Investigating Sesame Street's role in the financial collapse

Sesame Street promoted a dangerous misapprehension drummed into future Wall Street wide boys sucking their thumbs and staring into their TV sets: that to count is to understand.
Don Pittis
Sesame Street
got the jump on the "good vampire" trend — heck, maybe they started it — prepping a generation for the Twilight novels by selling the idea that the Street's numerically obsessed Transylvanian vampire, The Count ("one batty-batty, two batty-batty"), though slightly odd, was basically loveable. But The Count and his friends also have to answer for helping precipitate last year's financial earthquake, the epicentre of which occurred in New York about one year ago today.

Yes, those Sesame creatures promoted a dangerous misapprehension drummed into future Wall Street wide boys sucking their thumbs and staring into their TV sets: that to count is to understand.

Counting is a powerful tool. Since those first heady days, however, when we learned to keep track of more sheep than we had fingers, we have gone overboard. We have begun to demand too much.

We all know the condescending put-down: "Do the math." Well, Wall Street's pricey talent, the regulators and the Treasury all did the math, and still they all got caught with their pants down.

It is instructive to flip through financial headlines from that week of chaos a year ago. The wisdom of hindsight makes us think we know what happened then.

It is not clear we do.

Markets tremble and fall. Oil drops below $100 a barrel for first time in eight months. The government is clearly surprised by the shock waves from Lehman's collapse. The next day, a sudden decision to throw $85 billion US in taxpayer loans at AIG, the bookmaker on some of the riskiest bets in the derivatives market. 

The most revealing thing gleaned from re-reading those stories is how each event takes everyone by surprise. It is absolutely certain that the commentators who weighed in at the time were repeatedly shocked by the crumbling of the banking system that ultimately led to Lehman Brothers declaring bankruptcy on Monday, Sept. 15.

On this anniversary you will find lots of people who will explain the causes of the collapse. Many will point accusing fingers at the Bush administration, and say they should have counted better. But don't be so sure.

People can't even agree on what caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, and they've had nearly 80 years to discuss it.

Hindsight and foresight

A recent article by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman does a great job describing the incompetence of economists in foreseeing what happened a year ago. Writing in the New York Times magazine, he quotes depression-era economist John Maynard Keynes: "We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand."

Modern economics, like modern finance, is based on math. That's because we count on counting. Fanned by the power of computing and its sister, complex computer modeling, everyone from political scientists to meteorologists hope to find the truth through math.

Look at this quote from Canwest News Service at the beginning of June: "Here's the good news: for most of July and August we're seeing the country warmer than normal from coast to coast to coast."

That was Environment Canada weather guru David Phillips. Most Canadians would agree he got that one wrong. The weather was so chilly, global warming naysayers had a field day.

David Phillips has access to one of the world's best weather services, including giant supercomputers working through mathematical models of the climate. He and his friends can measure the cloud cover, count inches of rain, count wind speeds at every level of the atmosphere.

And here is the flaw. In weather and in finance, because we can count all parts, we think we can put those numbers together and use counting to truly know what is going to happen next.

The simple relationships are clear. If there is more sunshine temperatures will rise. If you lower the price, you will sell more. It gives us that feeling, repeatedly proven wrong, that if we only got the math right we could truly comprehend the world.

We must not give up counting. But when calculating things like the Canadian deficit hitting $5.2 billion by 2015, and zero the year after, as our finance minister did last week, counting is not the most important factor. The deficit number has a lot more to do with whether we have a stable majority government five years from now, at least temporarily secure enough that it doesn't have to buy our votes with our own tax money.

And as the U.S. deficit grows I can hear The Count's voice echoing eerily through his castle retreat in the Carpathian mountains:  "Won Tree-leeon, Tooo Tree-leeon, Tree Treeleeon …."

Will that tell him whether the U.S. economy will recover soon or head deeper into collapse? Maybe.

But don't count on it.

Don Pittis has reported on business for Radio Hong Kong, the BBC and the CBC.