Miranda and the Whale

Bit of an odd one here, so bear with me.

Miranda, our just-under-two daughter, is fearless. She clambers all over the furniture, and when she falls off she doesn't cry. She looks very thoughtful, and then tries to do the same thing again, until she can do it without hurting herself. The upshot of this is that she's very good at moving around, far better than David at the same age.

Apparently unrelated is the "London Whale", which lost several billion for the CIO at JP Morgan. They traded illiquid, exotic credit products. By no means the key feature, but one of the things you always see in exotics blow-ups, was the dodgy marks.

To mark a trader's book to market price, you need the prices of various things. If the things are illiquid and trade irregularly, this is more difficult than it sounds. Normally, these illiquid price marks are supplied by the traders, since they're active in the market and know what the current situation is. Some sanity-checking is supplied by risk management groups, but that's about it.

So, unsurprisingly, when things are going badly, there's a tendency of traders to set their marks to avoid showing a loss. This can cause further problems, since the marks they use to price their positions are also used to price new trades - if you've got a lot of X, and are mismarking the price high to make your position look better, you'll be saying 'ooh, everyone else is selling X cheaply' - if you can't keep up the doublthink, you'll just make things worse.

The thin, theoretical, connecting idea is 'take the pain early'. If something's going badly, covering it up or ignoring it will just make things worse. If you take the hit early, you can do it in a more controlled manner, learn from it effectively, avoid having waste time papering over the problem, and get it right next time.

This is, anyway, my view on software development (although I think I've said this several times now, in different forms). Sometimes, due to time constraints or whatever, you can't get it all right from the start. Finding the techniques to make sure that the stuff that needs to get done gets done regardless is an important skill.

On the other hand... pretty much everyone senior in the Eurozone seems to believe that trying to resolve problems is somewhat dangerous, and kicking the can down the road for years on end is the best solution. So, what do I know?

Posted 2013-02-04.