimate undoing, slipping away from Glenrowan to warn authorities of Kelly’s plot to ambush the police train, but in later years relates his bitterness that it is the criminal bushranger Ned who the public remember and revere.

Likewise in Andrew Dominik’s 2007 drama ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ – it’s outlaw James the contemporary public eulogise, not Ford – who ultimately suffers the stereotypical gunslinger’s death, shot down by yet another violent misfit seeking notoriety.

And lets not forget – Bilbo Baggins made no attempt to track down the actual owner of that ring he found in the goblin tunnel, so Golum was quite within his rights to feel legally aggrieved about the blatant theft by appropriation.

We all root for the underdog at heart. Ultimately, it’s the understandable natural tendency of the human mind to favour the interesting character, the rough diamond. What we can learn from the misplaced lionization of Alan Bond though is that alongside that internal narrative humming as a backbeat to our thoughts, we shouldn’t lose sight of that other great human power – logic.

Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me.


Of Cats and Cashflow: Human sentimentality and the flaw in economic rationalism

Last Christmas, I paid $5000 for a cat.


For a cat.

“Cat” here, in case you should be wondering, is not the title of an avant garde piece of sculpture by some breaking new artist, or a colloquial reference to a rare wine or other exclusive gift for a loved one. Nor indeed, anything special in the feline department.

Just an ordinary cat that my 9 year old daughter had saved her pocket money to rescue from the Animal Shelter. Yes, okay, it’s accepted family lore that he is actually a pedigree animal who somehow found himself down on his luck on kitty skid row – but I can accept there may be a degree of parental self-delusion in that particular idea.

Whatever his back story though, as the warm summer evenings of 2013 began to lengthen, heralding the winding down of business and arrival of the holiday season, all thoughts of casual beachside barbecues and Christmas relaxation were rudely dashed for me one Saturday morning as young Pedro – having manfully picked a fight with a passing car – dragged his sorry frame into the house and collapsed theatrically in the middle of the living room floor.

After a quick cat scan at the local veterinary hospital (no, not a moment of levity playing on my feline friend’s biological order there – a real actual honest-to-goodness “cash up front please sir” CAT scan cat scan) showed up the incontrovertible evidence of a clean and comprehensive break right through the young street fighter’s pelvis, the therapeutic choices came to a quick fork in the road. One path led to major surgery, emptying of savings accounts (“kids – hands up who’s going to University. Not so fast there you two”), and having a half-shaved grumpy convalescing cat locked in a cage in our cosy house through the warmest weeks of summer. The other, to a quiet, calm, fully funded holiday season. Even a couple of weeks of really nice vacation. As well as the sticky point of explaining to my daughter why her precious kitty wouldn’t be joining us for Christmas dinner.

The path we chose (and I say “we” here entirely in the blame-shifting and shared responsibility sense – my wife’s version of this story may differ on the precise extent to which each of us couldn’t stomach the tough decision making) probably tells you everything you need to know about why I’m never likely to make the annual list of Australia’s 10 hardest hearts. And why you shouldn’t take my advice on anything to do with finance.

The point is, this doesn’t qualify as an investment decision. It’s not like I had some brilliant plan to parlay this $5000 outlay into a major stream of retirement income. Even if the cat in question is possessed of the kind of dashing good looks that could make him a major star in pet food commercials…if he could at some point stop trying to take a chunk out of any hand with the temerity to pat him without explicit permission.

No, it just turns out that little tiny titanium screws are really expensive. If you want them put somewhere useful by a veterinary surgeon, anyway.

The much pampered and perhaps overly tolerated Pedro - a few lives down from his initial quota of 9 perhaps, but still going strong as an extended metaphor for social relativism. And definitely not just a shameless attempt to elevate my viewing stats through use of a cute cat picture.

The much pampered and perhaps overly tolerated Pedro – a few lives down from his initial quota of 9, but still going strong as an extended metaphor for social relativism. And definitely not just a shameless attempt to elevate my viewing stats through use of a cute cat picture.

And there, laid bare for the world to see, lies the fundamental flaw with economic rationalism. People are not reliably rational actors on the world stage – we all bring our personal values, idiosyncrasies and biases to economic decision making.

For those of you who might not be fully familiar with the concept, economic rationalism (market liberalism, for readers from outside Australia) is the dogmatic view that markets and money can always do everything better than governments, bureaucracies and the law.

In the more prosaic words of Michael Pusey – Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales: “Forget about history and forget about national identity, culture and ‘society’…Don’t even think about public policy, national goals or nation-building. It’s all futile. Just get out of the way and let prices and market forces deliver their own economically rational solution.”

This philosophy underpinned a sharp step to the right across much of the Western political sphere in the 1980s and 90s – think the Hawke-Keating-Howard years in Australia, Thatcherism and its correlatives in Europe – and has more recently been used as the basis for a strict balance sheet approach to management in many areas of wider society – education, housing, the arts, even environmental policy.

This deference to accounting undeniably has a certain elegance to it – a simple coherent narrative that can easily be painted on a placard, or broadcast in a 6 second sound bite. Like Creationism re-packaged for a political audience though (and with many of the same elements of true belief and ideological fervor), the sneaky trick here is that while this is dressed up as analytical economics, really it is all about political philosophy – the ideology of unfettered personal freedom. Don’t get me wrong – it is entirely proper for economic rationalists (or anybody else) to allow value judgments about freedom to define their policy prescriptions. It is improper and, more importantly, incorrect, however, to claim that these ideas flow simply from the laws of economics, and possess some sort of inescapable mathematical truth.

