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- Mike Speiser, Managing Director at Sutter Hill Ventures

Averting (financial) ecological disasters.

Paul McCulley (MD Pimco) (via The Big Picture):

Information technology, more specifically the development of parallel processing, “gigabit-terabit-petabit” bandwidth and networking logic, is changing the way we conduct our lives today. While jet-setting executives (or policymakers) of this decade can be present in more places in less time than any predecessor, corporate information, corporate processes and corporate controls can now be shared around the world in real time via information superhighways. These advances in information technology are catalyzing the globalization of business and finance in ways far more important to global central banks than something as basic as physical transportation. These advances are driving the age of financial networking, and what has been described by some as leading to the vastly narrowing ecologies of finance.

Basically what I’ve been thinking for coming on a decade and evangelizing for the past 5 years or so, and now a defining part of the thesis underlying my new business.

The first phase of this “age of financial networking” has unsurprisingly driven the creation of a very tightly coupled system, with a relatively small number of very large, very important nodes or hubs (the global financial services mega-fauna*), in effect create a “scale-free network”, which has a number of advantages (played out nicely from 1987-2007 in financial services) but also some key – potentially fatal – vulnerabilities. John Robb (someone everyone involved in senior policy and management decisions should read) describes it better than anyone:

A scale-free network is one that obeys a power law distribution in the number of connections between nodes on the network. Some few nodes exhibit extremely high connectivity (essentially scale-free) while the vast majority are relatively poorly connected. The reason that scale-free networks emerge, as opposed to evenly distributed random networks, is due to these factors:
Rapid growth confers preference to early entrants. The longer a node has been in place the greater the number of links to it. First mover advantage is very important.
In an environment of too much information people link to nodes that are easier to find. This preferential linking reinforces itself by making the easier to find nodes even more easy to find.
The greater the capacity of the hub (bandwidth, work ethic, etc.) the faster its growth.

The Strength and Weaknesses of Scale-Free Networks
The proliferation of scale-free networks and our increasing dependence on them (particularly given their prevalence in energy, transportation, and communications systems) begs the question: how reliable are these networks? Here’s some insight into this:

  • Scale-free networks are extremely tolerant of random failures. In a random network, a small number of random failures can collapse the network. A scale-free network can absorb random failures up to 80% of its nodes before it collapses. The reason for this is the inhomogeneity of the nodes on the network — failures are much more likely to occur on relatively small nodes.
  • Scale-free networks are extremely vulnerable to intentional attacks on their hubs. Attacks that simultaneously eliminate as few as 5-15% of a scale-free network’s hubs can collapse the network. Simultaneity of an attack on hubs is important. Scale-free networks can heal themselves rapidly if an insufficient number of hubs necessary for a systemic collapse are removed.
  • Scale-free networks are extremely vulnerable to epidemics. In random networks, epidemics need to surpass a critical threshold (a number of nodes infected) before it propogates system-wide. Below the threshold, the epidemic dies out. Above the threshold, the epidemic spreads exponentially. Recent evidence indicates that the threshold for epidemics on scale-free networks is zero.

and on tightly coupled systems:

…the networks of our global superinfrastructure are tightly “coupled”—so tightly interconnected, that is, that any change in one has a nearly instantaneous effect on the others. Attacking one network is like knocking over the first domino in a series: it leads to cascades of failure through a variety of connected networks, faster than human managers can respond.

“Recent evidence indicates that the threshold for epidemics on scale-free networks is zero.”
“…leads to cascades of failure through a variety of connected networks, faster than human managers can respond.”

And so Bear Stearns (and others) are caught out. But they could not fail. Nor can Fannie and Freddie. Given this understanding of the current global financial system as a tightly-coupled, scale-free network, the effects of stupid and fraudulent mortgage lending in Las Vegas mushrooming into generalized system-wide distress is easier to understand…

Loose coupling describes a resilient relationship between two or more systems or organizations with some kind of exchange relationship. Each end of the transaction makes its requirements explicit and makes few assumptions about the other end.

