The Meaning of "Monty Python and the Meaning of Life"

Robert Waldmann

Barry Ritholtz argues that the problem with mortgages was underwriting standards and not securitization. He appeals to the very great authority of Monty Python. Click the link.

Ritholtz seems not to be familiar with this new idea in economic theory called “Nash equilibrium”. Over -rated yes. Totally irrelevant not so much. One can not assume that underwriting standards are exogenous. If there had been no MBS, no firm would have underwritten those mortgages. It was exactly because it was possible to blend them, and then sell them to people who didn’t spin the mortgage tapes before buying, that the mortgages existed in the first place.

Let me work with his analogy. First, while I have great respect for the Monty Python team, few people have been killed by canned Salmon. Even blended into mousse, it kills fairly quickly and can be tracked back to the canner. The way bacteria work is that if you mix some contaminated stuff with other stuff you have trouble for sure. It doesn’t work that things seem fine until people notice.

At a way lower cultural level than Ritholtz I appeal to road runner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote runs along in mid air until he notices. Then he falls. As noted by everyone, this is the way financial markets really work. The non Monty Python quality humor is based on the fact that gravity doesn’t really work that way. Neither do bacteria. Analogies between rotten mortgages and rotten Salmon fail for this reason.

Notably, the ingredients in the Salmon mousse are few enough that the dead diners immediately know what went wrong when death points at the mousse. That’s not the way MBS work let alone CDOs of MBSs or CDOS of tranches of CDOS.

A better analogy would be making hamburger. Bits from hundreds of steers end up in the same package at the supermarket. If one bit has E. coli on it, you can get sick. If they tried to sell you that bit, you wouldn’t buy it because it would stink. However, mixed in with hundreds of uncontaminated bits of beef, it doesn’t stink.

Is there a hamburger problem? Yes there is. One is much more likely to get food poisoning from hamburger than from unprocessed meat. Is the solution special regulation of hamburger? It sure is.