The beauty of mathematics, of course – the reason political and social movements have long sought to co-opt it to their crusades – is that it gives defined, absolute solutions. Put your numbers into an equation, and you get an answer at the end. To as many significant figures as you like. This allows us to do amazing things – like build giant flying machines from aluminium and carbon fibre that can carry hundreds of passengers around the world in a matter of hours. Or land a spacecraft on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko hurtling through space 510 million kilometres from Earth.

Real world problems though – especially anything touched by the inordinate complexity of human social psychology – commonly fail to lend themselves to mathematical solution. The real world simply has too many possibilities and undefined variables – such that equations have no solid foundations they can be anchored to.

To make problems tractable – to allow mathematics to give us that pure, crystalline answer – we usually make certain assumptions to tie down the open ended possibilities and give us a solvable domain to work within. The danger here though is of ending up with what the great 20th Century physicist and public champion of science Richard Feynman used to call a spherical cow argument (readers of my earlier posting on University fees “More Pennies for Your Thoughts” will have seen a longer explanation of this concept) – an assumption that, while making your equation solvable, also removes any meaningful relationship to the physical system it purports to represent – and when that happens the clean precision of a mathematical solution can be misleading. Or worse.

The NASA engineers plotting the journey of the Mars Climate Orbiter to the Red Planet in 1999 produced incredibly precise solutions. They also assumed the output of one of the key pieces of navigation software on the Orbiter was in metric Newtons of force…when it was actually in pounds of thrust. Oops. This rendered their solutions elegant, precise…and dead wrong, with the $USD 125 million satellite coming in too close to the planet and breaking up in the Martian atmosphere.

Perhaps more than such elementary cases of error, however, the important thing to grasp in a social context is that you can use framing assumptions to distort the result in any direction you might desire. Want to argue against the opening of a new coal mine? Include some cost assumptions about externalities like atmospheric pollution, environmental risk, and increased traffic to show the economics don’t stack up. Or as I showed in an earlier blog, want to argue in favour of higher University fees? Make some helpful assumptions about the financial advantage accruing to a graduate while discounting the societal benefits and increased tax revenue from a more educated population.

Even in the best of circumstances though – if we assume (at the risk of vanishing into the never ending hall of mirrors that is self-referential logic) all our assumptions are correct and appropriate – the critical point to remember is that economics cannot tell you what is the right choice. Morality and values do not drop out of financial equations like wisdom paying out from a philosophical poker machine. Any investment decision comes down to a balance of short term sacrifice against long term gain. Instead of spending your money on something now, you invest it in the expectation of gaining greater reward at some future point.

When it comes to quantifying outcomes – basic economics – that can be a pretty straightforward calculation. “If I have $1000 now, would it be better to stuff it in my mattress or invest it in government bonds for 10 years”. Okay, there are still some assumptions to make about yields and the potential of unexpected events like your significant other throwing your mattress in a skip while you’re at work. Or a plunge in the commodity price on which a government had based all its economic projections, driving it to default on its debts (Hmmmmm…so how is the iron ore market going, by the way?)

By and large though, you can produce a pretty robust solution to that kind of question and say which one is likely to give you the higher return over a 10 year period.

Defining what the sensible decision is based on those results though – now there’s the challenge – with a crack arising in the logic around defining how great a long-term premium is required to make the short term sacrifice worthwhile.

Let’s say that Mike believes that the pleasure he derives from eating a custard slice is an appropriate trade for the 30 seconds it might shave off his life (or the hour in the gym it will take to work off all that delicious vanilla flavoured excess), whereas Susan doesn’t think the momentary pleasure of the creamy mouthful is worth the sacrifice. Who is right? Both are, of course. It’s a question of values and opinion, it has no absolute solution – no single true answer that trumps or invalidates all others.

Orthodox economics is very clear that policy recommendations must rest on both economic analysis AND a set of values. There is no objective adamantine economic ‘truth’ – the social implications of financial modeling depend on your personal beliefs and values.

Even Milton Friedman – often held up as the philosophical father of Economic Rationalism – understood this qualification, stating:

“As Liberals, we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements.”

No special pleadings or claims of incontrovertible quantitative support there – Friedman is perfectly comfortable acknowledging that his social policy ideas (a fountainhead that fed both Reagan and Thatcher in their glory days of social engineering and reform, let us remember) are based on an ideology. And that’s fine. On that basis, you can assess and debate his arguments, and decide for yourself whether that’s the model you would like to see underpinning the society you live in. Friedman, unlike the hardline Economic Rationalists who have followed in his intellectual wake, allows that alternative social models may be equally valid if you don’t happen to share his values.

Like, for example, valuing a deeply ungrateful cat (and the happiness of a small child) more than a new sofa or a week in Paris.

And hey – at the end of the day, even if we were all perfectly rational actors making our life decisions on the basis of pure logic and mathematics, that might not actually be the lasting social panacea the Economic Rationalists hope for. You’ve seen what happens to the planet Vulcan in J. J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek re-boot, right?