The risks inherent in this mode of organization are clearly unsustainable. The world’s financial network will need to adapt. (The same is true of many other critical infrastructures: telecoms, utilities, transportation…where progress in this direction is already starting, to emerge.) We need to (and I believe we will inevitably do so) move towards a more robust, loosely coupled financial system: and the beauty is by adopting and adapting lessons computing and networking technology (which ironically underpinned and drove the creation of today’s brittle financial system) we already have a roadmap (and some of the tools) to do so.

Furthermore, these ideas aren’t new. John Hagel (another person anyone running a large corporation needs to have read**) wrote about this in 2002 (!):

A good working definition: loosely coupled is an attribute of systems, referring to an approach to designing interfaces across modules to reduce the interdependencies across modules or components – in particular, reducing the risk that changes within one module will create unanticipated changes within other modules. This approach specifically seeks to increase flexibility in adding modules, replacing modules and changing operations within individual modules. (Note: if any of you have come across a better definition of loosely coupled, please let me know – I’d like to follow up on this in a future blog.)

Three things stand out from this definition. First, it assumes a modular approach to design. Second, it values flexibility. Third, it seeks to increase flexibility by focusing on design of interface.

…The desire for flexibility is a powerful force driving the move towards loosely coupled systems, but there’s an even more powerful reason to adopt loosely coupled systems. It has to do with experimentation, learning and performance improvement. Within well-designed, loosely coupled systems, there’s a lot more room for experimentation…

He goes on to make the point that this move towards loosely coupled systems in business will fundamentally change the way we manage and organize our corporations:

Rather than traditional hierarchies driven by command and control management styles, we are likely to see relatively independent organizational modules brought together to perform one set of processes and then different arrangements of modules to perform other processes. Some of these modules will belong to the same enterprise, but modules from other enterprises may be brought in to perform specific tasks on an as needed basis…Conventional business strategy approaches emphasize the need to develop a detailed strategic blueprint and then tightly couple operational initiatives to execute the blueprint. As uncertainty grows in business environments, these hard-wired approaches to business strategies are becoming less and less viable.

Reading Robb and Hagel, I hope it is as obvious to you as it is to me that: (a) the global financial system clearly not loosely coupled, and (b) would be infinitely more resiliant if it were. I don’t expect these changes to happen overnight. Given the human factor, I suspect it will occur alongside the generational shift over the next 10-20 years. That said, the opportunities for those that ‘get it’ and adapt sooner rather than later are enormous: this sort of discontinuity is one of the only occasions where it is possible to completely alter the competitive landscape, and is particularly perilous for ‘incumbents’ (everything to lose.) Furthermore, given the critical importance of the financial system to our globel economy and societies, and its manifest vulnerability in the current regime, some of this change needs to happen quickly (more quickly than is comfortable) if we are to avoid a potentially very bad outcome. I guess you could say that one of the good things about having swung to the fear side of the fear/greed pendulum is that change – albeit painfully and begrudgingly – is seen as unavoidable.

We are deliberately going to build our new business to align with this new paradigm, so no matter how successful we may be, expect our ‘ecosystem’ to grow exponentially in size and complexity in comparison to our actual firm. For better or worse, we will never be ‘too big to fail’… ;)

* spent 15 minutes searching the web for a list of the world’s largest financial institutions by assets with no joy…a bit surprised, something for freebase?

** I often wonder about the paradox that our most powerful and important corporate and political leaders – the very people who need to be the most widely read and open to new ideas – are by the inevitable constraints and conventions of their position, are probably unable to do so. Think about it, how likely is it that the CEO of a giant corporation will be allowed to block out 4 hours in his diary on Wednesday afternoon to read and think? For the good ones this must be incredibly frustrating. As for the others, well let’s just say I would question the robustness of the process that got them there in the first place…

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  • Ajay

    I think your basic point is correct, but you don't drive it home because you don't demonstrate exactly how the current financial system is scale-free and more importantly you don't say what can be done to make it more loosely coupled. For me, the answer is primarily full-reserve banking, with a handful of disclosure measures for investment banks like Bear. Btw, I really like what you're doing by seed investing, as I think that's where all the opportunity will be for the next couple decades. I hope to get into it myself someday. :) Also, you're right that we're on the cusp of the PC/internet revolution becoming widespread and valuable: the catalyst will be micropayments, a frontend for which I'm working on myself.

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