Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Normal Accidents

Is there a sociological explanation for why Wall Street--and other large, complex and interconnected systems--are rigged for crisis?  Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies says yes.  Normal accidents occur when two or more unrelated failures interact in unpredicted ways.  As applied to Wall Street, the theory is that as the number of trades, a steeply rising number, increases and as the market becomes increasingly technology dependent, the likelihood of these normal accidents occuring also increases.   Examples of normal accidents in the financial markets include the flash crash based on the false tweet that there were explosions at the White House last spring, the NASDAQ software glitch that caused the flash freeze in August, and the unprecedented trading losses suffered during the financial crisis of 2008. This article in the Atlantic provides a provocative description of Wall Street's normal accidents, predicts that more are to come, and suggests that limiting the number/volume of trades is one place to start in thinking about reducing the occurance and significance of these normal accidents. 

A specific example of a normal accident is: "one trader at JP Morgan Chase" racking up a "$6 billion in trading losses while the company‚Äôs CEO, Jamie Dimon, thinks everything is under control."

That natural accident and other alleged misdeeds of JP Morgan have the company and its legal troubles back in the news.  After the company's September settlement with the SEC, which included an admission of wrong-doing and a $200 million fine, there is talk of a global settlement of all state and federal inquiries into its mortgage practices.    The settlement, news of which broke last week, is rumored to be around $11 billion, but is in jeopardy.  The FDIC is opposing an indemnification provision of the settlement that would put an indemnificaiton responsibility on the FDIC 5 years after the settlement and push approximately $3.5 billion in liabilities on to the FDIC.

This article (also from the Atlantic) provides a great description of the conduct at the center of JP Morgan's legal troubles and outlines the company's ongoing litigation related to the financial crisis and subsequent scandals (i.e., the Libor scandal). 

-Anne Tucker

Anne Tucker, Books | Permalink


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