The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, May 09, 2008

Wonders of the market

Donald MacKenzie muses on end-of-the-world trades:
Last November, I spent several days in the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, in banks’ headquarters in the City and in the pale wood and glass of a hedge fund’s St James’s office trying to understand the credit crisis that had erupted over the previous four months. I became intrigued by an oddity that I came to think of as the end-of-the-world trade. The trade is the purchase of insurance against what would in effect be the failure of the modern capitalist system. It would take a cataclysm – around a third of the leading investment-grade corporations in Europe or half those in North America going bankrupt and defaulting on their debt – for the insurance to be paid out.

I asked one investment banker what might cause half of North America’s top corporations to default. No ordinary economic recession or natural disaster short of an asteroid strike could do it: no hurricane, for example, and not even ‘the big one’, a catastrophic earthquake devastating California. All he could think of was ‘a revolutionary Marxist government in Washington’. That’s not a likely scenario, yet the cost of insuring against it had shot up ten-fold. Normally one can buy $10 million of end-of-the-world insurance for between two and three thousand dollars a year. By early last November, the prices quoted were between twenty and thirty thousand, and even then it was difficult to buy in quantity – at least, said the banker, ‘not from anyone you trusted’.

You can insure against the revolution? Who knew? The rest of the article is less intriguing, though if you've always wanted to know what a ‘single-factor Gaussian copula’ is, here's your chance.


I'd pay money to see you and David Brin throw down... he needs knocking down a couple of pegs. Just yesterday, he insisted "Capitalism is good." and that Dick Cheyney is really in line with the political left.

Sadly, he seems much happier debating Stalin-- the dead don't fight back very hard.

I can't see how anybody could expect to get a payout on that sort of insurance. Because it seems to depend on the people backing the insurance not being losers in the crash.

I was just thinking the same thing, Dave.

More importantly, it depends on the currency still being worth something after the crash; if the world is ending, the last thing you want is a bunch of rag-paper you can't do anything with. What you really want is canned goods, firewood, bullets, gasoline and a well-boarded up house.

Money's useless after the apocalypse.

I wonder if the hypothetical mega-eruption of Yellowstone would be big enough to produce mass defaults on that scale?

To be fair, if you read the article one point he makes is that a thriving market for "end of the world insurance" is a sign that the market in financial instruments is getting horribly out of whack. Nobody really expects a red revolution in America, and if they did they wouldn't expect to be able to collect on the insurance - so the market for policies that would only pay out in those conditions should clear very quickly indeed.

ACtually Steven, what I would want (depending on the grade of the apocalypse) is a functioning social system such that we can keep essential services going, and quickly hand out ration cards etc, then see about growing our own food, sending out barter parties to foreign countries, etc.

Of course if we have WW3, hardly anyone will be around to do anything like that, but for the lesser disasters like global financial meltdown, there is no reason at all to need or want to hole up in your house with tins of food and fuel. In fact, given the complex interdependencies of modern life, it is better if we co-operate.

Sorry, its a bit of a lecture, but something I've been thinking about recently.

Who on earth would buy this? There has to be something that's being left out, this can't be as crazy as it seems.

I've worked in insurance - not the esoteric reinsurance end, I admit - and this sounds remarkably like an urban myth or crossed wires to me.

Every single normal policy - check your car or home insurance - is void for things that happen during a war or revolution.

What you can get are export bonds and things - but these are for countries with a history of instability or suddenly nationalising stuff.

Some insurance company will probably take your money off you if you really want to protect against the US suddenly going all Mugabe on foreign assets, but ... well, personally I'd get Flying Saucer Collision insurance first.

No, as far as I can see from the rest of the (very technical) article, it's a genuine trade, but it's not really an insurance against the American socialist revolution! The banker quoted was being facetious and I was being mischievous.

Guthrie, I was thinking more about your traditional "everyone for themselves" type of apocalypse, but I understand what you're saying.

Unfortunately, I lived through the 1998 Ice Storm in Québec and with the Province's economy still in semi-working order there was STILL rampant looting and general social disarray - although authorities did manage to keep things from going completely to hell. They eventually called in the damned army.

That and I've tried to fight my way out of a couple of riots.

If that's even a fraction of what might happen during an "end-of-the-world" scenario... Well you get my meaning.

The situation in natural disasters like Katrina and the tsunami seems to be that most people very quickly organise into large, coherent, socially-inclusive groups where the weak are protected - indeed protecting the weak becomes a core goal - and people use all their skills for the common good ... then three seconds after the immediate danger is over, that all collapses and everyone goes back to being a selfish racist dog eat dog fuck.

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